A Robot That Can Make Parts For Other Robots?

Ray Interviews Quelab Member Geoff About His Makerbot!

A Typical MakerBot

Quelab member Geoff has purchased and is assembling a 3D printer called the MakerBot.  A 3D printer allows you to design an object on a computer using 3D CAD software and then actually “print” object so that you end up with an actual, 3-dimensional, real world equivalent of the what was once a just a bunch of bits and bytes in the computer.  I sat down with Geoff at Quelab to learn more about the Makerbot.

Quelab: Thanks for doing this interview.   Tell me a little about yourself, what you do for a living, what interests do you have?

Geoff: Well I don’t get out to too much or do a whole lot of things.  I’m an amateur of pretty much everything.  In the grand scheme of things professionally I do computer support for back office software for large law firms and other firms like consulting or accounting groups – things like that.

And at night, just for fun, I hack – whether it’s for coming up with new ideas or “reality engineering”  – the joke is social engineering rather – Um, where you convince other people to do things, just because well, it just makes sense at the time and then [they] realize “Oh wait, what was that again?”  But mostly I’m a hobbyist.

I’m no good at soldering.  I can solder up little relays and such, but when it comes to designing the next supercomputer… You’ve got the wrong guy – that’s not what I do.  I’m here to have fun and come up with nifty ideas and find other people with nifty ideas and work together.  But making [these things] myself – is not exactly what I’m into.

Quelab: So, we’re talking about the Makerbot here, what got you interested in the Makerbot?

Geoff: While I was reading the “Make Magazine” blog I heard about this 3D fabrication device and the concept was kind of interesting.  There are a couple of different products out there – One of them is the ShopBot, which is a 3D controlled router and the other is the MakerBot which is a 3D controlled extruder.  So you get both the subtractive and the additive method of computerized machining.  But they are way cheaper than if you were to get a commercial version.  I mean if you got a typical CNC lathe, it would be about $20,000 on the low end and these [the ShopBot or the MakerBot] are things you can buy for $2000.

When I got into the MakerBot, they where still a little new.  The concept: Being able to “print” things at home, was science fiction.  There was [a book] “Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson where the entire word had replicators in houses.  So if you needed something, you go to the web and say “I need one of those”, click, print and then, you know – you’d have one.  So that would it come down to [in the present time] is, I can build on of these on my back yard – or rather in my living room – and go to a web site, download something and click and in 3 hours or so I’ve got a new thing – what ever it was.

At the time I found it [the MakerBot] the concept was pretty interesting because I was doing work for a musician and I was trying to come up with novel ideas was of getting, you know, the name out there so people would know about the musician, and I figured well – 3D printing – I could put anything I want, put the guys web site on it, throw it out there, and everyone would know who Dr. Steel was.  So at the time it was mostly self-centered – I can use this for a business.  Or another idea I had was I could print my own off-set printing device, because at the time I was getting really interested in the Steam Punk stuff and Letter Press, and the ideas was like: Whoa – I don’t have to worry about finding a Linotype machine that works, I can “print” all my pieces as movable type like a Gutenberg style box.  So, the number of ideas I had that you could do with this thing are so incredibly large that – the possibilities are endless, so I figured I might as well do that and get one of these things so I can do this.  And… it’s taken up to two years now, and it still doesn’t work yet, but I have more parts and I’m working on fixing it up

The benefit of it is there is a very large Open Source community, so if you break it or if you have an idea you can find someone else who has either broken it in the same way or has an idea on how to fix it or can take your idea and turn it into a physical object.  The replacement parts I have now were actually printed on another MakerBot here in town that is working and so I can replace [my broken] parts.  And you can use it to print more parts (once it works) – you can hack it and customize it with itself.  Which that concept is also just amazing  – the fact that you can do that.

Parts Made by other MakerBot for Geoff's MakerBot


Parts Made by other MakerBot for Geoff's MakerBot



Quelab: So, although somewhat slower, is it kind of approaching the same idea as the Star Trek replicator?

Geoff: Almost – There’s a community on-line of people who have these devices – these fabricators.  It’s called I think, One Hundred Thousand Garages or something like that.  And the concept is that you don’t need one giant factory if you’ve got 100,000 garages around that you can make whatever you want – you don’t have to worry about shipping or shipping as far – or sourcing raw materials and shipping those to factories – and shipping the product back again.  If you want to make it out of, you know, wood that’s in the back shed, take it in the garage, make it, and you’re done.  And for that sort of distributed manufacturing, it’s a unique concept, – environmentally and business-wise the concept is something that needs to be explored.  And that’s another reason I wanted to get on this too – again, too many hobbies, not enough time, so I haven’t gotten very far with that yet.

Quelab: So the concept in general has the potential to change industries from how things have been done the last 200 years to something brand new then.

Geoff: Right. It’s sort of how the Digital Age changed information, this is sort of that revolution [idea] changing manufacturing – bringing [things] down to a local level – it also brings in more craftsmanship as well.  You don’t have to buy the Ikea bookshelf if you know a guy down the street who can make them.  Well, that would work [even better] if he didn’t have to craft the bookshelf himself but [rather] using the on-line community you can find the guy who has designed the world’s best bookshelf.  Just download the plans – and using the ShopBot idea – take it into the shop, make one yourself – and if the licensing is available, make them and sell them in your town.  Where as the guy who designed [the bookshelf] could have been in Sweden and the only thing that was transferred across was bits and bytes – it was a completely digital transmission – and yeah, you still have a physical objects but that whole shipping thing [would be] gone.

Quelab: Interesting.   I understand it took a while to build the MakerBot, what kinds of problems did you bump into and how did you fix them?

Well I’m a complete electronics novice.  I took a couple of digital [electronics] design classes while I was in college but I was never actually an electrical engineer, that wasn’t what I was doing, I was a geology major at the time.  So it was just a hobby – something fun to do.

So I had [some] idea of how to do soldering – the entire [MakerBot] kit that I got was surface mount [components].  So I had to lean how to do an entirely new style of soldering straight off the bat – and it’s not exactly the world’s simplest method of soldering either so it was a new challenge learning what I was doing with the surface mount [parts] – and even then I didn’t do a very good job.

There are 5 control boards in this device and 3 of them I managed to screw up – they wouldn’t boot properly.  And so the 3 that wouldn’t work were motor controllers.  So I could turn it on and would say “Hello!  I’m here!  Yes, I have a computer plugged in, but I’m not going to move for you because I don’t know how to move.”  And so the big issue I had there was troubleshooting why the motors weren’t moving – what’s going wrong here.  So a lot of it was trial and error and a lot of it was checking the web site.  They have a WIKI page set up for the construction of the MakerBot so other people can share their mistakes and their fixes and going through that I was able to find some of the common fixes like “I completely screwed up this object, so don’t plug this in backward” – some things like that so it was entirely possible – I learned most of what I was doing wrong just checking the web site.

Quelab: So ultimately you got the boards fixed?

Geoff: No, actually I had to buy new boards.  I determined that what I had done wrong was beyond my understanding of electronics – so the best part of that was that I bought mine early in the generation the kits were coming [such] that you had to make it yourself.  Now you screw the board to wall, [they] already flashed the ROM, already built the board, already tested that they all works.  So now the electronic guesswork is no longer a part of the product.  So for the same amount of money I paid, you can buy one that works out of the box.

Quelab: So when we talked before you mentioned that the MakerBot in an Open Source project, but because of this getting replacement parts can be a “chicken and the egg” problem.

Geoff: The MakerBot was started by a group called NYC Resistor that is very similar to Quelab in that people got together to make something that does “this”.  And at a certain point they realized that in order to make one of these [the MakerBot] they would need one of these to make one these.  How do we get [around] this?  There was a lot of problem solving evolved in trying to make all the parts for this device.  The first couple of ones used glued layers of plywood which they which they cut out on their laser cutter – they managed to make the individual parts.  Then when they got the first one to work, they started printing more of the parts of the machine so they could more rapidly build up their supply.

The original RepRap design that can out of the University of Bath, I think it was.  Adrian Bower, the professor who can up with the thing, used one of a the $10,000 rapid prototypers to print the first parts to then build the next one and print it out.  The design was to [be able to] print 50% or more of its own parts.  And right now the RepRap, the Mendal, which is the most recent generation of that, can do that.  It requires the circuit boards and the metal rods [for the frame], and [for] the rest of it [you can] print another one.  Or in this case you could print it on a MakerBot.

That’s one of the most popular things to download on Thingiverse – You can go to the web site and download the project [and download] Mendel parts.  Either mini-Mendels which are smaller versions that will fit – you can fit most of the parts on a single build platform [of the MakerBot] or the full-size Mendel, which you have to print about 3 times but in about 20 hours you’ll have all of the parts minus the electronics and the metal rods for the frame.  And if you cannibalize all the electronics off your MakerBot and put them on your RepRap, you now have fully functional RepRap and you can print more RepRap parts for other people.

And that was one of the design ideas for the Makerbot was to use all of the same electronics as the RepRap does except I think the main mother board and that’s because when they were designing it – the Makerbot – they did realize that they needed some more different features that they didn’t exactly have in the RepRap.  And that’s where the Open Source comes in that they are able to take these products from academia and then sort of fit them into their own projects and then improve upon them – depending on how you look at it – or create different things.

To go with that – Thingiverse –  there are a number of different added features / files – Like I was telling you earlier, a friend of mine ordered the Thing-a-Matic, which is the most recent version  – that comes out of the box, ready to go.  The first thing he did was to print a new print head because he wanted to experiment with a different style of print head he discovered while he was looking on Thingiverse.  So the first thing he did was to print out this new print head and pulled out his old print head and said “I’m not going to use that guy”.

Even though he bought it [the print head] with the original project, he was already customizing it.  And right now he is running it with 30% customized parts – because that is the number of things he thought “That’d be cool” or “If I design this or the other thing” – he can come up with his own new parts to make what he’s got better – which you couldn’t do with the $20,000 version or with most things you buy.  Most things [you buy] you can’t say “Well I’d like to do this thing like this…” – Max customization is where his it’s going.  And that much better serves the public to be able to get customized licenses – quickly.

Quelab: And this works with the Open Source concept in general?

Geoff:True.  That as well.

The software runs on an Arduino based processor – an Arduino clone – Not actually an Arduino – and it uses the same processing library to render its files using G-Code and STL files which are also open source file formats – commonly used by Google Sketchup, for the low end sort of 3D printing and 3D design software and also Blender, one of the high end 3D modeling software, which is also Open Source

Quelab: So what are your future plans for the MakerBot, what do you plan to do with it?

Geoff: When I get it up and running I would definitely want to print a RepRap and a full size Mendle so I can have another one and I’ll probably get back to the original project I was working on, you know movable type, propaganda devices for Doctor Steel.  You name it, I’m working on what I would do.  Once I get this going the opportunities are endless – then I would have to teach myself 3D modeling software – but if you’re not learning something new it’s kind of boring.

Quelab: Alright – So with the MakerBot itself, roughly how long did it take to build, what did it cost, and how long has it been out?

Geoff: MakerBot these days, I’ve got the Make Magazine article about them here, these days you can buy the Thing-a-Matic for $700.  You can download all of the control software off the web site.  I think they have been in business since 2009, so they’ve been in business for 3 years.  But it only takes about 2 days – you can put this together in a weekend and still have time to hang out with your friends – if you’re a diehard you could put it together in an afternoon.  But I’d say you probably got an 8 hour assembly time from kit – with parts laying all over the floor to functioning bot.

And you need your computer to run it – there are already projects in the works to try to run it with an SD card – and plug the card into the printer and be able to print, but most people use a USB [cable] to a computer – doesn’t matter if it is Windows, Mac or Linux, they have a version written for all three.  Any kind of OS you can probably run it on – you do need a graphical interface to run it.

Quelab: That tells us a  lot about the MakerBot.  Thank you for doing the interview.  Before you go we should talk a little about Quelab.  How you got involved in it and what you do here?

Geoff: Okay – Well first off, it goes back to that [time] I heard about this really cool robot that they were building at NYC Resistor in New York city and the concept of a hackerspace or small group of guys doing weird things in a small dinky apartment in New York to be able to come up with a 3D printing robot – to be able to build a replicator from Star Trek – that’s pretty awesome.  So the concept of having a creative space – something small like that – that could bring people together that have completely diverse backgrounds but have a technical understanding [so they] can talk tech together and be able to come up with these things – that sounded really interesting.  Albuquerque did not have that sort of community.  It was through the Make Magazine blog and the O’Reilly Ignite series that I learned that Gabe was trying to put together a hackerspace in town.  I know Gabe through other friends.  When I heard that there was hackerspace coming – I’m like, I want to be in on this – I want to have a hackerspace – I want to have a “shed” where I go out on weekends and work on weird projects and still have my apartment left, you know, to use, because I have a very small apartment so I don’t have the space to work on these things.  I have all kinds of projects but they’re stashed in boxes because I don’t have the space to take them out leave them around while working on them – where as if I had a “shed” I could do that sort of thing.

When I met Adric and Gabe, it sort of evolved into:  It’s a space for co-working and a place to get you’re hands dirty and also for information exchange – it’s just a place to make things. And I think that was what I needed – a place to just go and create.

It’s not really like an art studio, but you can do art here.  That was one of the really cool things about NYC Resistor – just kind of a strange melding of art and technology or fashion – they came up with some like Arduino controlled light up vests – not that I really want to do anything like this – they just blink in funny patterns.  So a lot of those creative ideas – created by using technology – all seem to come out of hackerspaces.  And there are some individual contributors who come up with some fantastic things and post them on the internet, but a lot of cool things like that can come from just sitting down with other people and saying “Well, what would it be like if you put an LED in a vest?”  And building on that sort of thing – a creative process that can snowball or a brainstorming process that just [happens] randomly – I’m talking about people with cool things [they] want to do and these are people who can help do that – or I can help somebody else.

The benefit of having a social group like this is that you can have multiple people get together who know different things – you know, I’m a programmer – well was a programmer – but now I do mostly database work, but I have really wacky ideas.  Gabe and Adric know more about electronics or whatever, can help me come up with better ideas or ways of doing it – I know how to use a Van de Graaff generator, Adric built one.  So it’s that group or community of makers who can get together and do things.  I think that’s what I was looking for, and so we got the place going.  Where here, and we got people, so I hope we will be around to stay.

About RayFinch

I have been a hacker type dealing mostly in hardware and embedded processor stuff and some software for about 20 years. I am an Lead Engineering Technician by trade. Currently I work for a multinational corporate conglomerate government contractor - not as bad as it might sound - Really! I am fortunate to already have a personal hackerspace where I do most of my projects. I am interested in Quelab because I think it is a really cool concept and I would like to help Quelab grow and become something special. For Quelab I am available to give technical advise, to help with projects, or to get you pointed in the right direction get if you don't know where to start. If you see me at Quelab, stop and say "Hi!" and tell what you're working on.

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