A small business pioneer of DIY 3D printing talks about his work and hints at an upcoming project
First, a quick introduction to me – I’m Derek Quenneville, one of the new 3D printing bloggers here at Ponoko. I’ve been the proud operator of MakerBot #169 for a while now and came to 3D printing like many others: “Oh my god, we can do that?!”
My background is mainly in software and web stuff over at techknight.com and I am all about making sure that people know about personal 3D printing. I’m the guy at your party with a bag of whistles, mustache rings and bottle openers.
This week I spoke with Rick Pollack of MakerGear, who popularized a number of things in the hobbyist space like printing with PLA, and using heated build platforms to reduce ABS curling.
Here’s our conversation:
DQ: When you’re ready, just start by telling me a bit about how MakerGear was started.
DQ: Did you start by building a RepRap printer? Or did you start with your custom MakerBot?
RP: First, i tried a couple of times to buy a MakerBot Cupcake, but they had a month lead-time. So i used my laser cutter to make the frame and sourced some parts from MBI, and other parts I sourced directly based on availability. And I purchased a used Cupcake (#27) to get an extruder!!
DQ: Wow, so that would’ve been around the days of batch 1 or 2 that you were trying to buy a kit?
RP: Correct. And as most people know the MK4 extruder was an exercise in frustration.
DQ: Yeah, mine’s a MK4 from batch 6… I’ve broken my fair share of idler wheels.
RP: I made my first one out of 50-year old Douglas-fir plywood: http://www.makergear.com/blogs/frontpage/1137732-first-look-the-makergear-makerbot
RP: Back in those days…1/4″ really meant 1/4″ so none of the tabs fit. I had to sand them all down. I always had a lot of trouble with that extruder… So I started trying new designs to find something that would work reliably. The PLA glass extruder: http://www.flickr.com/photos/makergear/sets/72157623457543310/
RP: The ABS glass extruder: http://www.flickr.com/photos/makergear/sets/72157622855375537/
DQ: Wow. Were you the first to start experimenting with PLA on a MakerBot?
RP: One of the first. Maybe the first, i don’t know. We did release the first heated build platform kit. (I’ve been told.) So from the 2nd half of 2009 through the first half of 2010 i basically had a full time job fixing Cupcakes. Over 500 cupcakes owners use our hot ends, and that includes almost all of the most active botters at the time. You can ask around… But if someone was using a Cupcake successfully prior to August 2010, they were running MakerGear stuff on it.
DQ: It must’ve been a challenge to scale up to meet that demand.
RP: There were some long lead times. By mid-2010 though, i was pretty much Cupcaked-out and decided to focus on our products. We released the stepper plastruder kit in September/October 2010, and the MakerGear Prusa Mendel at the end of the year. Now we are shipping Prusa kits and plastruder kits as quickly as we can make them. People have been waiting a month for kits… But we’ve been investing heavily in our inventory to get the leads times down. We’re also in the process of moving to a larger location.
DQ: Somewhere that you can keep more filament in stock?
RP: Hopefully. So we’re not an aftermarket supplier, we’re now a one-stop shop. And to this point I’ve also done the tech support… With a lot of help from members of the community.
DQ: On the subject of filament, how about the transition from 3mm to 1.75mm? What got you started on that – the UP! or were there RepRap builds using it already?
RP: Dimension machines have long used 1.75mm filament. I asked one of our suppliers to provide thinner filament about a year ago… We danced around for a while but it didn’t happen. So it’s been simmering for a long time. I wish that I’d done it sooner though.
RP: I also made an extruder that can extrude film, as there are a lot of interesting materials in film form… Like acetate. It may see light one day. I also liked the idea of stacking different kinds of films… So you could create custom plastics.
DQ: Have you successfully printed some objects that way?
RP: Objects? No, it was on a test rig. So it just runs the extruder, it doesn’t position it. There is also a lot of inexpensive film available, but at the moment… I am spending a lot of time on our supply chain. I thought some motors would arrive today, but they won’t be here until later in the week. That backs up other stuff… On and on…
RP: It takes a lot of capital to stock all of the parts and supplies (like filament) to keep ahead of demand. Buy too little and you are out of stock, buy too much and you are sitting on it.
DQ: It must be tough for minimum orders on some of these things too, as a small business not ordering bits by the ton.
RP: That isn’t really an issue. We have enough volume… The problem is the capital required. You have to make decisions months in advance at times.
DQ: And then as you were saying, it doesn’t always arrive when you’d like…
RP: Delays… Cost overruns… Mistakes. Some friendly advice – don’t ever make a mistake! When you have parts run off in the hundreds, a typo can be very costly.
DQ: Heh, i did see that you have a number of nozzles in your clearance section due to a “machining specification error”.
RP: And it was a typo.. A thousand dollar mistake. But we’ve offered free replacements for the parts that went out with kits.
DQ: What about the popularity of the different filament materials these days?
RP: Regarding PLA and ABS, they are both popluar. A lot of the popularity of PLA is that it doesn’t smell when printing, or has a maple syrup smell. But I prefer ABS parts to PLA parts for the most part. Expect to see both continue to be popular.
DQ: I’ve seen people talk about liking PLA due to the way ABS can curl but that PLA is sort of brittle.
RP: PLA objects are very stiff. ABS objects have a little give to them. Heated build platforms are so common now, it’s a non-issue unless you have a problem.
DQ: Before we wrap up, do you have anything just over the horizon that you’d like to tease?
RP: We are going to be in Washington, DC as part of the 3D/DC event. Look for a new printer there.
Thanks to Rick for talking with me – you can see more of his projects at http://www.makergear.com/. Look for more 3D printing posts by me every Wednesday.