Dog Days at The Lab

So, as July rolls into August we are 3 days into our very public 3D printer build at O2/Telefónica, and things are coming along nicely.

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Many hands made light work yesterday, we had up to 4 builders from the @TheLab_uk team and being midweek, slightly fewer people were passing by to ask us about the build, although those who did were no less keen to learn about 3D printing!


The Lab are all about solving tricky problems for O2/Telefónica with innovative solutions, and it was impressive to see them dovetail together to attack the building tasks, divvying up tiny plastic bags of components and tools to complete the building of the extruder and heated bed components that are the essence of the 3D printer.  At no point did we descend into a chaos of jumbled bits and pieces, and there were no health & safety moments (as an external contractor I removed myself from the premises to take actual flames to the shrink-wrapping, and will be armed with solder today), but we did test to the limit instructions more normally followed by hobbyists on their own time with total command of the kitchen table… in every case we were able to follow the web instructions to a satisfactory conclusion, but we had to ignore some of the photos based on earlier iterations and back up a few times, and it was fortunate that we could use my printer to add spacers for the NEMA17 extruder motors, to those supplied with the kit (it would hurt our timescale to wait to commission the printer as Mono before printing the final components as suggested).

Idiot-proofing implies you have to be an idiot to need this, but when you’re dropping in mid-build and between meetings at work, that’s the level you need things to be, so I have kept a note of feedback which will hopefully inform future builds.


So, here is the result of our handiwork to date, I expect us to substantially complete the printer today, and we look forward to commissioning it and making real some of the great ideas people have come up with tomorrow!

Be more 3D!

This week I’m based in the middle of the rather splendid corporate headquarters of  O2/Telefónica in Slough, Berkshire.  I’ve previously only visited data centres here!

I’m helping Terence, Ruth and their crack creative IT R&D squad, The Lab (@thelab_uk), to build a 3D printer.  This follows some great conversations with the team at their BarCamp Berkshire event, where I had a stand demonstrating a RepRap to attendees, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to explore the potential for 3D printing to set imaginations on fire within a major technology company.

We have chosen to build a state of the art RepRap, the Tri-colour Mendel from RepRapPro [] – it’s a high quality British-made kit and features triple extruders for enhanced colour mixing, and I hope, multi-material experimentation.

Day 1 progress yesterday was pretty good – we got the frame together:[] – reasonable progress, as we put a lot of effort into calibrating nicely as we went using the handy supplied laser-cut template as a jig – but by far the greatest part of our time went into conversations with passing members of O2/Telefónica staff about 3D printing, which was of course the point of doing it in full view in the staff café area on the ground floor of their central atrium.

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Next to our work area we set up my own open-source 3D printer, a heavily tweaked derivative of a Prusa Mendel originally supplied as a kit by Thames Valley RepRap User Group [ – build round 3 now open for new builders!] and printed a nice demo object – a mobile phone holder in the shape of a pair of hands.  This was a good choice, a playful and very human twist on the most obvious phone-related use case.

PAT on the back!  I wonder if this is a first – I was absurdly pleased to have my Mendel ‘Portable Appliance Tested’ and passed for electrical safety!    IMG_0829   IMG_0851

People were overwhelmingly curious about how the machine itself worked, many had previously heard of 3D printing and a few either owned one already or were thinking about it.  I described end to end several times the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) process employed by desktop 3D printers, but also Selective Laser Sintering, Stereolithography and other techniques available via bureau services.

My staple demonstration objects, including a Chocolate extruder [], Duplo to Brio adapter [] and my own emergency kitchen sink repair, went down well and provoked plenty of debate about the customisation of objects by end users.

Several business-minded folks cut right to the chase and asked what the case is for a telecoms company to invest in rapid prototyping of physical objects.  There are a couple of ways to answer this – firstly, it’s an emerging technology in the consumer space, and it absolutely will change the way customers interact with and think about hardware products in the long term, and permanently.  In the same way that currently effort is put into tailoring customers’ user experience of the software on their Android handsets by the leading telcos, hardware manufacturers such as Nokia are already opening themselves up to the customisation of their handsets by end users [].

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for the team at O2’s ‘The Lab’, is the need to learn as much as possible at this early stage about the ’emergent behaviour’ which occurs when you offer 3D printing capabilities, backed up by an enthusiastic team of R&D oriented geeks, to interested colleagues.  Many staff members we spoke to today will certainly have looked up tonight, which (leaving aside the open source debate) has grown from a random assortment of practical and decorative objects to a substantial repository of designs to customise, fix and ‘upcycle’ a huge variety of the objects we touch daily.  We can’t wait to see what ideas they will come back with for us to print either on my printer or The Lab’s new machine.

Day 2, today, saw steady progress in our build, with the X, Y and Z axes completed.  It’s really starting to look like a RepRap.

There was no reduction in the level of interest in our activities, if anything more folks stopped by! People were particularly interested today in how to get your digital designs in the first place.  We were able to show off yesterday’s mobile phone holder:

Hand Shaped Phone Holder 3D Printed

We printed an Android-themed USB stick case [] and used this to illustrate downloading ready-made .STL files (3D objects) and customising parametric designs made available by others.  Mash-ups of physical objects appealed to many!

I brought along an example of product customisation for accessibility – my own design of a toddler-proof grip case for an iPod touch/iPhone/Samsung phone.  It helped to entertain my 3-year-old for (parts of) a train journey to Germany without constant intervention to restart the video!


We talked about generating 3D designs from scratch in CAD software such as Sketchup, OpenSCAD, Blender… We discussed the capabilities and limitations of current 3D scanning solutions, such as structured light and laser scanning, photographic techniques such as Autodesk’s 123D Catch, and the results that can be achieved with an XBOX Kinect sensor and open source software… if you are willing to spend some time in post production tidying up your model until it is fit to be printed in 3D.  Hopefully we will have time to print a copy of Terence Eden’s head! [@edent]

Again, the reactions were thoughtful and positive.  I am looking forward to rest of our Tri-colour Mendel build over the next couple of days, and to seeing what emergent behaviour… emerges!

Check out The Lab’s blogs at, and tweet us @thelab_uk and @alexgibson3d with ideas for mobile phone related things to print.  In the spirit of O2’s ‘Be more dog’ campaign I like the look of the iWoof:

What I learned at BBC Broadcast Centre today…

…was that you should never, ever joke about a live demo going perfectly, because you’re using open-source hardware and software, right, so what can possibly go wrong?


This was an informal talk to an audience at the Beeb’s internal Knowledge Exchange, by kind arrangement with Jamie Knight and Sam Starling of Future Media & Technology.  There were nods of recognition when I name-dropped my recent meeting with Maggie Philbin of the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World and Bang Goes the Theory fame, through her excellent work with Teentech, and talked about the perils of live demo’s, before cheerfully launching into a demonstration of the end to end process of 3D printing,

We googled Thingiverse, took a look at the jaw-droppingly creative thing:113117 (TARDIS Transformer toy complete with bow tie!) which pleased many of the BBC technologists present, and selected a lego brick separator by common consent.  This I then imported into Slic3r, which made short work of the job, and into Printrun (Pronterface).  I hit print, and it began nicely, sticking to the bed first time as usual thanks to a heated bed and Faberdashery PLA.  On a roll.


I switched the big screen display from following my navigation of the software tool-chain on one laptop, to another laptop which was showing my ‘nozzle-cam’ X-axis enhancement, which gets the audience closer to the action, blowing the J-head of my RepRap up to full screen on a 50-inch TV.  They liked it!

I took some excellent questions; I was asked if I’d printed a gun, and I pointed out that I’ve owned a drill press for a decade and the instructions to make a ‘lower receiver’ with one have been around since the dawn of the internet, but only 3D printers can print you new body parts to replace the ones blown off with the resulting gun…  We talked about unusual applications for 3D printing, where privacy and the personal touch are all-important.  A few people recognised the logo on my T-shirt which was a good launch point to talk about the parallels between where the 3D printing industry is now compared to the advent of personal, desktop computing in the early 80’s.

At this point, thanks to Nozzle-cam on the very large screens behind me, an audience member politely asked if there should be plastic coming out of the extruder.  #epicfail

I’m a project manager, and had gone through a mental check-list in a short set-up time between a very pleasant lunch in the café downstairs and the start of the session, everything was plugged in, warmed up and ready to go.  All, except the filament!  I had cut the ivory stuff we were using to print the bust of Alan Turing at Mini Maker Faire Elephant & Castle, and reverted to the white I had spooled on the printer, but I hadn’t actually loaded it.  D’oh!


Ironically, and helpfully to my credibility at this point, I had previously mentioned to the group that the Mendel is a fairly stupid robot, and knows very little about its environment – the temperature of the hot end and the heated bed, and when it has hit the end-stops telling it home has been reached.  I described an enhancement I have planned to measure when it has run out of filament.  This has now jumped to the top of my priority list for usability enhancements to design.

The next problem came when I tried to re-load in front of a live audience – the Wade extruder I am using has an air gap between the pinch roller bearing and the hobbed bolt, and the 3mm hole leading to the hot end.  Filament is usually curved, and the cut end can be de-formed.  It’s tricky to thread it back in.  I successfully did this, while managing to maintain a thread of discussion with Jamie as a plant in the audience, however I didn’t extrude enough of the new filament through to prevent retraction from pulling it right back out again, and we had the same issue again. This is number 2 on my list of things to fix.

My next upgrade will be multiple extruders to take advantage of different filament properties (Another post on this soon), this will use a Bowden tube arrangement and now I will definitely make a custom extruder block, prioritising accessibility and easy filament feeding for on-the-fly filament changes – so both of these issues will be mitigated against before my next speaking engagement.

Thankfully, the session was fun and productive despite this issue stopping me from actually printing a completed object within time. I was assured by my hosts that it had been successful, sometimes seeing something go wrong can improve understanding of how it works, I kept up a description of what was happening and they are a smart bunch of people, they got it.  I’m told there may be an opportunity to hold a further workshop at the BBC, which I’d be delighted to do – armed with an updated checklist and an even more battle-ready Mendel!

3D printing outreach at Mini Maker Faire Elephant & Castle

I had a great time at my first (mini) Maker Faire today, at the London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle.

After piling 5 people and 3 3D printers into my old Volvo estate, and a lovely sunny drive to London, we arrived with just about enough time to comfortably set up and make a decent job of stitching our Maker name badges with needle and thread (yes, we were given sharp objects as soon as we walked through the door).

The plan was simple, Thames Valley RepRap User Group ( were on a mission to complete a ‘parallel’ print, a life-size bust of Alan Turing divided up into fist-sized chunks to spread across multiple printers, and meanwhile to promote our community based approach to getting people into 3D printing.

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Both were successful; we created a pile of parts of high quality*, I think we had printed Mr Turing’s chin by the end of the day, and we were notably hoarse from talking with passers-by about 3D printing, RepRap and our community.  Hopefully this will translate into additional members for our 3rd public build round, which is nearing the mark of 20 participants which will give the green light to ordering several key components in bulk.  If you are interested, a kit costs only £500 including a donation to your local hackspace, which is incredible value, especially backed by a vibrant group of enthusiasts with a depth of knowledge which has impressed me since I joined in Round 2.

[*except… right at the very end of printing the second piece I encountered a rare bug in the fantastic slic3r (0.9.9) which caused my extruder to go wild, spinning for many seconds and grinding down the filament with the hobbed bolt, so the top few millimetres of my second piece were missing, but it was still usable.  Shame, it looked lovely up until then!]

I enjoyed the opportunity to meet some of the great and the good of the UK 3D printing scene, including the lovely people at Faberdashery, who <shameless_plug> kindly supplied filament for our group print </shameless_plug>, and I hope to visit them to learn more about how their filament is produced.

I talked shop (literally) with Replicator Warehouse, who have a real, physical 3D print shop around the corner from the venue, this excited me hugely, as it’s a great platform from which to interact with the public, and I’ve toyed with the idea of a modest physical presence in a Reading shopping area.

Last but not least, I met Richard ‘RichRap’ Horne, did a bit of frankly uncool groupie hero worship and told him how much his designs have inspired me to get busy in OpenSCAD, and talked with him about my ideas to use multiple extruders for multi-material handling as well as his more artistic colour creations.  He had his own take on the delta printer running, ‘3DR’ producing a beautifully detailed vase. 3DR [] looked to be an extremely simple and elegant design, using 2 Bowden tubes, and he said that it has been very easy to calibrate – so if you are interested in building a delta 3D printer, I recommend keeping an eye out for this one.

At one point I was interviewed about 3D printing, and the crew wanted a shot of Nozzle-cam.  Highly recursive photo of this:

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With us was a table display for Reading’s Hackspace – – I’ve recently joined, so it was great to see so much interest in their exhibits, from Raspberry Pi powered undersea rover prototype to St Pancras station in ‘n’ guage.  If you aren’t already part of a hackspace, join one!

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I escaped the 3D printing area only briefly, to have a very quick look around the rest of the Mini Maker Faire.  It looked absolutely great fun, and I could probably have spent all day looking at the exhibits, if I weren’t more tightly focused on 3D printing right now – in the end I chatted with the team at Sugru, to talk about inclusion of Sugru in 3D printing, and spoke with Peter at Bare Conductive, whose conductive ink could have possibilities for inclusion in some types of 3D printed circuit.  Very disciplined and very productive – this is a great environment for thinking laterally!

Speaking of lateral thinking, I really enjoyed talking with an artist sharing our space, Paulo Goldstein.  His installation was causing some controversy but it didn’t take long to work out we were on the same page.  He had ‘fixed’ a director’s chair, missing a crucial piece of wood holding up one arm, and therefore wrecking its stability.  Paulo wanted to make the point that so many of our modern systems are overly complex, such that no-one can see where the true issues lie.  So instead of making a new wooden piece to fill the hole, he had left the gap and ‘worked around’ it, with an enormous protrusion of wood off to the side of the chair and a beautifully bonkers arrangement of tensioning strings as in a suspension bridge.  It worked, you could sit in the chair!

More beautiful was an intricate re-building of a trashed iPod shuffle, spread out across two pieces of hand-carved bone with finely crafted peg construction.  I’d personally go straight to OpenSCAD, design and  3D print a replacement shell, complete with Minkowski shape, that would be a lot closer to Sir Jonathan’s iLook, but the point was beautifully made that things do not need to be thrown away the moment they become imperfect.  Built-in obsolescence is an extravagance the planet can ill afford.  3D printing has already saved several of my household objects from the skip, and even helped to improve others.  Unscrew, upcycle, use again!


BarCamp Berkshire II

Today brought an amazing session of 3D printing outreach, at BarCamp Berkshire II, an ‘unconference’, hackathon and general congregation of geekery at the 02 Telefonica headquarters in Slough.

I had so many great conversations with people seriously interested in 3D printing, and was able to demo my RepRap in action printing TVRRUG parts.



MAKE: Adventures in 3D Printing at Oxford Uni

IMG_9224 IMG_9216Today I visited Oxford University Computing Service, to give a talk as part of their MAKE: series of lunchtime lectures



The first iteration of ‘Nozzle-cam’, a basic webcam, stripped to its PCB and attached to the back of the X-carriage, went down very well, as did the range of objects I brought along which had been 3D printed using a variety of different additive manufacturing processes, such as SLS and stereolithography, as well as FDM, and exotic new materials from Materialize, courtesy of Wendy in TVRRUG.