The forgotten stories of 3D printing early adopters

“I’m beginning to think that 3D printers are very problematic”, said once my friend, a skillful electronics hacker. I added, “yeah, bonsai trees are for beginners – try to keep up a 3D printer”. What was the conversation about? I had a problem trying to make my Prusa work after a few months interval and my friend was telling me his plans of collecting materials for his own 3D printer and couldn’t find the right stepper motors. We had different problems, but we met halfway nonetheless. For me, trying to fix the past and him trying to design the future, there was this obscrue universal principle underlaying the foundation of 3D printing early adopting. I thought to myself, so this is how present happens – past connects with future somewhere on the line. The opening sentence is where past connected with future writing a soon to be forgotten story about two 3D printing early adopters.

I’m beginning to think that 3D printers are problematic, but that’s not the end of the mission.

How mistaken can you be

Where are expeactations, there are mistakes. My expectations towards my first  RepRap Prusa were that:  I just only need to build it somehow, and  then I will be printing, printing, printing:)

I bought my printer as a DIY kit in Poland. The quality of the set made it a little less DIY but with some help from my friends, I eventually managed to get the kit together and perform the first print. My was the one of the first RepRaps in Poland. It was early 2012, and this was my first print:

My first 3D print - a tooth paste squeezer key

A mutant tooth paste squeezer:) This first print was a clear singal that there’s something wrong with my printer. Also it started my new obsession to print this thing over and over, the best I could (I ended up with a nice, strong print some few months later). However, witnessing this actually materializing from a model in the computer were simply mesmerizing. Amazed by a thing that if not 3D printed, most certainly would be a reject in some factory in the far east. We printed it – this was the only significant fact. We knew that this was a good start, we just only needed to calibrate it a bit; strange, because this would mean that:

Early adopter rule #1: envisioning is more important than using

So how do you think, was it “printing, printing,printing” from that moment on? In the following three months from the first print:

  • I caused several machine crises
  • Busted two electronics boards
  • Almost crushed hard to get plastic parts
  • Suffered few burn injuries
  • Spent 1/3 of the original printer kit price to fix what broke along the way
  • Spent 1/2 printer building time waiting for replacement parts
  • Made my friends come back home a little later when my electronics failed
  • Went in a few intense arguments with my girlfriend over my dangerously consuming obsession with fixing the 3D printer

… with some lousy printing from time to time. The really bad part about it was that I got this notion that I could make my stand in the 3DP business! Yes, that means that I left my work to do this thing and deliberately didn’t look for a new one, because it obviously would limit my time to obsesively tinker with the Prusa risking another burns. Madness!

It still amazes me how much time must have passed before I “began to think that 3D printers are problematic”.  It didn’t occur in that phase and it’s hard for me to tell why. I guess patience is a virtue.

Early adopter rule #2: patience is demanding

The future unfolds

So what happened between the time when my 3D printer started to be problematic and me acknowledging that fact with most honesty and confidence? At first I strongly believed all these problems stem from my unability to properly use the machine.

Early adopter rule #3: this is probably my fault

Here’s where you start building a RepRap Prusa:

RepRap Prusa - DIY kit

Here’s what it should become:

Prusa assembled

And the amazing prints it should perform:

A step away from amazing prints like this (this one done on a Ultimaker)

There is a whole set of things that can go wrong. Assembly shortcomings, neglectful soldering, not responding firmware, poor instructions. And we’re talking about delicate parts that are not typically amateur-proof.

There is a phase where you have everything connected and working. You experience a new type of freedom: the freedom to manufacture what you need. This phase ends when some element or connection brakes and causes a complete disaster in the whole unstable ecosystem of a RepRap. What conusmers are used to in these kind of situations is passing the problem over to the producent, basing on a warranty. You see, the cunning thing about DIY sets is that warranty is not included because the producer can’t put a warranty on something that he didn’t produce as an end-to-end solution (not necesarily a bad thing, though). What you need to do as a so to speak prosumer is find and implement a solution yourself. It’s not the case of going to the shop for missing parts receving a professional advice how to use what you’re about to buy. In the RepRap world this situation results mostly in:

  • Searching for parts beyond the boundaries of your country
  • Waiting unusually long times for the rare parts to be custom-made or shipped
  • Buying 4 parts before you get to that 5th part which you should buy in the first place

The world unravels a new, beautiful colour, until the machine works and you can do fair prints for you and your friends. When things went wrong over and over, I started to think that 3D printers are problematic. I tried, got pass the learning curve, waited and got burned, still the printer remained problematic. And this is where future started to happen, because what IS problematic, the odds are it WILL be problematic.

What the machine taught me

Perseverance, methodicalness, ingenuity.  It was my bonsai tree, only more hardcore. It also taught me that no invention is adopted until it has got a convincing story. I had the priviledge to teach a few people about the RepRap, also teach how to operate it. If I had started every story from a daunting intepretation of the RepRap experience, I would have had dicouraged everyone to embark on the RepRap journey. I didn’t. Instead I advocated its noble origin and promoted its wonderful abilites. Because that’s true. I didn’t omit the other part, equally true, about the difficulties and obstacles with building and operating a RepRap . I believe that would spare people some false expectations, before patience releases the “demand within”.

RepRaps are not like building from Lego, assembling a wardrobe from Ikea, not even like putting a plane model together. It’s harder, beacause it’s learning perseverance, methodicalness and ingenuity.

Which also makes it… unsuitable for the modern consumer market and unsuitable for most consumers. But an early adopter has a mission.

Early adopter rule #4: early adopter has a mission

The mission and the forgotten story

That’s not the end of my forgotten story. There was a time when I really needed my printer; a time when I made my bet on it. I decided to print an engagement ring for my fiance:)

The plan was to design a customized model and print it on my own printer, no compromises. So did it work out? Nope. All the aspects of why printers are problematic met in this one particular time and space. Time passed and still no 3D printed ring. I started to lose my patience and turned to an idea of buying one, but to be honest I didn’t like anything I could see in the shops. More and more wasted time. The “evil twin” of patience has taken control.

I thought, this is the moment when you can let possessions control you, making your every day schedule. So it’s either waiting for my printer to respond or buying something because I have to buy “something”? Who said I need any rings in the first place?

The story heads to that typical turn when the main character discovers “the true nature of happiness” beyond the route of possesions. Soon to be forgotten story of an early adopter.

My mission as an early adopter was not to give up. For me, this was a question of ethics. Being an apostole of my own experiences isn’t the right choice when the mission isn’t only about me. Not giving up ment not succumbing to this strange sense of revenge to how things work right now in the RepRap world. One has to keep in mind that the RepRap idea assumes growth. The kind of growth that justifies the existence of present because of the view for future.

3D printers are problematic, but they keep getting less problematic over time. And that’s how things work in open source communities – you ship the earliest-possible for others to take over. The same mechanism that makes 3D printers problematic in year 2013 released the potential of many great 3D printing organisations and iniciatives that make 3D printers less problematic. It’s iterative growth – not to be confused with pleasing the early adopters.

Forgotten stories, like probably mine, still can shape culture. They are like dissolving sugar in a cup of tea – you can’t see it, but you can taste it. It’s our choice (and I’m pointing especially at you, early adopters) to pour resentment in 3D printing development or shape it with constructive critique. It’s our choice to let others taste what’s “in there” or let others also know what makes that taste.


2 thoughts on “The forgotten stories of 3D printing early adopters

  1. “Early adopter rule #1: envisioning is more important than using”
    I still do a lot of it. It’s important but nice if you have a tangible object for result.
    For my PhD I once created a machine for measuring retinal respiration. Hand machined all the parts. I ran thousands of measurements, measured properties like per photon energy amplification, ERG, effects of ion pump and neural inhibitors, measured feedback properties of sugar metabolism. But no one could ever reproduce the machine and hence, no one could reproduce the results, too many loose ends to keep track of. The calibration alone was absolutely brutal. Even the data transcription method used for the results was crucial because the tissue dying was often a much larger event than the very, very small, very slow light induced respiration changes in the photoreceptors. The good news was your comment. The people I worked with, took away enough of the information to be worth a PhD and to advance the state of the art. Bad news, it spooked me way too much. And there was no one else to talk to. Years later, I had a close friend dismiss those eight years of measurements as an artifact, funny, but not funny. Later I proposed a method for visualizing brain function based on collimation of scattered x-rays. Figured it would take 20 years to build and a lot of money. But having been embarrassed several times by such efforts, I left the cell biology business for good! Today, it would only take 10 years, I’m approaching 70. Taught science, computer controls, data acquisition, and robotics for 30 years, built a lot of “tangible” stuff. Still do But no more numbers only crusades!

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