On Friday the 13th 2012, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down for over an hour with Brook Drumm creator of printrbot .  I took a drive a few miles down the road to Lincoln, CA to talk with Brook and see what the hype was all about.   And by hype I mean that Mr. Drumm has raised over $800,000 on his kickstarter project since it launched a few months back.  Please note that he only asked for $25,000.

Prior to this interview, I had limited exposure to RepRap.org and the details of the various 3D printing efforts going on across the globe.  My main exposure to the 3D printing movement has been through paying attention to Make: magazine and the mentions of their own 3D printers but even this was interest at an arm’s length mainly due to budget and time constraints.  3D printers were either too expensive or too complicated for me to put together in a short amount of time.  Plus, I assumed some learning curve would be involved with actually telling the printer what to print.  That being said, I’m fascinated by the possibilities of 3D printing and had read about some of the models.

When I heard about the kickstarter.com project called “printrbot : Your First 3D Printer” I was immediately interested for a couple reasons – First, I know Brook and learned about printrbot through his facebook post on November 9, 2011.  Second, after reading the printrbot site, I thought, this might be something that could reach the masses and not be limited to a relatively small group of do-it-yourself types who have the time and patience to buy and build a fairly complex kit.  Granted, I didn’t spell it out like that in my head but when I looked at his page I got that feeling in my gut that told me – this is something big.  I believed there was already an interest ‘out there’ and now it was becoming more affordable.

Some background…

I didn’t just want to know about the printer itself but also the process.  So I asked Brook to give me some background and tell me, what was the spark that made him want to create your own 3D printer?

Brook: I have always been a guy who makes things… I learned late in life that that you use the right tool for the job, so I just kinda hacked it together, whatever I needed to do…I owned Volkswagens my whole life, things that didn’t work very well so I was always fixing stuff.

So, when I got a little older I thought ‘man I’d love to have the right tools’

And, you know, I knew I couldn’t afford a lathe and a machine shop, you know so, every once in a while I’d buy a cool tool and do something with it but, when I saw the 3d printers and started to read about them in Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and specifically MAKE: magazine …I’ve been enthralled with everything they do.  Not everything appeals to me but they guys that make stuff resonates with me so when I saw that one issue that was all about home manufacturing …they had like a computer controlled plasma cutter, they had several things but a 3d printer was one of them, I thought I have got to have one.

Brook started saving money and when one went on sale last year (the cupcake), he put down his saved money and bought one.  Through the construction and usage of the cupcack a couple things bothered him.  “one was the print area was very small and while most of the time you don’t need anything bigger. [if you do], you start to run in to design constraints.”  Plus he found that it was somewhat difficult to build.  “I wanted one that was easier to  build – it was ok for me to build, but I was trying to put it together with my kids, it was hard for them, and just a lot of parts and it’s overwhelming.”

From there he thought “this has to be easier.”  And so, that’s where it started.  He said, “maker bot gets credit for sparking my idea”

 Reprap origins

Before discussing the specifics of his design, Brook wanted to give me some additional history on 3D printing.  He shared information with me about reprap.org and “Adrian Bowyer, he founded the open source version of 3d printing.”  Brook told me about the different versions of the printers –

“They called the first one Darwin, it’s this big blocky thing, they are large and complicated.

Then they did a pyramid triangle shape, that’s the Mendel.  The original Mendel had many many more parts that what you see there. This is a simplification of the Mendel called the Prusa Mendel.  Josef Prusa is the guy that simplified it.  So he’s kind of gets the credit for really simplifying it – and that model is probably the most popular model and then they made that one smaller, they called that one the Huxley.

The reason they can call themselves a reprap is because… these printers can print the parts to build another printer, not 100% – you’re not going to print a motor or electronics, yet.  I think they might have a shot at printing a pcb board or something that functions like that but they are not going to print a capacitor or a transistor. They’ll never be 100% printed, I don’t think.  But they are shooting for 90%.

Knowing that goal and standing behind that organization I wanted my printer to be a reprap”

 

On to the design

Brook knew he wanted his own design that was simpler, faster, larger and self replicating.  He’d been thinking for weeks about design solutions that would meet his requirements and one day while listening to a podcast in his back yard, the idea hit him.

I saw the base, with 3 motors in a row, … we can send the rods up…this will work, it shocked me, gave me a little jolt and I thought ‘no wait that won’t work’ on the Prusa [because] the heated bed slides within the frame.  The maximum is basically the frame, but I thought ‘wait a minute’, what if I put the pulleys on the outside of the frame and slide it back and forth.

He ran inside, drew it out and the basic design from that day is essentially what is now called printrbot.

Key Challenges – Parts

With the basic design being complete, finding the right parts became the next hurdle.

Taking the rods for example, Brook explained that he initially looked at some cheap options using cold rolled steel but found problems – it rusts and you have to keep it oiled and the tolerances are not good.  It’s not really intended to be used as linear rail.  So, he moved to drilled rod which is stronger and as he tried the different materials, it affected other parts of the system as well.  What he ended up with is 8mm hardened linear rail.  The rail, along with the linear bearings they’re using, ensure the level of quality Brook feels he can support.   “What we’re going to ship is the highest quality stuff that I’ve found.  Period.”  Brook said.

With each part change, other aspects of the design had to change as well, so this was an area that took up a lot of upfront time.

Key Challenges – Volume

In terms of volume, Brook’s design goal of being a true reprap was challenged due to the surprising volume of requests coming in through kickstarter.

He said

“In the course of the kickstarter – the volume that I was getting, [was] much to my surprise, I thought ok – makerbot has an idea here, let’s make a printer that is easier to put in to production.  ‘cause the print time on these printers is roughly 10 hours at the speeds I’m running them at and to cut the laser parts for the printrbot+… [it takes] 10 minutes. So, it’s exponentially faster.

Much to my surprise, half of the kickstarter backers jumped on the laser cut model, they didn’t care.    All they wanted was a printer.

Brook said “even though my heart is with reprap.org, I was encouraged to do laser cut as well.”

Kickstarter Project Success

When Brook first submitted the kickstarter idea and published the project, he wasn’t convinced he was going to get the initial $25,000 that he requested.  He knew he wanted to make this in to a business in some fashion but had no idea that it would become so popular. He shared with me that he had pitched the idea about getting in to the 3d printing with his wife.  She’s his barometer for determining whether or not he should move forward with a new business concept.  With this idea, she was a little unsure until he included the idea of sourcing the startup funds through Kickstarter.  At that point, the idea was a go.  However, even with her support, Brook thought the kickstarter would fail.  He was wrong.  1,808 backers have proven that to him with their pocketbooks.  Quoting from the kickstarter project page “We have brought 3D printer kits down to the beginner level and a better price point simultaneously. “  I really think he nailed it right there with that statement and apparently others did too.

Target market

I asked Brook who he envisioned as his market for the printers.  He started by telling me who it’s not.  It’s not the ubergeek maker.  The tag line on kickstarter says “your first 3D printer” and that gives a clue as to where he’s aiming.  He’s trying for the person who does not yet own a 3D printer, who is looking for a cheaper, simpler alternative to what is already out there.   He said that he loves the reprap group but didn’t see that they would be the main audience.  Personally, I feel like he is aiming right at me or someone like me.  I love gadgets, but don’t have the time or inclination to learn how to solder so I can build a printer I might not use.  Neither do I desire to go spend more than a thousand dollars for a 3D printer.  The trade off and value equation just does not work for me.  However at around $550 – this is much more enticing and a realistic possible future purchase.  With his goal to have a printer in every home and school – he’s really marketing to a wider audience with less technical skill and to schools and students who can learn so much from the experience of using the machine.

In fact, when we talked about schools, Brook’s eyes lit up when he shared a story about a recent meeting with some 7th grade students in Berkeley.

See the linked video…

 

What can you build?

Once you get the printer built (or pay for prebuilt) and set up the software – you can make just about any plastic part that will fit in a 8x8x8 in square.  Thingaverse.com has plenty of examples that can be downloaded and tried out for basically the cost of the plastic you’re using to print.

Brook gave a couple personal examples including a knob for his home washing machine and a specialty gate latch he made for a friend.  My son is in boy scouts and I’m thinking that for next year’s pinweood derby, I’ll try to print out some accessories to paint and add to our car.

 

What’s next?

Take a look at printrbot.com and you’ll see that Brook and his team are setting up shop in their Lincoln, CA headquarters.  They are busy completing the rewards that go out to the kickstarter backers and, I believe, getting ready to set up an online store. The website has a sign up form that is intended to be used to send updates about when the store goes online and for project updates.

 

Additional Resources –

http://www.printrbottalk.com – new forum set up to discuss printrbot.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing#Vendors_and_services

http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/prusa-mendel-visual-instructions/15227669

http://josefprusa.cz/pages/english