Monday, August 8, 2016

First Step Into The 3rd Dimension

OK; it's not really one step. What we like to call the "first step" is usually just the point that marks the boundary between a whole series of deciding steps and the much longer series of actions steps that are yet to come. For me, it has been a 3-year journey just to get to my first step into the 3rd dimension - that is the 3rd dimension of printing.

For years, I build and used co2 lasers for engraving and cutting. While the burning away of lazed material usually represented some form of a 3rd dimension, it is still about as 2 dimensional as you can get - moving the laser head left and right (x dimension) and forward and back (y dimension).

Then, it was on to designing and building CNC routers. Still using 2 dimensions most of the time, I got at least a taste of the 3rd dimension when moving the spindle up and down to cut in different 2 dimensional spaces. We commonly refer to this as 2.5 dimensions.

True, the CNC router can, through a series of rapid vertical movements all the while continuing the left/right and forward/back movements, produce some stunning 3 dimensional objects. And it is here, I suppose that I got my first real taste of that 3rd dimension. But there is, in my mind, something a little bit backwards about taking a large chunk of material, only to remove the unwanted portions to produce the finished product.

Then, a few years ago, hobbyists started to open up a magical world of creating in 3 dimensions - the world of 3d Printing. And I looked seriously at this world for a while. I loved the idea, but found the quality most affordable printers were capable of was poor at best; especially in the area of producing fine details. The machines were acceptable for creating rough prototypes, but cosmetically they were producing what I considered neither aesthetically pleasing nor commercially viable as retail products.

More recently, companies have been developing other technologies that do produce fine detail (enough to produce marketable objects), and even more functional prototypes. So, a couple of weeks ago, I started taking a serious look at jumping into the 3rd dimension.

After a lot of research, I settled on buying a commercial printer. That part of the decision was pretty easy.  After years of building other cnc equipment, my fun meter for fiddling with the construction and alignment of home-built machinery was pretty full - I don't need it anymore, especially if I planned to do commercial production. Commercial printers have a distinct advantage that they are already build, generally tested for 1000s more hours than I am capable of, and should be ready for commercial use, almost immediately - at least after traversing the learning curve that I would have with home built machines as well.

Note: I don't plan to stop designing and building other cnc equipment. In fact, I will likely use the 3d printer to aid in designing even better machines than before. But that is all about joy of designing and building and much less about the actual post-build use.

After my research of commercial machines, I decided on the latest model Form 2 SLA 3D Printer from FormLabs. It produces fabulous detail, and uses a laser to cure a variety of resins, one 25-, 50-, or 100-micron height layer at a time.

Before I bought, however, I created a 3d file (.stl) of a garage door part that I needed, and set it off to be printed by another FormLabs printer owner via 3DHubs. The resulting product convinced me that the machine was capable of producing the quality that I have been wanting.

Last week, I made the final decision; the first step as I described at the beginning that marked the boundary between thinking and doing - I ordered the printer.

It all arrived today. And over the next few weeks, I will prepare a space for it, set it up, run a few pieces (I am already seeing lots of opportunities to make custom solutions for the everyday problems that previously required lots of compromises based on what was available at the local hardware store, and, hopefully turning it into a sideline revenue stream that might someday build to be a full time business.

Best of all I will be documenting it all right here. I hope you will join me on my journey Into The 3rd Dimension (with 3d Printing).