Building a 3D Printer

After two years working with a 3D printer, I find it instrumental to the creation of my art. So I thought it would be useful to construct a second one in order to speed up the process of printing 3D objects. In September 2014, I built a second 3D printer, modeled after the Printrbot Jr. I already own.

I first learned about 3D printing as an undergraduate at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where the school happened to have one for students to design sculptures or models. The students used 3D Studio Max, an advanced CAD program, that is used to create animated features, like Toy Story. The printer was the size of a small refrigerator and was well outside my budget. I was there to learn about painting, so I did not pursue it further.

In 2012, MAKE magazine published an issue devoted to 3D printing that provided a comprehensive overview about what printers were available on the market. Featured amongst the magazine pages, the Printrbot Jr. was the most affordable one and I enjoyed its design aesthetic. I bought a pre-assembled printer, because I wanted to learn how to use the machine. There was a steep learning curve, it took me several months to gain familiarity with the machine. There was trial and error and I went through a lot of failed prints. At that time, I lacked technical ability and building a 3D printer seemed potentially frustrating.

In April 2013, at the Yellow Barn Studio and Gallery located in Glen Echo National Park, I had an art show devoted to 3D printing. This event featured a demonstration of my 3D printer, as well as the sale of 3D printed models that I designed. It was exciting, because many of the visitors had never seen a 3D printer before. This demonstration provided the opportunity for me to think about the art in a different way than the traditional ways of making sculptures. I focused on the concept that a computer program can create a physical object from a digital file, without any physical restrictions of sculpting, such as needing a kiln, or using hand held tools.

Access to a 3D printer is the equivalent of having a mini factory at home and I find that inspiring. I wanted to learn how to build a 3D printer because I admire the Maker movement. Plus, having use of two 3D printers would allow me work on different projects simultaneously. About a year ago, I began collecting materials and gathering resources to build my own Printrbot Jr. My first step involved ordering a laser cut wood kit from Printrbot.com, which contained no electronics, and serves as the body of the printer. Most of the other parts I have had to acquire from other sources, such as the local hardware store and various websites devoted to 3D printing.

It took me about a month to physically build and test the 3D printer. There were many challenges with building this printer, such as having to make specific parts where none were available, wiring the machine, and issues with the software. Still a work in progress, the 3D printer is now fully operational. Here are images of the various stages of completion:

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Building a 3D printer has opened up a plethora of opportunities for my art, including turning my work with vinyl letters into 3D objects.

 
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