A Month with the Printrbot Simple Metal 3D Printer

Posted by Scott on Sep 28th, 2014

Over the last month I’ve had the opportunity to borrow/rent a 3D printer from a friend of mine. This was a healthy thing for me, since I had recently joined a local hackerspace (Brainsilo) to have access to a 3D printer a member kept there. With all the hype and excitement around 3d printing, I quickly got caught up in the possibilities and was overwhelmed with all the amazing things I could now potentially create, either of my own design or from sites like Thingiverse.

Having to actually go to Brainsilo to kick off prints was just inconvenient enough, and my ethusiasm just manic enough, that I started to seriously consider buying a printer of my own. Based on my research, one of the best values in 3d printing appeared to be the Printrbot Simple Metal, which you can buy for $539 in kit form or $599 assembled (plus shipping). Thankfully before I gave in to the desire to impulse-buy one of these, I worked out an arrangement to borrow this same model from a friend of mine who was starting to get a bit bored with it. In the end I worked through my obsession and gained more realistic expectations about what 3d printing could offer me.

I’ll reveal the conclusions now: it’s not useful enough for me at this time, but may be worth re-examining what options are out there in another year or so. But I will also say that the Simple Metal does live up to being one of the best value printers you can get for under $1k – I advise getting the heated bed accessory for it (another $100) and setting up an Octoprint networked print server.

My hope was to be able to use this printer to create useful things. A lot of people seem to use them for creating figurines and toys, but I wanted to build enclosures for various embedded boards I had (especially the RaspberryPi). I was disappointed with the results in a number of ways. First of all, printing anything thin-walled or with narrow standoffs wasn’t working for me, because it turns out that PLA is too brittle. Nearly all of the RasPi cases I tried printing fell victim to something snapping or cracking as I tried to fit the board into the case.

RaspberryPi Cases with Broken Parts

RaspberryPi Cases with Broken Parts

The solution here is likely to print with ABS plastic instead of PLA. That requires a heated bed, and the fumes of ABS are not something I wanted to deal with in my home office setup. Another issue which I assume would have been resolved with a heated bed was warping. I saw a lot of warping of anything that had a large surface area (especially embedded board cases). Printing with a brim mitigated this slightly, but still not enough. Printing with a raft fixed the warping issues, but as much as I tried to tweak the raft settings in Cura, the raft was always too strong and more or less ruined my prints when I tried to remove it.

3d printing is still pretty far from a simple usability experience. You have to learn the nuances of your printer, slicer, and even tweak print settings for every kind of filament you’re using. Hmmm….can I get away with printing this without support structures? Often you’ll waste hours trying a print without them and end up throwing it away. The process is quite tedious and iterations are slow.

I did have a few nice successes in printing, though. This particular RasPi B+ case from Thingiverse came out well (at least, the case doesn’t have any parts broken off of it yet, though I did have to tolerate some warping in the print). I have a solid set of parts to build this bulldozer battle bot. And I had fun with one of my neighbor’s kids building this 3d printed walking robot.

3d Printed Parts to Build a Bulldozer Robot

3d Printed Parts to Build a Bulldozer Robot

Overall I’d have to say it’s still worthwhile to wait and see how the technology advances. We’re still in the infancy of 3d printing, and improvements in quality, convenience, and price will be substantial over the next few years. Printing in PLA is mostly useful for toys and prototyping things to eventually make in ABS. Without the ability to print ABS conveniently in my home, I think a 3d printer is still too much of an expensive toy, and if I want a 3d printed item, I’m better off finding a local printer a site like makexyz.com and having them print in ABS and apply the specialized knowledge they have about how to optimize prints with their printer.

My Evolution as a Bicyclist

Posted by Scott on Sep 23rd, 2012

I thought it would be fun to write about how bicycling has evolved in my life over the past five years, when I got back into riding as an adult.

My original goals when I bought my first road bike were to find an activity that I could enjoy doing outdoors that could be an alternative to spending time at a gym. I didn’t want to have to drive places to do this activity, and there were few options for decent mountain biking nearby, so I decided to get a road bike.

Of course, I figured what I needed was your typical racing-oriented road bike, so I ended up with an entry-level Specialied Allez:

Specialized Allez

This was a great bike, and it really epitomized that feeling of just ‘gliding’ along that is so special about road riding.

As I am somtimes wont to do with new interests that I deeply enjoy and become passionate about, I soon became a bit obsessive about learning about my new sport and spent a lot of time in online forums. Through these forums I found many examples of people who were bike commuters, and rode to work and to run errands on a daily basis. For someone who couldn’t get enough of bicycling, this seemed like the logical next step for me – after all, why wouldn’t I want to substitute ridng my bike instead of driving my car? Anything that could add more time on my bike was good in my book!

So I started riding to work, finding decent back-road routes to get to my employment, and no longer needed to hit the gym during lunchtime. I became a bike commuter, and quickly found that my bike was not especially well-suited for carrying loads. I wanted something more comfortable to ride, not just for commuting but also for the increasingly longer rides I was doing during the summer.

There are some things that can make a bike much more suitable for commuting and longer-distance rides; a taller head tube, more “relaxed” frame geometry, clearance for wider tires, and rack and fender mounts. Soon I had my eye on a new bike, and replaced the Allez with a Salsa Casseroll:

Salsa Casseroll

This was a significant step up in comfort and practicality while still being a road bike well-suited for riding centuries. I could set it up as above with a light set of wheels for my faster rides, and I could also put fenders on it for the mild but wet winters I started to encounter after moving to Portland. A rack gave me the versatility to mount pannier bags on the bike, and I had something I could run errands with:

Salsa Casseroll in errand running mode

For most people, a bike like this is a perfect all-around, general purpose bike. But the longer I lived in Portland, the more I found myself using the bike as a serious commuter and errand-running machine. Trips to the grocery store and carrying increasingly heavy loads were taking their toll on my wheels, which needed to be replaced. Also, if you ride much in the rain, rim brakes will quickly wear down the surface of your rims and require more frequent wheel rebuilds.

Four years after getting the Casseroll, I decided it would be worthwhile to have a second bike – one set up for wet winter riding and that could carry large loads without pushing the bike’s limits. Having a more upright riding position would be fundamental to this bike – no drop bars this time. And disc brakes work exceptionally well in wet conditions and no longer wear down your rims when braking. So meet the newest member of my family, a customized Surly Disc Trucker:

Surly Disc Trucker

Riding this bike is just plain fun. The upright riding position feels like I’m sitting high, as one would in an SUV vs. a sedan. The tires on this bike are even wider than the Casseroll, and the sprung Brooks saddle also offers a bit more give on rough roads. The bike is definitely heavier and feels a bit slower than the Casseroll, but more than makes up for it with the fun factor.

So there you have it – a case study in the evolution of myself as a bicylist. I could now care less if I ever rode a racing oriented road bike again. It was a great introduction to the joys of riding on the road, but comfort, versatility, and practicality are the main attributes I seek to fulfill in my riding nowadays.

I guess you could say that’s how I roll. 🙂

Some Thoughts on eBook Readers

Posted by Scott on Oct 12th, 2011

I recently became the owner of an e-ink ebook reader, the Sony PRS-T1. Inevitably the first question someone asks me when they see me with it is, “why’d you choose the Sony instead of a Kindle or Nook?” So here I’ll share my thoughts on that, and follow-up with another post reviewing the Sony model itself. Forgive me, this is a bit of a rant…

So, why go with this Sony model? To some extent it was a process of elimination. Let me first explain why buying a Kindle is out of the question for me. While it’s true that Amazon’s store offers the largest selection of ebooks, and their ereader hardware is of good quality, what most people don’t realize is that Amazon has made some very strategic choices to try to entrench their own proprietary format at the expense of open standards.

When you buy a Kindle, you’re locked into using a Kindle (or Kindle app) forever if you want to read the ebooks you bought using it. This is because the Kindle supports Amazon’s proprietary ebook format, and nothing else.

There does exist an open file format for ebooks, called ePub. Books in the ePub format are generally much more portable, and can be bought from multiple sources, such as Google Books. These ebooks can be read on pretty much any ebook reader platform (including Android tablets and phones), with one exception. Amazon has to date deliberately left out support for the ePub format in their hardware ereaders.

Amazon’s motivations for doing this are pretty clear – they are the indisputable market leader in selling books and they want to support their own proprietary format, and have no interest in seeing an open ebook format succeed, even if it has been adopted by the rest of the industry. Heaven forbid you buy an ebook from Barnes and Noble to read on their device. Amazon’s omission of ePub support is a blatant middle finger to the concept that a common standard can exist to allow people to buy ebooks from their store of choice and read it on their device of choice.

My friend Jason once said to me something to the effect of: “Amazon settled on MP3 [an open standard without DRM] as their file format for their music store when it was their chance to ‘stick it’ to Apple [which was using a format that locked users into their iTunes player and iPod devices]. But now that they’re the market leader in books, they won’t dare to support an open ebook standard.” I thought this was pretty insightful.

Now whether you care about ePub succeeding as a common format or not, when you buy a Kindle you are placing your book purchases at the mercy of Amazon for the forseeable future. You’ll be dancing to Amazon’s tune for whatever business decisions they make down the road, or risk losing the ability to read your ebook collection. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in submitting to this form of vendor lock-in. As such, I have no intention to buy ebooks in a proprietary format, whether it be Amazon’s or anyone else’s.

Unlike the Kindle, the Nook Simple Touch supports ePub ebooks (in addition to Barnes & Noble’s proprietary format, which is being phased out), so the Nook was at least an option for me. A neighbor of mine recently bought one, and I had considered getting it after trying it out. The only feature I found missing was the ability to play music on the device. I often read on public transit, and can be easily distracted if I don’t have something to block out external noise or conversations. So I decided to wait it out a bit longer.

When I recently saw that this Sony model was released, it appeared to offer the right features – everything that the Nook could do and a bit more (like being able to annotate ebooks, and of course an MP3 player). The reviews were quite positive, and even touted integration with Google Books and Overdrive Media Console (for checking out ebooks from the library). Of course the included applications try to steer you to buy ebooks from Sony’s proprietary store, but I could ignore that and stick with my ePub formatted books from other bookstores. The device was priced reasonably (which was not the case with Sony’s previous ereader models), so I decided to pick one up.

I’ll follow up with a short review of the PRS-T1 soon.


Posted by Scott on Apr 18th, 2008

I have a symbiotic relationship with hills on my bike. They get the satisfaction of me suffering to climb them, but doing so makes it easier for the next time.

A Great Quotation from Roosevelt

Posted by Scott on Apr 14th, 2008

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Blog Badges

[FSF Associate Member]