Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tuning the Mendel, and comparing it to Makerbot

"Two three-dee printers? You don't think he's planning on breeding them, do you?"

Sorry, I've been waiting a long time to be able to use that punch line; I'd seen it on a for-sale ad for a maligned Sequent mainframe that had one taker from a university that already had one of the beasts, and the idea that someone *wanted* two of them really frightened the seller. But it's true - I've now got two working three-dee printers in the house. Luckily, they're not breeding, as we're cramped for space as it is.

The Mendel's running, and it's printed some useful stuff. It's still not perfect; model heights are still too short, and there's no place for the power supply. But it's been an interesting experience getting it running, and it's been interesting for me to compare the Makerbot and Mendel experience.

First, details of what I've done with the Mendel. First, like the Makerbot, I'm using 0.5 inch plexiglass for the build surface; I find the ABS sticks well to this cold as long as it's clean, and the completed prints come off decently with a putty knive or chisel. I'm using the Mendel without a heated build platform, and my 6 inch wheel I tried last weekend did warp pretty quickly. I'll have to try some anti-warping tricks (like the lattice base on the Brio track model on thingiverse) if I want to build larger models.

I'm also using standard Makerbot electronics for compatibility with my Makerbot. One annoyance is that the Mendel is intended to be driven from an external single-voltage power supply, but the Makerbot electronics come standard with a 20 pin PC motherboard plug. The Makerbot has that nice box to hide the power supply, but the Mendel has no place to hide the power supply. For now, it sits to the side of the Mendel.

It's hard to adjust the Z axis height on the Mendel; on the Makerbot, I'm used to tweaking the Z axis pulleys or belt to adjust the printhead height. A Z axis knob (like this) is a necessity.

That brings me to philosophy. Getting the Mendel running has been a fun experience; it's freeing to know that I can basically build and tweak all the different parts of a printer (including making a new extruder based on the Makerbot parts, and figuring out how to get it to fit in the existing Mendel). I'd realized when building the Makerbot that there's nothing particularly sophisticated about the mechanism for the 3d printer; all the magic really is in the software that figures out where to move the extruder, and how fast to move it. Beyond that, the mechanism is pretty simple, with reliability being the only big concern.

But building the Mendel also pointed out that while the mechanism is easy, there were all sorts of design tradeoffs that the Makerbot team made. The smaller print surface makes for a nice enclosed box design and minimizes the problems with warping. The enclosed box style provides a place to hide a standard and cheap power supply. The placement of the power supply and various Makerbot circuit boards seems easy, but when I had to figure out placement and wire length constraints when assembling the Mendel, I realized someone had to think hard and long about how to arrange the Makerbot, and where to run wires, and how to avoid boards getting in the way of the mechanism. The design of the Z axis makes it really easy to move the printhead large distances, moving it up when disassembling the print head or trying to get things set up, and moving it quickly down to build surface height to start a build. Makerbot's removable build surface simplifies getting a putty knife under a sticky print, but with Mendel, I need to be careful the build platform doesn't move as I pry.

Someone had to think of all those little details on the Makerbot, and they did a pretty good job. I'm happy I've built my Mendel, but I think the Makerbot's still going to get more of the work just because it's easier to put on top of the bench, and easier to adjust.


  1. Adam, Zach, and I drank a lot of caffeine in order to launch the MakerBot. Rarely do people notice some of the small details you noticed. Thanks for being awesome!

  2. @Bre: Other details I'm really grateful for: loose Z platform means that nozzle hitting excessive plastic just bounces nozzle and Z platform up. Mendel has no give, and I suspect it's harder on the extruder. Better x axis accuracy with shorter belt.