Losing your 3D printer (and choosing a new one): A guest post

3D Printing, Guest post, Programs

My colleague, Adult Services Librarian Jim Barton, has shared some of his thoughts on our experience with 3D printers in the library. 3D printing is something we’ve had a few questions about here at Robot Test Kitchen, so I’ll be writing more about that in the coming weeks. 

Our library decided, a few years back, that owning a 3D printer would open a world of possible programs, and encourage the growth of a local maker community. Cool, right? So one day, out of nowhere, a MakerBot replicator shows up in the workroom.  Instructions to staff? “Play with it.”

So I, and a few others decided to do just that. I introduced myself to the wonderful world of hobbyist 3D design with free tools like TinkerCAD, Google Sketchup, AutoDesk products, and more. I delved into the MakerBot: learning to calibrate the build plate; importing .stl models into the Replicator G software; learning to edit the native Gcode in Replicator G to modify printing parameters; tinkering with such settings as layer height, print speed, and infill to find the optimum balance of successful printing and print speed.

I offered some successful programs. My proudest achievement was designing a multi-part working catapult in TinkerCAD and successfully printing it.catapult

And then one day I started a new print and…nothing but big blobs of gooey plastic. I tried again: same result. Coworkers and I researched the problem and tried solutions, to no avail. We discovered that support for 3D printers is very much a hit or miss proposition. Our 3D printing programs came to a screeching halt.

And then, one day a new 3D printer from Cubify showed up in the workroom: a sleek gray plastic number that we named Batgirl and lavished attention upon.

So I sat down to get myself acquainted with Batgirl (okay, I just like the sound of that). How would this compare to the old MakerBot Replicator?

Well, first of all, the Cube is a lot prettier than the old wood-enclosed Replicator, with its filament spools hanging off the back of the machine. The PLA filament for the Cube comes in see-through plastic cartridges that just click into the sides of the printer. Shiny!

And the build plate! On the Replicator you had to manually level the build plate and then cover it with shiny orange kapton tape (for ABS printing) or blue painters tape (for PLA). But the Cube; why you just press auto align and level and Presto! Of course the first time we did that, it didn’t actually align so well and the print heads gouged the heck out of the build plate and we had to calibrate manually anyway but, hey, whatever. At least with PLA printing, there’s no taping of the build plate, just a glue stick that you run over the surface a few times. And the plate is attached magnetically and is easily removed and washable. Score!

But what about printing? Well, I grabbed an .stl file that we’d printed before and…what? First, how was I supposed to get the file to the printer? You can discover the printer via WiFi or on your network, but ours isn’t actually on the network. You can print from the cloud, but that seems to cost. I just wanted to print a freely created model on a printer that we own, locally. Well, the easiest way to do that is to put your file on a USB drive and plug it in to the printer.

I tried that and discovered that the Cube doesn’t read .STL files. What does it read? .cube3 files of course. Proprietary format: not crazy about that but let’s give it a try. Okay, let me convert my file to Cube format. How do I do that? Let me check the online help. Hmm, nothing. We looked and looked and could not find a simple instruction for how to do the most basic task for this printer.

Eventually I discovered that we needed to download Cubify software. I found the right version for our printer, installed it, and…now how do we make this .cube3 file? I and my coworkers looked in the Cubify application, we looked on the Cubify website, we looked in forums, we looked on YouTube. Nothing. Eventually we found the key to print preparation in the Cubify app and—magic—printing! One color printing, because the cool neon green print cartridge isn’t working but, you know, printing! We’re back in the 3D business!

So what have I learned in all of this? Be careful what you wish for. 3D printing is cool and people are really excited about it, but printers can be a real pain. The old gen Replicator felt like a prototype, like you were really getting into the guts of the machine and learning things. The Cube 3D is sleek and modern looking, like a fancy new toaster. At the end of the day, though, it’s just as finicky as our old Replicator and, unlike the Replicator, you can’t get under the hood as easily. I can’t edit the Gcode, the Cubify application seems restrictive and not intuitive. The fancy plastic print cartridges seem like wasteful overkill. But it’s printing as I write this, and I’ve got a lot more to learn, and at least we’re back in business.