Thursday, July 21, 2016

Pop Up Thinglab 6: Open Public 3D Printing And Learning

Pop Up Thinglab 6 was an open and public 3D printing workshop for anyone held in the reception of Croydon Central Library on a rolling program for people to come and go as they pleased over three hours.

The idea for this Pop Up Thinglab was to introduce the general public to 3D printing with relatively simple, friendly, accessible and cost effective "consumer" stye technologies for home use and making.

I used a Flashforge Finder 3D printer, Thingiverse web based digital design gallery for finding items to print, Tinkercad web based 3D design tool for editing and creating items to print and a selection of PLA printing filaments: redblueglow in the dark green and "wood" for printing.

I did my work, set up the 3D printer, a selection of filaments and printed objects "out front" so that everything and myself were was accessible and easy for people to interact with.

Its important for those new to 3D printing to see everything so I made a point of starting out by switching on the 3D printer and showing people how to load the filament and how to level the build plate - letting people have a go at levelling the plate. I made a point of explaining the importance of the first layer - having a level build plate, adhesion to the build plate - explaining about different types of build plate tape and about the use of a raft layer to help adhesion.

I used a USB lead to connect the 3D printer to a laptop, loaded the 3D printer software (Flashprint), loaded the 3mm Spanner from Thingiverse, added a raft and clicked to print. The 3mm Spanner is a good thing to test things out - its small and simple and if this prints OK then the build plate should be level enough and we should have enough confidence that more ambitious objects should print OK. The 3mm Spanner is a good thing to start with as it only takes about 6 minutes to print so you have something "appear before your very eyes" to see, pass around and talk about quite quickly. I use this thing to talk about how you can use a 3D printer to make useful things like tools and parts, how you can customise them in specific ways and how useful this is in times and places where you can't just go out and buy certain things - in developing nations and in remote locations such as the Arctic or in space for example.

I thought a 3D printed Butterfly Bookmark would be a good thing to print - the butterfly is the logo of inspireNshare and a 3D printed bookmark has obvious symbolism for modern libraries. I had printed it once before but for some reason this time it came out as a blob - this was good as It's important to see when things go wrong, we learn a lot from mistakes and it was useful for the group to see this and for me to reason it out and learn authentically, openly and in public with them. I was stumped for a while but noticed that for some reason the Butterfly Bookmark blob had shifted quite a bit on the build plate as if it had been knocked - I hadn't seen this before and then remembered that that while it was printing and I was talking to the group I had leaned back and sat down on the table the printer was on a few times. I came to the conclusion that leaning back and sitting on the table had vibrated the printer sufficiently to cause the thing being printed to lose adhesion to the build plate and for it to move about with the print head resulting in a blob of plastic being formed. I remember talking with some 3D printing professionals at the iMakr 3D printing show in March - we were talking about the new Gizmo super speed top down SLA DLP 3D printer and they mentioned how they were going to put them on solid stone floors as removing vibrations to the liquids and resins used in SLA printing is so crucial. All the 3D printing I had done up to this point had been on heavy tables or the kitchen worktop at home - all quite solid. This was the first time I had set up on a "normal" sort of table - reasonably stable but no where near as solid as those I had used previously and although I wasn't using resin or liquid (SLA printing) this got me thinking about the impact of vibrations on the plastic (FDM printing) we are doing with Pop Up Thinglabs. We took care not to knock the table from then on and all the subsequent prints came out fine. This failure was a very useful learning experience for me and I made a mental note to always seek out a good solid table for future 3D printing pop up Thinglabs.

Pop up Thinglabs take education out of the box - they are open and public, there are no minimum entry requirements and anyone is welcome. Pop Up Thinglab 6 had people from all backgrounds, ages ethnicity etc - from three year olds up to 73 year olds all mixed up together.

3D printing is still a niche thing with innovator, early adopter "geek", techie, makers and professionals - it has yet to "cross the chasm" to the mainstream majority of home users - the majority of whom have heard little or nothing about them and have never seen one in use. A major function of Pop Up Thinglabs is as a form of education that makes accessible experience of technologies that lay across the chasm to the mainstream of people and to widen the discussion about these technologies with everyone.

Outside the box of formal education people still have a hunger for learning - I was amazed by the number of questions people had about 3D printing ... most of which were framed as personal interest in buying, running and using one. How much is the printer, how much does it cost to print things, what can you print, where can you buy a 3D printer and the filament, what programs can you use to design your own things, how strong are the things you print etc 

It was a real joy to have families come along and to see them interact around the 3D printer and accessories. Many children have often come across 3D printing in some form at school and I often found children explaining and showing the 3D printer to their parents.

One lasting impression I have is how children were fascinated by a 3D printed spinning top - a traditional toy made with new new technology. When they asked what it was I explained that it was the type of thing children might get as a present 100 years ago ... they were fascinated and couldn't stop playing with it so I let one of the children take it away with them.

To find out more about inspireNshare Thinglab visit

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