Sum of its Parts – 3D printing components at the TCT Show 2018

Christmas 1999, as an excited 15-year-old, I unwrapped my first Personal Computer, purchased from the now-defunct British electrical retailer, Comet. Less than one month later my father, in dispute with the branch manager, was threatening to launch the painfully sluggish machine through the shop window and it had nothing to do with the Millennium bug. 

Before Comet eventually relented and refunded the money, my uncle, a local IT whizz said of the terrible PC, “a machine can only be as good as its components.”

When looking at a couple of shortlisted entrants to this year’s TCT Awards, I wondered whether Uncle Patrick’s statement was as true now for desktop 3D printing as it was then for personal computing.  

After the experience with the shop bought PC, Patrick taught me to build PCs, scouring computer fairs across the country on the hunt for appropriate components that I’d then assemble with varying degrees of success. Theses clunkily-put-together machines, with their parts exposed and super-loud fan systems, ran Championship Manager much faster than the shinier looking, shop bought, CE marked Comet one ever mustered.

We’ve had our fair share of 3D printers on loan at TCT that are comparable to that Comet PC. Assembled, ‘plug-and-play’ machines that have been, by and large, slow, unintuitive, prone to failure, and frustrating to the point where if I’d have paid for them, I too would be looking for a shop window for which to launch through. 

However, there’s a raft of hobbyists building their own or upgrading on existing desktop 3D printers. Thanks to that ever-growing demand there’s also a steady supply of manufacturers producing components that move the dial on 3D printing’s viability as an easy-to-use, reliable technology be that for the home or the engineer’s desk. 

Tips of the iceberg

Take the Olsson Ruby FDM Nozzle, a finalist in the TCT Hardware Award 2018 – Non-polymer Systems, this add-on has the potential to take sub £500 FDM printers and have them churning out parts in engineering- grade carbon filled filaments. 

Designed by Uppsala University research engineer Anders Olsson and commercialised by 3DVerkstan (Stand D42 at, the nozzle is brass but has a ruby gemstone mounted to the tip. Whereas the majority of nozzles are entirely brass, which wears quickly when printing with abrasive materials such as carbon filled nylons, the Olsson Ruby’s tip is much harder wearing. A test showed that a brass nozzle degraded beyond usability after printing 0.3 kg of a carbon fibre filled filament, whereas after printing 8 kg of the same material there was no visible wear under a microscope to the Olsson Ruby nozzle. 

Then there’s E3D Online (Stand C44), whose tool-changer concept has been shortlisted in the TCT Hardware Award 2018 – Polymer Systems category. E3D’s components, and in particular its hot-ends, are revered by both the knowledgeable hobbyist market and industrial OEMs like Lulzbot and German RepRap. 

Although E3D will be the first to admit that a tool-changer is not a new concept, the company is renowned for perfection and the overseeing of successful step-changes in extrusion-based 3D printing. The R&D that has gone into creating a better solution for multi-material extrusion-based 3D printing at E3D’s Oxfordshire HQ is staggering. 

Multi-material printing has been a goal since the days of Adrian Bowyer’s first RepRap work. Effective multi-material printing can unlock applications that have proved out-of-reach to desktop systems. With the E3D concept a 3D printer would be able to pick up different hot-ends at speed to combine materials; imagine being able to use a Olsson Ruby Nozzle for a sturdy carbon-filled structure, a 1.2 mm E3D Volcano nozzle for fast and fat layering of support material and then a 0.4 mm nozzle for fine details, all without the need for human interaction. 

To achieve effective multi-material printing E3D has developed both a tool-changer and a new motion system to control the tool-changer from scratch. 

After trial and error experimenting with pneumatic sucker grabbers, electromagnetics and the likes, E3D’s tool-changer uses extremely precise (sub five microns) kinematic coupling alongside a permanent magnet tool dock and a sprung bayonet cam-loc – the prototype of which was manufactured using metal powder-bed fusion technology. 

The beta product for the tool-changer looks like a fantastically fast factory pick-and-place system that could well prove to be a huge leap forward for desktop 3D printing.

Above Board

Back in the PC building days, the motherboard was the key, get the right motherboard, and everything else would fall into place, with 3D printing that is no different. 

Much like the early days of the PC, where hobbyists were cobbling together existing microprocessors to process logistical problems, in the early days of the desktop 3D printer, the RepRap community was using readily-available PIC microcontrollers and Arduino-based electronics to drive the stepper motors, control temperature, slice files etc. 

The sophistication of off-the-shelf electronics only goes so far, if you wanted to control a system like E3D’s pick and place or even just an extra stepper motor you’d come unstuck. Bart Meijer, a founder of the component and filament supplier RepRapWorld (Stand G48), decided there needed to be a better option and created a line of motherboards engineered explicitly for 3D printing. 

Minitronics, Megatronics and Ultratronics is a line of increasingly advanced boards for hobbyists and industrial OEMs alike. The cheapest board, Minitronics, allows users to add functionality like dual extrusion; the mid-range board, Megatronics was the first single-board solution for 3D printing;  and the high-end Ultratronics boards is the only board to support up to seven stepper motors, 5 thermistors and four thermocouples.

OEMs like professional 3D printer expert, Tumaker, calls Megatronics the  “brains” of its machinery and for the Italian manufacturer, Kentstrapper’s latest industrial machine, RepRapWorld proved to be the only place it could turn for its significant electronic enhancement. 

“MAVIS has automated calibration and is equipped with a [power management] system that significantly reduces the risk of print failure,” explained Lorenzo Cantini, Chief Product Officer and Co-founder of Kentstrapper. “We decided to use Ultratronics because we needed a  powerful, 32-bit board that would also allow us to add additional stepper motors when we add extruders to the machine. As we’ve worked with RepRapWorld since 2011, we knew how they work and had trust in their boards.”

Investigating the home computer revolution and some of the famous failures like the Honeywell Kitchen Computer and its tagline, “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute”, it’s hard not to compare with the heady days of Bre Pettis vs. Avi Reichental at CES with the “3D printer in every room,” declarations. The fact was that the components inside those early desktop machines were not up to scratch, much like the Comet PC, and it was enough to put many people off. 

However, much like the home PC revolution, thanks to the thirst of dedicated hobbyists baying for more advanced componentry, the desktop 3D printing revolution still has a beating heart. 

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