Here’s a write-up from our Ambassador Louis Turner explaining how he has used 3D printing throughout his career over the past 2 years. He explains how he has used the technology to improve Cornwall and bring more exposure to the technology in one of England’s poorest Counties.
Two years ago, at the age of 72, I bought my first 3D printer – an Ultimaker 2. I had retired from a profession as an author and organiser of international conferences. I now wanted to spread the message about 3D printing through Cornwall. To help do this, I created a Community Interest Company (a semi-charity) called 3D Kernow, with this as its social goal. Since Cornwall is one of the poorest counties in the UK, I believed that early exposure to 3D printing would give locals the chance to get ahead of competitors “Up Country” – the term for anyone the other side of the Tamar river.
I started by organising a month-long 3D printing demonstration in Falmouth. Ultimaker gave support. Another CREATE Ambassador, Steve Cox, came down to give me three days of practical help …..and I was in business.
We started by printing the obvious trinkets – lots of tree frogs, geckos, robots, stretchlets and stackable cups. We had lots of calibration issues in those early days but, by mastering the tree frogs, our technical standards improved.
We then had a stroke of luck. We were commissioned to print twenty trophies for the Cornwall Sustainability Awards. These took the form of a lattice-based seed. This was tricky to print as it forced the print head to keep skipping over spaces, which put a lot of strain on the filament drive mechanism. Gradually we learned how to perfect calibration, play with print speeds and experiment with printing temperatures to minimise stringing. At the end of this, I did my first 20-hour print.
By this time, I was taking my printers into schools at a rate of about once every ten days. My goal was to enthuse pupils with the potential of this technology. I gradually expanded the ambition of the items I printed out for demonstration purposes. I printed Intentional 3D’s Platform Jack and Emmett’s Gear Bearing both of which require very precise printing. I was helped by the arrival of the Olsson block, which allowed me to print with a .25mm nozzle, thus bringing these complex prints into my range of capabilities. Once I had an Ultimaker 3, new options were available. I can now show prints of generative designs or two-coloured prints such as these medals for our local arts centre
From the start, I listed my machines on 3D Hubs and began to develop a small commercial business as well. This has brought me a range of challenges.
There’s been a lot of small-scale work with students and hobbyists, amongst whom a couple of model railway enthusiasts have been good clients. At the commercially serious end, we’ve printed a scaled-down flotation device for a local wave-hub company, along with some fishing rod holders for a yachtsman, and a couple of proprietary jobs for people producing items for the surfing community.
Buildings have given me two large projects. One friend commissioned me to do a 40 hour print of the historic house in which he has an apartment. Separately, I was recently asked to produce copies of a balustrade from another historic house which is being converted. This is 80 centimetres long and meant I had to take photos which I then turned into a CAD model. I then printed this in five sections, which I am just about to join together with strong adhesive.
An assignment for a local marionette designer shows how some cheap 3D printing can give someone serious competitive advantages. The designer asked us to design and print the eye units for his marionettes. Up to now, he had made these units by hand but, since he was having to craft eye sockets by hand, it was inevitable that the resultant eye movements were very jerky. We produced a design which gave him an eye socket, eyeball and eyelashes as a unit – all to fine tolerances that he could never have got to by conventional means. He thus ended with marionettes with freely swivelling eyes which could shut and blink at will. He took these over to the US where he found his competitors were still hand-crafting these units, with the result that he is internationally competitive, thanks to a unit using some £2 of plastic.
What are the lessons from all this?
3D Printing is not particularly complex, but experience matters. Little things can go wrong. Your print bed can get out of alignment so that models fail, and it can be tricky to recalibrate to the highest standards. Filament feeds can play up. Working out the best orientation in which to print models can demand some thought.
None of this is rocket science. I’ve been running Ultimaker 2s for a couple of years, and have managed the twin nozzle Ultimaker 3 from last December. The only advice I can give would-be entrants to 3D printing is to get the best machine that you can afford and just start printing. The filament is cheap, so to gain experience all you really have to devote is time. Providing you have a bit of mechanical aptitude, you will be able to learn on the job.
Where life gets complex is when you start adding 3D design to your printing. You can always start by pulling down designs from cloud-based libraries like Thingiverse. But there will come a time when you need to be able to run up your own designs. You can start with beginners’ programmes like Sketchup or Tinkercad, but soon you will need to go into really professional programmes such as Solidworks or Fusion 360. I use the latter and have been lucky in that I was able to sit in on a couple of training days run by CREATE Ambassador Steve Cox. This gave me an initial understanding of how to start with Fusion 360, but I have only built up an ability to work with it by taking on a set of steadily more complex design challenges. Being retired, I have been able to devote, for instance, three days to master the design of that baluster. However, most people will not have the time to master CAD programmes on a trial and error basis. That means it is important for students to take CAD design as a discipline. I would also recommend students to be fairly proficient in maths. Once again, CAD is not rocket science, but it helps if you have an understanding of x, y and z dimensions, can get your head around concepts such as splines and can do calculations such as by how much you need to scale a design up or down.
…and where to now? I’ve recently picked up a couple of second-hand Form 1 resin printers, which will force me to get on top of a very different kind of printing technology. As I master this, I would hope to get closer to the jewellers within Cornwall’s creative community. At the same time, I am starting to work with the Cornwall Marine Network to get closer to the marine sector in Cornwall. That will force me into learning how to print in a range of relatively high-performance filaments.
My CREATE Ambassadorship remains important. As I write, I am thinking about a demonstration I’ve got to give tomorrow in a college down in Penzance. At the same time, the commercial challenges keep me stretched, and this feeds back into the advice that I can give students and their teachers,