One of the next great trends in consumer electronics is the advent of affordable 3D printing systems, and Solidoodle represents a great turning point in this brand new space.
EDIT: Also see our step-by-step Guide to using the Solidoodle on Mac.
One of the most exciting advents of technology in the last decade is the rise of affordable 3D replication systems. While this concept of additive manufacturing has been around since the 1970s, until the mid 1990s, the cost of these systems was limited to the biggest of corporations. In 1995, Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson at MIT demonstrated with a heavily modified inkjet printer that you could “print” 3D objects much cheaper and easier, with systems that anyone could afford, and the 3D printer revolution was born.
Solidoodle is the latest foray into this new space and brings a competitive device squarely at a price point affordable by just about anyone with a curiosity to 3D design and manufacturing. Like its competitors, the Solidoodle is a additive 3D printer that uses ABS Plastic filament to create anything you can model in a real hand-holdable form, but at a remarkably lower price point, starting at $499. Comparatively, their consumer grade competitors start in the $1800 range going up to above $2500. While one might worry that this lower price point is a sign of inferior quality, that is definitely not the case. The Solidoodle, like its name, is a solidly built system with plenty of capability versus its competition.
3D Printing for the Home
The Solidoodle here is revision 2, designed to create parts up to 6″ square with a resolution of about .3mm, the effective size of a layer of plastic. While some printers might be able to go to a much higher resolution, the Solidoodle provides an adequate resolution for a fraction of the price.
Based on the very popular Arduino control board, the Solidoodle leverages inexpensive parts and open source control software to provide a maximum of flexibility to regular users and power hackers alike. While the software expects the industry standard STL format files, clever users can side step this and delve straight into creating custom gcode binary files to create objects that the control software can easily read.
Once fed, the Soildoodle will rapidly start layering out .3mm slices of the object, growing the project from the bottom up at a quick pace. Making a 1 inch cube took about 45 minutes to complete, and larger items obviously will take a longer time.
One of the biggest gotchas I found (which is partly from the lack of experience in this new frontier) is the fact that your success is highly dependent on making sure both the filament nozzle and the project bed are heated to the adequate temperature. The nozzle is very solid and heats quickly to the needed 200 degrees, but the project bed takes quite a long time to warm up. Failure to get the bed up to the required 80-100 degrees will likely cause the project to fail as the bed won’t be hot enough to force the filament to stick to the base, causing the whole job to eventually stick to the nozzle itself. If anything, I would have liked to see a bed that could heat faster somehow as it would take about 10 minutes to get it close to where it needed to be versus mere seconds for the nozzle.
While using open source software is commendable, if there was one thing I would have to mark against the Solidoodle, it would be the fact that using open source software is sometimes not for the faint of heart. In this situation, common to open source packages, the control software is a large collection of patched-together modules and libraries held together by the most fragile of interfaces. And like many open source systems, usability is not the forefront of the design decision. The system itself is based on the Linux staple Python scripting language, and while not needed, having a good familiarity with Linux/Unix/Posix command line manipulation is a huge benefit in getting the software up and running effectively.
Of course 3D printing today is similar to regular printing in the 1980s in terms of maturity (remember setting com port baud rates and dip switches?), but the last decade has shown that simplified “it just works” software is a huge contributor to consumer adoption. I have no doubt that 3D printing software will eventually get to this point as well, especially once the hardware space expands and becomes more competitive, but until then, 3D printing continues to be merely for the geekiest of geeks.
Why do I need this?
Despite its shortcomings, the Solidoodle is a great and disruptive product. Some might ask why would we even need a 3D printer. Some could argue that it’s only good for printing random toys and useless knickknacks. Granted, while the full consumer potential is still being discovered, I can cite at least one example where it’s helped tremendously here in the office.
At some point during our move to the new studio, we had lost a tiny mounting joint for one of our camera rigs. This lost, innocuous part basically rendered the entire rig useless. Fortunately, I was able to create a rough replacement using Google Sketchup, send it to the Solidoodle, and print out a compatible replacement. Instead of having to go though the trouble of days of back and forward tracking down this random part from overseas, we were able to just print a replacement over the afternoon and be ready to go right away.
For more information on setting up a Solidoodle to print, see our step-by-step tutorial.
You can purchase the Solidoodle directly from their website starting at $499, or as configured here for $699.
If you guys haven’t noticed, its extremely RARE that Kien, our geekiest engineer, gets this excited about anything! In fact, not only Kien, but every person in the office has been excited to watch the Solidoodle and to play with it. People have been printing all sorts of stuff and giving it far more attention than most things we receive.
For that reason, we’re giving the Solidoodle a Geek Beat Editor’s Choice award! Congrats to the Solidoodle team! We’re looking forward to seeing more great stuff from them in the future.