Sunday, October 11, 2015

M3D Micro

I'm borrowing an M3D "Micro" 3d printer this week. Finally threw together a CAD for the "10x24 caseless armor-piercing" the M41 Pulse Rifle is supposed to fire; the 3d print represents the "Nitramine 50" solid propellant and a flat-nose .40 FMC bullet is shoved in the front in a semi-telescoping format. The total length of the round is the same as the .45 ACP chambered in the M1A1 Thompson the prop weapon was build around.

In any case!

The Micro is very cute. A cube less than 8" on a side, and around $350 new. Unlike other printers near that price point it is not a kit; it goes in fact in the other direction trying (but not always succeeding) to be a plug-and-play experience.

In this lies the majority of its real flaws. The build area is small but this is not of consequence for a home printer; large builds are simply too time-consuming to attempt all in one chunk (and tend to distressingly fail right in the middle). It is slow, but that comes from the price point; you get the hot end you pay for.

What are actual issues is the firmware uses non-standard interpretation of G-code, making it almost mandatory to use the provided software. That software hides much of the functionality behind a light-weight interface, giving you idiot lights and a handful of buttons instead of diagnostic tools. And this pipeline also stands in the way of using external slicers to better tailor your g-code towards a specific print. In short, it is Macintosh-like in approach; hide the scary options behind a friendly facade.

But it fails to provide the other part of that equation. The software doesn't just run (well, it doesn't on a Mac!); it required a certain amount of under-the-hood work to get it working. However. Once I'd sudo'd the right directory links and gotten used to drag-and-drop around the broken file selection handler, it functioned without problem.

Physically, it gave me good prints right out of the box. Well; I wasn't the one that opened the box. But when I got my hands on it, I ran the calibration routine, and after solving the software the first print was good. So far, none of my prints have failed.

I am, however, currently printing out new filament spool brackets. The original design of the Micro puts the filament reel inside the base of the machine itself, which would be very neat if anyone could figure out how it works. How it actually sits isn't documented and more than one person has fiddled with it for a while without figuring out how to thread it. So never mind that.

Fortunately, this special undersized filament spool -- which M3D sells in their store -- doesn't mean this printer has taken the lamentable course of some other printers I could name, and made it so attempting to use third-party filament places you in potential violation of the DCMA. No; this printer is filament-manufacturer agnostic.

And of course Thingiverse has several pages of spool brackets (and other accessories) that you can print out to mount on top of the machine either the smaller spools supplied by M3D, or standard-sized spools. It was literally a one-click search to find them, and I'm printing one now.

I am told that it can handle other materials other than PLA, but this is apparently right at the margin of what the hot end can deal with. There is also a third-party software solution that front-ends the clever (and free) Cura (the same slicing software, actually, that is hidden and inaccessible below the Micro's hood). That software is as I understand currently in command-line format and has some bugs itself, but it is a good sign.

Another thing M3D sells is BuildTak Sheets. These also look at first glance as a "make more money from the customer" toy, but they work very well. Other users report having problems with prints pulling up, and retreating to the old standby of blue painter's tape (TechShop has moved on to glue sticks, which work very well once you get used to them) but I've completed a half-dozen prints now without a single problem with the first BuildTak sheet from the package.

So it is a decent printer for someone who doesn't want to deal with a lot of start-up complexity. It will more-or-less print out of the box, and aside from some minor software and hardware issues it will do the job of plug it in and just print. And the print quality and speed are acceptable. Support could be better; it took an hour of reading the forums to solve the Mac compatibility issues, and that's something M3D really should have fixed themselves if they want to offer it as plug-and-play.

As for me? Well, this printer is getting me through a current project (the M41 Caseless) but I have the MakerBots at TechShop for most quick turn-around printing needs and of course Shapeways for the bigger stuff (and stuff that needs either higher quality, different materials, or things that can't be achieved without more support structure than I'd like to be printing on a PLA machine).

Incidentally, several test M41A Caseless printed now, but the tan color isn't working for me. I'm going to try Tamiya's Olive Drab 2 again. Of course, this shot was taken in Rosco #22 and quad layers of Rosco #65, so green doesn't render well....

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