Saturday, November 11, 2017

3D Clay Printer: First Weeks

This was our first "print." While the machine was priming it began to extrude and wouldn't stop when we "stopped" the "print" so I just caught the clay on a piece of paper on my hand, twisting as it came out.

Yakima Valley College Gets A 3D Printer for Clay

At last year's NCECA Conference in Portland, I saw a 3D Clay printer being demonstrated. I also saw a good deal of 3D printed clay at the conference, though I only saw one person (Brett Freund) who was using the printer in a really interesting way. But I thought the newness of the process and the fact that this machine prints wet clay, rather than liquid slip, which means that we could print, then alter the prints immediately, meant that there were possibilities for my students to be creative and really explore the unknown possibilities of this process.

Our first successful print came during a day when we worked at it for more than 5 hours, but only managed two successful prints total--and then broke the microSD card inside the machine.

After the conference, I submitted a proposal for my school to purchase a printer for our classroom. The proposal was approved quickly and we received the printer early in the fall. Of course I didn't anticipate that it would be that easy to get started. We got the printer, but the pug mill attachment was incorrect and we spent 5 weeks looking for a solution. Eventually the YVC facilities folks hooked us up and we were able to print for the first time at the end of October.

First Attempts to use the 3D Clay Printer

The first print that wouldn't stick. I can tell the machine starts too fast, but I didn't know that then, in part because the instructions and videos don't actually say how fast to print.

I took some videos of the printing process in October, but was feeling really frustrated because the clay often didn't stick to the printing surface and the extruded layers sometimes didn't stick to one another. I didn't understand why and had trouble finding out why from someone with experience. 

Our first successful print, stuck to the base, even though almost all the other prints needed a clay base prepare ahead of time in order to stick to the base. The company contact condescendingly told me that we should have had a piece of red constructions paper, and later, re-watching the videos I see where the paper was mentioned, but I still submit that a paper checklist with this sort of information would be much more helpful than videos I can't watch easily in my studio.

Since that first day, I've used the printer 4 or 5 days to print a variety of digital objects that came with the printer software, as well as some student designs. Of course it would be really helpful if I were just working with the printer during this time, but I was teaching class, grading assignments, helping students, attending meetings, and completing other full-time faculty obligations, so my time with the printer has been relatively limited. 

Troubleshooting & Trial and Error

The 3D Clay printer comes with no written troubleshooting instructions and minimal written instructions of any kind, including set up. The customer is advised to view online videos, which I did before setting up and attempting to print, but all the videos assume that you are more familiar with the process and 3D printers in general than I was when we began. I needed a list of definitions before I could even understand the videos.

Our second successful print on the first day shifted and leaned because the printing speed was faster than I would recommend. I can't say it is faster than recommended, because I cannot find any speed recommendations.

In our initial prints, we followed all the directions we could remember from the videos, but without much guidance as far as speed of the extruder, speed of the movement, or much of anything else, we mostly were just trying stuff at random. At the time, I wasn't sure that I would be able to figure out the issues without help from someone with experience with this machine. Now, however, looking back at the first video, it is pretty easy to see what went wrong at the time--it was printing too fast at the start. We've also learned that putting down a layer of wet clay for a base is usually essential.

This print was done on the second day, when the speed controls didn't appear to relate to the actual experienced speed of the print.

The thing I am not able to figure out is why the printer/software/file combination sometimes prints at a different speed using the same settings. You can hear me explaining the situation on the video to a student. This print is moving much more slowly than the previous print, but I'm printing the same file, the clay is coming from the same tube, minutes later, and the extruder speed and x/y movement speed are set at the same speeds as in the print immediately before this. The only difference is the actual experienced speed of the x/y movement is much slower.

A successful print on the second day, when the speed varied at random.

The machine seems to be working basically fine and is generally fairly reliable, but the support is difficult to navigate and frustrating when much time and effort is wasted--especially when I can't get much more than a couple hours at a time to work on it. I get the impression that the company is overwhelmed with the machines they are sending out, but they could provide much clearer instructions, troubleshooting, advice, and support--at least from this new customer's perspective. 

The second shape we printed requires some work after printing to open the closed top and open the negative space of the handle.

Students Figure the Thing Out

At NCECA last year, I had asked how hard it was to learn the online object making software. The woman at the booth suggested that the students would just figure it out. After making a few attempts to learn various 3D object making programs, and discovering that they and the tutorials are often designed to now work with a Mac (they keep directing me to right click on my one-button mouse), I was hoping the students would come through for me.

This student's design worked fairly well except for the open section on top of the leg. 

I opened up use of the printer to my students, letting them know that I am not much of a resource for the object making software. I told the students they could look into online tutorials for programs like TinkerCAD, but that I wouldn't be able to help. One student came back with a design she had made herself and it printed correctly on the first try and, to my surprise, the second. Then she and another student proceeded to print successfully or semi-successfully over the course of 2 days and 4 prints. There were some unsuccessful prints mixed in too, but fewer than at the start of our printing process.

This student design was also the first object to successfully print twice in a row. 

Hopefully soon I will be able to print some finished images of work and maybe even get some time to spend on the printer and software myself.

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