Hardware Heaven

Hardware Heaven

On June 1st 2014 we started white-boarding ideas to figure out how we could enable colour 3D printing. Since then we've gone through four different prototypes, with hundreds of component iterations inbetween.

We want to show you how our product went from white board to an (almost) production ready prototype, and give you a bit of inside information about what went into its creation.

Prototype 1: The Wood Box

We needed a proof of concept that what we were trying to create was achievable. At this stage it was a delicate balance between cutting corners to finish the prototype quicker but not to move too fast that the unit didn't have a fair chance of working. In hindsight we took our time with this unit but it was worth it because we learned a lot along the way; but most importantly we proved the concept.

Around 80% of The Wood Box was made of 3D printed parts. The rest was comprised of various stepper motors, control boards, actuators, and custom machined parts. It "worked" in the sense that 1 in 10 tries you could get three splices in a row. The filament would always catch on the connection points, jamming the box and creating a nice plastic mess for us to clean up.

Prototype 1: The Wood Box

We did end up feeding some of these splices through a printer and were able to create a striped keychain made up of multiple colours. This keychain remains in our office to this day, it seems like a small achievement in the grand scheme of things, but it still means the world to our team.

The Wood Box was a success in the sense that it gave us the proof of concept we needed to continue to work on our technology; it also gave us respect for the challenges that lay ahead.

Prototype 2: The Black Box

This is the box that you're all so familiar with, the box that graces the front page of our site. The Black Box started off performing similar to The Wood Box, but over the course of a few months we were able to single out all of the problems occuring in the system and solve them one by one.

The Black Box is also the first time we realized that we needed to create a measurement system for the filament. We call this the "scroll wheel," it tells the box how much filament the printer is using, and how much filament the box needs to create.

The scroll wheel is what lets the printer and the box stay in sync, its our way of talking to the printer without actually tying into the electronics. Cross platform compatibility has always been a huge goal of ours, the scroll wheel is one of the key systems we developed that enabled us to reach this goal.

Prototype 2: The Black Box

Early in The Black Box's development our software quickly caught up to our hardware and was now able to interpret slicer information to determine where to place each colour, or material, in the model. This let us create objects with in-layer colour changes, one of the things we've been chasing since day one.

We printed an embedded circuit with this box, and upped the number of inputs from two to three. Both of these things served as further proof that we were on to something.....

We had knocked off our proof of concept, had designed a prototype that could complete live, in-layer prints. So whats next?

Even though The Black Box functioned well, it still remained around 50% comprised of 3D printed parts. The Black Box was not scalable in terms of manufacturing, so this was our next step. We also wanted to make it more user friendly, as well as much smaller.

Prototype 3: The Blue Box

This box is made to be created en-masse using scalable manufacturing processes, and has been optimized to build on all of the lessons that we learned from The Black Box, and The Wood Box. A major focus was also placed on miniaturization and significantly improving the precision of the linear filament control systems. For the first time it was close enough to an end user product that we could focus on the user interface and overall user experience.

Prototype 3: The Blue Box

We also added another input to this box for a total of four filaments, instead of three. The Blue Box is the definition of our functional, prototype (in constrast to an aesthetic prototype). The scroll wheel was also revamped and optimized to minimize friction from the filament and allow it to track filament movement much more accurately. Overall performance was also enhanced allowing for quieter operation and a 30% increase in the maximum splicing speed.

Prototype 4: The White Box

So far we've gone from proof of concept, through reliability engineering, through design for manufacturing processes.

Whats left?

Optimization and aesthetics.

We don't want to just give you something that works well, we want to pair beauty with functionality to make sure you get the whole package, and you're proud to have our product on your desk.

With that in mind we started to develop an aesthetic package for our product that wouldn't make us compromise on any of its reliability, features, or increase its size.

That's how we came up with The White Box, check out a sneak peek below.

Prototype 4: The White Box

Whats next?

We're doing some optimization around the materials used for the casing, and working to get our manufacturing partnerships lined up. We expect that the size, and shape of the final product will remain very similar to The White Box.

Reliability testing is another one of our top priorities both in house and with the help of some local print centers. We want to get thousands of hours of printing in to tease out any areas that could use improvement or be made more robust both in software and hardware.

We're working on getting some awesome prints ready for our crowd source campaign, as well as testing everything on various printers as well as with different print materials.

Our campaign is aimed near the middle of April, we're going to be releasing the final specs of the product during this time. We have worked tirelessly to pack a ton of capability into our product but have also dreamed up some stretch goals that we really hope we can work together to hit.

Oh yeah, we're also finally going to tell you what its called when we launch....

Stay tuned for more updates!