Category Archives: The Forge

The Joy Of Rex

TL;DR summary: Lowpoly design is a reflection of modern artists’ nostalgia for 90s video games. Also, get off my lawn. Also also, download Rex’s pram here.

Months ago I designed Robber Rex as a replacement robber token for Settlers of Catan when we lost our original. He is, inexplicably, one of the more popular designs to emerge from The Forge in recent history.

In an effort to exsplick Rex’s success, I present a theory as to why low-poly design seems to be sweeping the 3D printing community lately and it boils down to nostalgia.

Robber Rex

With no statistics or evidence to the contrary I’ll posit that the median age of artists doing enough 3D design work to get noticed by sites like Thingiverse and Pinshape is somewhere around 30 years old. Maybe a little younger.

These people would have been preteens right smack dab in the middle of the 90’s, when games like Quake and Final Fantasy VII were top-of-the-line entertainment. By today’s standards the polycounts of character models in these games were miniscule– I think a Quake character maxxed out somewhere around 200 triangles.

I’m convinced that many of us want to be twelve again, when we were at the top of our game as kids but not yet at the bottom of the ladder as teenagers. Life was pretty good back then, before the acne and taxes and hangovers and freaky stalker exes. It was all Crash Bandicoot, all the time, and maybe a Capri Sun after school with a little not-too-challenging math homework on the side.

It’s natural that these aging children of the 90’s would recreate the entertainment they loved so much as children, the same way their recent predecessors swept 3D design with 8-bit skeuomorphisms a couple of years ago. See here Moore’s Law, writ in plastic.

The current popularity of Minecraft will undoubtedly produce interesting design trends among the designers of 2030, who will be chipping meta-retro lowpoly designs from the silica mines to please our ever-demanding AI overlords.

Having worked through the tail end of this low-poly period, I’m familiar with the design compromises brutally enforced by the video cards of the day. My first gig as a video game artist had a poly limit of 150 per character. Our models were angular at best and blocky at worst, and you can bet your bippy I nearly wet myself with delight the first time I saw a bump map on a realtime shader.

And I had an onion tied to my belt, which was the style at the time.

So, freed now from the design constraints that marked my early career, I’ve got a habit of reveling in gratuitous geometry. Rex is anomaly in my portfolio. He’s low-poly (-ish, there are still microbevels you couldn’t get away with in 1998), totally unlike creations like the Bramble Bloxen.

Bloxen, Bramble

Yeah, that’s like over 200K polygons right there.

But we’re big fans of Giving The People What They Want here at Zheng Labs, and The People clamored for a low-poly sequel to Robber Rex.

pram

So I designed a print-in-place pram for Rex and his newphew, Pip. You can read a quick story about Rex and Pip here, but be warned: the language is a little salty and likely isn’t appropriate for our younger readers.

prototypes

Maintaining the low-poly style was easy, but getting the wheels to turn reliably on a print-in-place model took a dozen prototypes and test prints. The numbers on the sides of the pram are cylinder diameters: the trick is to leave enough clearance between wheel and bearing that the wheels can turn, but not so much that the wheels fall out. 6.3 is too small– the first layer of plastic oozes together and locks the wheel in place. 7.5 is a little too loose, which makes the wheels wobble all over the place.

Oh, and here’s Pip. He’s almost an afterthought in this design, just a little low-poly hatchling tucked into his stroller for a day at the park.

pip

There’s a new design bubbling in the cauldron, and it’ll be out in a couple of weeks. #staytuned. It’s-a-gonna-be-big. Lao Zheng out.

It’s a hoot! A 3D-Printed Superb_owl

Superb_owl

Folks really seemed to enjoy last week’s Settlers of Catan Robber, and what with the Super Bowl coming up and my having a 3D model of a football helmet just sitting around on Ye Olde Harde Drive, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remix it.

You can download this superb_owl for free right here. If you print one, tweet me a photo with hashtag #superb_owl on Super Bowl Sunday.

Better yet, Instagram dat shizz. All the kids with their hippity-hop and fleeky fleeks are on the Instagram, bae.

Superb_owl wouldn’t exist without the Thingiverse user cushwa’s excellent Owl statue, remixed many, many times by other artists. Thanks, cushwa, for all your hard work.


Almost forgot to mention: roughly a fortnight remains in Zheng Labs’ 3D printing Kickstarter funding period! We could use a boost.

We’re crowdfunding Faire Play 2: A Barbie-compatible 3D printed Roman chariot that can, in theory, be pulled by cats. If you haven’t backed yet, go throw it a coupla-tree bucks.

One Week to Go until Kickstarter #2

Hello, all, and Happy New Year!

Mistake not the quietude in this tiny corner of 3D printing blogistan for a lack of activity. We’ve been hard at work applying the jeweler’s rouge to Zheng3 Kickstarter #2. All ducks have been rowed, i’s dotted, t’s crossed, p’s and q’s duly minded, and we’re just about ready to hit the shiny, candylike LAUNCH button.

Which, barring unforeseen tragedies, we will do on the morning of January 13, 2015.

Join The Horde for a zero-day notification of this event, hot and steaming from the kobold-powered printing presses in the basement of Zheng Labs.

In celebration of our one-week pre-launch milestone, I’ve created and released the following Catan-compatible T. rex model. Enjoy! More models like Robber Rex are, of course, available for free download in The Forge.

The Forge >Baubles >Robber Rex

Robber Rex

Robber Rex

Designed by Zheng3
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This is a T. rex replacement for your Settlers of Catan robber. Enjoy the carnage and mayhem and sweet crunching of tiny Catanese bones every time you pull a seven in the world’s favorite resource-allocation board game. RAWWWWWWWRR!

But first, my friends, a tale. A tale of misery and woe, and of 3D printing, and ultimately of redemption.


Christmas came and went here at Zheng Labs, and as is our custom the boardgames were drawn from storage and placed into service, to amuse the ever-patient elders who aren’t so into the Minecrafting and the Guild Wars 2 as are their grandchildren

Imagine the shock and dismay and the heartbroken looks on the wee little faces when our Catan box was revealed to have no Robber within!

There was wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. The holiday turducken turned to ash in our mouths.

High and low we searched, under bookcases and couch cushions, between the stuffed animals and inside cans and cartons of Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs and K’Nex and LEGO and Thomas The Tank Engine sets long since mothballed, but the crafty Robber was nowhere to be found.

Dejected, exhausted, we can only assume the Robber has absconded with his ill-gotten booty and is now living like a king in Patagonia.

A d20 was pressed into service as an ersatz Robber token, but we do not tolerate half measures or temporary hacks at Zheng Labs.

We. Do. Not.

So.

To the printer.

Appleton Maker Fest

Appleton, Wisconsin is the nicest little city you’ve never heard of. Along with low crime rates and a thriving local music scene, it’s home to Lawrence University, a Harry Houdini museum with an interactive straightjacket exhibit, and the first Edison hydroelectric plant in the United States. Last weekend the Appleton Maker Space hosted their first Maker Fest.

makerfest

The Appleton Maker Space is tucked back in a mostly-underutilized commercial space off the west end of Appleton’s main drag, just the kind of location where you’d expect a hackerspace to be gestating.

Bonus: AMS is right across the street from some of the finest deep-dish pizza in town.*

Pizza wasn’t needed this day because, being that this is Wisconsin, the Appleton Maker Space provided a bratwurst concession for peckish attendees.

Our coastal and international readers should be aware that no event in Wisconsin can be held without at least thirty pounds of bratwurst in attendance. Pretty sure it’s in the state constitution.

The space was packed with dedicated Makers– I’ll leave it to their website to point out all the cool hardware they’ve got over there. Here’s one corner of the event, complete with the obligatory LAN party of kids playing Minecraft.

makerspace

Amid the chaos one usually associates with a makerspace’s being open to the chaos, someone was personalizing a banana for a younger attendee by etching her name into the skin. Of all the projects I’ve ever envisoned for a laser cutter, this’d be about the last one I’d ever come up with. Fantastic idea. I’d totally personalize all my bananas if we had a laser cutter at Zheng Labs.

banana

Show and tell time arrived and the assembled crowd asked for an “ominous puffy doll” to be modeled and printed on one of the RepRaps. I already had the laptop out so I fired up Maya and made this little guy. Concept to execution in ten minutes.

first pass

Later on I buffed out some of the stray vertices and cut a hole in the back so that Ominous Puffy can stick to your fridge with the addition of a neodymium magnet.

ominous puffy

You can download Ominous Puffy from his page in The Forge.

Heads up, badgers. I’ll be blogging, tweeting, and instagramming the ever-living snot out of Maker Faire Milwaukee in a couple of weeks, so if you’d like to meet up IRL and geek out over filament diameters drop me a line.

* deep dish isn’t pizza. New York style is pizza. Bring it, haters.

Zheng’s Garden Guardian

zhengs garden guardian

downloadNecessity! Mother of invention and all that. One could, I suppose, just jam a wooden stake into the ground to prevent a garden hose from raking over one’s flowerbeds, but that would lack panache and, worse, deprive one of an opportunity to use a 3D printer and Bondo on the same project.

The first step in this design is grabbing a horse head off Thingiverse and modify it to suit my purposes. The original is almost exactly what I need, and with just a couple of tweaks I can have it atop my new garden guardian.

knight original

First, that mane! This chess piece was designed as part of an OpenGL chess application, and is by necessity low-polygon. Selecting just the mane and deleting the faces is pretty easy, and then it’s just a matter of closing up the holes.

remove mane

I’ll add a lattice to re-pose the horse so he’s got a more regal bearing: less Mr. Ed and more Seabiscuit. Normally the overhang under the chin would be a huge printing problem, but I’ll be splitting this model in half down the middle before printing. The only overhang I’ll need to be concerned with is the ears.

knight lattice

And it probably makes sense to smooth the model a bit at this point. Sometimes a one-size-fits-all smoothing algorithm can obscure important details, but I need some extra vertices so I can bump out the cheeks and nostrils.

knight smoothed

I’ve always been partial to the stylized manes on Tang Dynasty horse sculptures, so butch mohawk of awesome it is for this piece. Now he looks like Kallark the Gladiator as I start to sculpt his cheeks with Maya’s sculpt geometry tool.

cheeks

Scratch that, I think he’s starting to resemble Benedict Cumberbatch. Must be the flared nostrils.

cumberbatch 1

The mane is looking a little blah and not very Tang dynasty, so I add some detail and some stylized bristle.

fancy mane

It’s easy to whip up a fluted cylinder for the base, and I rob a few bits from my Curtain Rod Bracket, +1 for the coiled rings at the top and bottom of the cylinder. They’ll help to catch a garden hose and keep it on the guardian.

fluted

Then I’ll split the model down the middle and carve out a nail-shaped recess before printing.

half

You can get one of these spikes at pretty much any hardware store.

nail

Once the halves have been glued together, all one needs is a little Bondo to fill the seam before painting.

bondo

And then of course there’s sanding and buffing, and undercoating and overcoating and a second coat of paint and all the stuff one needs to do to make this look less like plastic. The rest of the post-production process is well-documented on my Instagram, including but not limited to the old straighten-out-the-PLA-by-putting-the-model-on-a-warm-skillet trick.

Squelching Squigs

Squigs. Sometimes we get them when 3D printing with extruded filament. Usually they’re the result of too steep an overhang in a model; there’s not enough shelf on layer X for the printer to lay down another layer of plastic on layer X+1, and gravity pulls the newly extruded filament downwards.

A squig is born. Small squigs are usually just an aesthetic issue, but larger ones will cause your print to be touched by His Noodly Appendage and then you’ve got a build plate full of plastic ramen. Not good.

I’ve entered into mass production of the Athena Makeover Kit as Faire Play rewards, and I’ve discovered a small problem. Every few prints something on the printer goes to Wally World and the spear’s clip gets all squiggy.

The clip’s strength is compromised and besides, it just looks fugly.

clip squig

Some of these Athena Makeover Kits are destined for the hands of folks who have never seen a 3D print in their lives. We can’t be giving them a bad impression of the technology’s capabilities.

Fortunately, it’s an easy fix. I’ve updated the clip to be just a little thicker at its junction with the shaft, which both makes it sturdier and eliminates the squig spawning grounds.

clip after

I also added a little bullnose between the shaft and clip, because I find 90° angles at transitional edges between volumes to be unlovely.

bullnose

Printing With Steel on the Printrbot Simple

printrbot

One of the most popular pages on this blog is Calibrating the Printrbot Simple. To be honest I haven’t been using my Simple much lately, what with the hullabaloo surrounding my Barbie-Compatible 3D printed armor Kickstarter. Just don’t have the time.

My mental juice can’t be occupied by all Kickstarter, all the time, so I took a few hours to mess around with Mr. Simple, and I decided to try an experiment that’s long been tugging at my frontal lobes. Can I print something recognizable, in metal, using my Printrbot simple and some clever engineering?

There are hobbyist metal printers on the way. I saw Vader Systems’ prototype at Maker Faire NYC, and can’t wait to get one of these bad boys into the basement at Zheng Labs.

But! Enough wishful thinking. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

I’m using baling wire for this project. You can get this stuff at any hardware store. Just make sure it’s not galvanized, because that can give off some nasty zinc fumes when it’s heated up. Also, I highly advise wearing protective gear.

wire

warning Attempt this project at your own risk! There is an excellent chance that you’ll completely junk your Printrbot, or at least melt the plastic collar at the top of the extruder nozzle. Have a fire extinguisher handy, just in case. Goggles, gloves, the whole nine yards. Be smarter than I was: under no circumstances should you down three mimosas before trying this, no matter how much fun you were having at brunch.

As a precaution, you’ll also want to cover the print bed in fire-retardant tape, unless you’re willing to deal with a flaming Printrbot.

I’m planning on doing this repeatedly, so I replaced the Printrbot Simple’s print bed with a piece of asbestos tile instead. Yay for Open Source!

I just redid the kids’ room with asbestos tile and had some left over. It’s cheap and durable and I can’t believe people just throw this stuff away. Watch this space for a blog post about turning old asbestos tile into cutting boards; I’ll be putting them on Etsy once I’ve cut a dozen of them or so.

Temperature is everything here and you’ll have to move quickly once you start, so be sure to have your gCode pre-generated. Don’t waste time slicing the model before you print.

Preheat the extruder as high as you can get it. I managed to get mine up to 275°C by disabling the firmware safeties and working under heat lamps in the basement. (Printrbot firmware hacking is a topic for another day.)

Even 275°C is way too low for melting steel, so you’ve got to help the Simple across the finish line by heating your baling wire up with a propane torch. Depending on the alloy of your wire that means somewhere around 1400°C, which should be within the range of a hardware store torch.

tip

Start the print and gently feed the hot wire into the Simple’s extruder. I epoxied a steel washer onto the collar of the extruder nozzle to protect it from the hot wire. Don’t lick the glowy part!

The print was a miserable failure, just your typical tangle of filament touched by His Noodly Appendage, ramen. This is what happens when you leave steel prints unattended:

print failure

The second time through I stayed with the print, keeping the propane flame focused on the wire as extruder pulled it in.

feed

With just a little filing and polishing the nose ring looks way better than I expected it to. Not bad for a printer kit that retails for $300, even if I did have to babysit the print the entire time.

yurenjiekuaile

Permit me a brief foray into my other hobby, studying Mandarin Chinese. It’s a remarkably concise language, so cramming the entire One Ring poem (to find them, bind them, yadda yadda yadda) onto the side of the ring is easy peasy lemon squeezy.

You can compress the whole poem into five characters, 愚人节快乐. Way fewer than required in the Black Speech of Mordor.

Flagrant stagecraft alert: I printed the ring and nose separately and welded them together afterwards; I haven’t tried printing anything with support yet.

You can download the STL files for the nose ring in the Baubles section of The Forge, or if you’re impatient or don’t have a 3D printer just grab one from Shapeways.

Pro tip: I found that copying my gCode into OpenOffice, coloring it pure red (#FF0000), and then re-pasting it back into Repetier-Host helped me get the extruder nozzle up to 282°C the second time around.