Meet Moira, the Lab’s 3D Printer

This week, after several false starts, my class on 3D printing finally ran on Monday.

Meet Moira.  My friend @Paperbits gave her to the school when he decided to upgrade to a better model.  Deb over at Charmed Finishing School asked how she worked, so I told her:


Well, basically you take a 3-D model made in a program like SketchUp, and you run that model through a digital filter program, which strips the 3-D model down into a series of discrete layers; and then you runthat digital file through another digital filter which separates the original model into a series of moves through x-y-z coordinates, and adds in some additional instructions about how much plastic cable to advance to the melter and then to squirt onto the build-platform…

The printer itself is a Frankenstein-like contraption built out of laser-cut wood and disassembled HP paper inkjet printers, that basically consists of three interlocking motor systems — one for X-axis moves, one for Y-axis moves, and one for Z-axis moves; and a pair of heating units, one that melts ABS plastic at 220° C, and one that lightly heats up the same plastic along the base of the object you’re building to 110° C so it stays in one place as you’re building it. There’s a big reel of ABS plastic cable attached to a feeder, which uses little gear-teeth to force-feed the raw plastic to the melter. And the melter is attached to the X-Y-Z motors, so that as the plastic is melted and pushed through, it falls in little drops onto precisely located spots, and gradually builds the 3D model you designed in SketchUp…

You know what? That’s probably more than you wanted to know. She’s just a 3D printer, you know? You give her a model of what you want, and give her precise geometrical instructions, and she obeys those instructions exactly, even if that’s not actually what you want. Her name is Moira. She’s magic. :-)

My kids are designing things now to print out with her.  One kid wants to make a bracelet.  Another plans to build a miniature skyscraper model.  A third wants to build a rocket-ship toy.  Another wants to sculpt his own hand, and print that.  But as is always the case with good designers, I’m making them start by learning some preliminaries.  This week they learned to create orthographic drawings — top, side, and front views of the objects they intend to print. They weren’t keen on spending the first day of a computer-and-printer oriented class drawing pictures with sharpie markers and pencils.  “Aren’t we going to print anything today?”

I’d love to print something today.  Or tomorrow. Or the next class. Really. Nothing would please me more.

But it turns out that there’s a lot of skills I want my kids to leave this class with — how to draw being the big one.  How to measure and do math, either digitally or on paper, and how to do some basic practical geometry. How to build a design in something like SketchUp.  How to build a big project from start to finish. How to overcome obstacles.  How to revise your design, which @TieandJeans pointed out is critical to designers (and I would argue, to magicians).  How to learn, which as Rufus pointed out this week is a really important skill — for designers and magicians alike.  I’ve only got six classes to do all of this, with kids from third grade (who just wants his thing made and printed now, please, would you do all the work, sir?)  up through seventh and eighth graders who already know some of this stuff and are patiently-impatiently waiting to get to the new secrets, please.  It’s exactly like a magical lodge, in that everyone’s at different grade levels, and there are secrets that ought to be communicated immediately — and yet they can’t be communicated, because there’s four years of initiation and practice between the lowest grade and the highest grade, and that’s a difficult obstacle to overcome.

As a final aside  — really, I think more designers ought to study the magical and mystical traditions, and more magicians and mystics should study design. There’s a lot for these two groups to learn from one another — and frankly, between Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Make Magazine, there’s a lot of opportunities for rich crossover between the two communities.

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  1. I think that the new 3d printer technology is totally fascinating. I have seen faces printed and other body parts. Now with the software to take simple photos and put them into 3d rendering, what is stopping anyone from just going to a store and seeing figurines or water fountains or whatever, taking pictures of them and going home to make a 3d duplicate of what they wanted in the store? You can dupe anything anyone else hand sculps or creates on your own. Heck even print your own furniture just by going to the store and taking pictures of what you want. Well maybe the cushions might be a little hard but you can always get some somewhere.

    • Hi, Mike.

      Well, the 3D printer my school has only prints in one material, and only objects about the size of a cupcake (hence “cupcake” printer). So yes, you could print figurines and objects made of ABS plastic… but the moment you get into things like water fountains or furniture or tools, you’re out of luck. For the moment, anyway. Anything you build or make has to be constructed of only one thing, so moving parts or complex machinery or hoses or tubing like in a water fountain… you’re going to go to a lot of trouble to scan and model each individual piece of the water fountain to get a working fountain… and even then it might not work.

      One final note. It took a long time to approve your message because it wound up in the spam folder. The fact that your blog has only one entry makes you look like a spammer. Just FYI.

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