Category Archives: review

Beholden to The Next Thing

Here at Zheng Labs we are busy, as always, working on the Next Thing. The Next Thing is our white whale. It is our golden hind. Our Sisyphus’ boulder. Our El Guapo. It is all of these, and more.

And for us there shall always be a Next Thing, until we are from this earthly womb untimely ripp’d, and the Next Thing, still unfinished, taunts us as we rage against the dying of the light.

And so it was the pursuit of the Next Thing that caused the recent lack of posts at Zheng3.com, and we failed at achieving the Next Thing anyways, and so the Next Thing has become a Last Thing, consigned to the Hopper of Good Ideas That Must Unfortunately Be Backburnered, and we’ll move on to the (next) Next Thing.

next thing

The (last) Next Thing involved lots of voltage dividers and photoresistors and lasers and conduit. Too bad it didn’t work out.

But before we approach the (next) Next Thing, which of course involves parrots and neodymium, we must address an issue that’s been subordinate to the (last) Next Thing for some time. To wit: 3d-Fuel’s Algae-Fuel PLA.

Some backstory: some time ago I ordered a roll of ColorFabb yellow PLA/PHA from PrintedSolid. Nice folks that they are, PrintedSolid threw in a short sample of algae-based PLA for me to test, presumably with the expectation that I would do so posthaste.

Alas, PrintedSolid failed to account for the siren song of the (last) Next Thing, and test prints with Algae-Fuel were unfortunately delayed while I was repeatedly punched in the face, neck, and liver by the (last) Next Thing for the better part of two months.

Pros for Algae-Fuel: it’s compostable, biodegradable, and, best of all, sustainable. The feedstock (algae! will wonders never cease?) can be grown without using huge tracts of land.

Cons: Typical of filaments with infused particles, it can be a little stringy if you’re not tweaking your print settings from regular PLA.

Take a gander at this photo of The Beast. The beast is designed to print without support on an FDM printer, though it didn’t seem to care much for Algae-Fuel.

beast

Prolly shoulda printed an Ooze instead.

UPDATE 7-11-15: Upon receiving some advice from PrintedSolid, I dropped the temperature of my print from 220°C to 180°. I’m almost out of Algae-Fuel at this point, so I designed a little stringing test STL and gave it a go. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

side by side

The results are definitely improved. Still a little stringing, but nothing like what we saw printing the Beast at 220°. Now back to yesterday’s post.

Other cons: It’s more expensive than your typical PLA’s, and it smells a little funky.

Algae-Fuel is better used in prints without so much open space, like this owl from Thingiverse:

owl

Sharp-eyed readers will note that this is not a Yoda head. Stop printing Yoda heads, people.

You’ll see a little bit of stringing between the owl’s ears and around the beak, but overall the print’s looking pretty good. The final texture is slightly rough, like very fine sandpaper. It’s quite pleasant to handle.

What does algae at 220° C smell like? Strangely enough, like burnt coffee beans. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s definitely noticeable. Ventilate your makerspace well and passers-by will think you’re running a semicompetent java house.

You can purchase Algae-Fuel at PrintedSolid.com.

#staytuned for updates on the (next) Next Thing. Soon.

You Say You Want Some Evolution: Type A Machines Series 1

Longtime readers of this blog will know that, except for a few dalliances with a Printrbot Simple Beta, I’ve been working with a MakerBot Replicator1 since, like, forever. Lately Zheng Labs has been ramping up for Kickstarter #2, and I realized I’d been spending more time tweaking an aging bot than designing and iterating prints. So I did the research, made some calls, bit the bullet, got my ducks in a row, and finally purchased a 2014 Series 1 printer from Type A Machines.

series 1

Photo credit: Type A Machines.

Let’s be completely fair in this comparison– I’m juxtaposing a 2012 vintage machine made of plywood and hobby motors with a sleek new 2014 acrylic and steel bucket o’ hotness. It’s not a fair comparison by any stretch, but if nothing else it’ll help show how far prosumer 3D printing has come in the last two years.

We’re in the late Carboniferous here, folks. If MakerBot Industries got us out of the primordial soup and onto dry land, TypeA Machines has us fornicating in the ferns and laying hard-shelled eggs.

There’s still a long way to go before we fly, but boy howdy have we made some big leaps since 2012.

This particular Rep1 has 957 documented hours of printing, not including the gods-know-how-many-hours I printed before the original Mightyboard melted a year ago. It’s been through a few nozzle replacements and an extruder upgrade during that time.

I haven’t even owned the Series 1 for 957 hours. How’s it going to hold up over time? Same? Different? Better? Worse? Who knows. But let’s dive in for a first look.

side by side

Cost Comparison

A Replicator1 in inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars is $2,208.09 in 2014. The TypeA machines 2014 Series 1 is $2,749.00 today. That $500 difference quickly evaporates when one considers that (time==money), and every minute you’re not spending with a jammed extruder is a minute you could be working on the Next Big Thing.

The Unboxening

The Series 1 arrived at Zheng Labs in a fracking HUGE box, 24″ on a side. It’s well protected in some serious closed-cell foam and includes a bunch of accessories and tchotckes including, but not limited to, a cute little print removal spatula and an Elmers’ glue stick. More on the glue stick later.

Assembly ain’t rocket science; all you’re doing is attaching a couple of acrylic panels to the sides of the machine for aestheics and ventilation. You’ll need less than 10 minutes and the included hex wrench. Note: assembly time may be reduced by temporarily removing all cats from the work area.

inspector

Setup

Once the printer’s all put together the next step is getting it to talk to your other devices. Type A Machines helpfully includes a short cat-5 cable for this purpose.

Plug in the ethernet cable, turn the printer on, and then connect to the printer using your browser of choice. Lo and behold, it works after some fiddling. Expect to spend about ten minutes doing this the first time, especially if you’re an impatient type who power-cycles any electronics that don’t respond within seconds. (guilty, as charged.) The fine print on the Quick Start guide clearly says the Series 1 might need five minutes to recombobulate after a network change.

Initially I had some trouble connecting to the printer over the network, but those problems went away after I ssh’d to the printer once. Coincidence? Who knows. Connections are working flawlessly now and have been for days.

Once the printer’s connected it’s controlled with Octoprint, a web-based interface for 3D printing.

Pre-print prep

The bed-leveling bugbear haunted my experience with the Replicator1 for years. If you don’t get your print bed leveled properly, your print doesn’t stick and you’re left holding a frustrating bag of fail. Over time I’ve gotten super-proficient at getting the Rep1 level, but it’s a tedious process. Sometimes it takes five or ten minutes to get it right.

Not so with the Series 1. You home the Z axis from Octoprint and then turn ONE KNOB. That’s it. Leveling takes less than a minute and you’re ready to go.

bff

This. This knob. This knob is my new BFF.

BONUS: The Series 1 has wifi! I prised the iPad from the kids’ grimy hands and repurposed it as a printer control device. It’s fun to stand in front of the machine like a manager with a clipboard. It’s also easier than running to and fro across the room to my desktop machine to control the print head.

ipad

I’ve since started using an iPhone to control the printer, because it’s easier to hold up one-handed while I’m leveling the bed.

wish_list.append('mobile CSS for Octoprint')

Print controls are clear and straightforward; upload gCode to the printer and hit print. The printer’s got about 5GB of free space on it, so you’ll be able to store all kinds of models right on the machine.

On generating gCode: you’ll need to download Cura for TypeA Machines to slice your models. More on that software in another post.

wish_list.append('Cura for iOS')

First Print

You’ve got two options for getting your prints to adhere to the build platform; painters’ tape or a glue stick. Let’s try the glue stick because it’s NEW! and DIFFERENT! At least to me it is.

No special skills required, just rub down the print area with the (included) glue stick and wait for the glue to dry. One could cover the entire bed with glue, but in the interest of Yankee frugality I just painted the center of the platform.

I’m using my preferred PLA for this print.

Wait five or ten minutes for the glue to dry and then hit print. Rep1 users will be familiar with the happy burble and kachunkachunks of a hobbyist bot. The Series 1 sounds completely different; it whirrs all sleek-like while it homes, like the opening few seconds of a Front 242 riff.

(Front 242 is Daft Punk for old people, kids.)

Ten minutes later we’ve got ourselves a Seej pennon.

flag

Note that this flag prints in pieces– I’ve yet to find an FDM printer that will handle that 90° overhang.

After a couple of prints with a glue stick the print bed starts looking like eczema. The rash wipes off with a damp rag and then you’re back to a pristine surface.

eczema

Print #2
Let’s use the go-to challenge print, the Beast Token. It’s got lots of fine details and almost-impossible overhangs, so let’s see what the Series 1 can do with it, this time on painter’s tape at at .06mm layer height.

I’ll be honest though, putting painters’ tape on a printer this pretty feels like slapping a bumper sticker on a Bentley.

beast token typeA

Niiiiiiiice. The .06mm layer height brings out the details in this model. You can see a little bit of stringing here and there, but I suspect that’s a slicing issue. Not a bad job handling the forked tail, either.

These small prints worked out well so I ran the printer on a gargantuan 22-hour print job. I’ll have to keep my cards close to vest here with regard to content except to say that the print succeeded and I’m thrilled with the results. The final technical hurdle in Zheng3 Kickstarter #2 has been cleared by the Series 1.

Downsides to the Series 1

In all, the Series 1 is a great printer, so I’ve really had to scrutinize my arm fur to pick enough nits for this part of the post. Here they are.

No heated bed. Yet. I’ll lemonade this lemon; printing with ABS isn’t really my bag anymore. I’ve never cared for the odors and I’m not printing parts that require strength, so printing in PLA only is OK.

Mitigating factor: Type A Machines was kind enough to include a roll of ProtoPasta’s High-Carbon PLA in the box for those who’d like a little more oomph in their prints. I’ll evaluate this stuff in a later post.

Also: Cura For Series 1 doesn’t run on OSX 10.6.8 and likely never will due to Apple’s discontinuing support for the 10.6.8 SDK. Sooner or later I’ll move out of my mud-walled yurt and upgrade my main workstation to a modern OS, but for now I just need to slice on one of the 37 other computing devices at Zheng Labs. On the upside I’m getting some cardio by running up and down the stairs a few times a day.

Mitigating factor: Type A Machines’ support has been friendly, prompt, and well, supportive about my admittedly edge case OS conundrum.

In Conclusion:

I’ve thrown all kinds of prints at the Series 1, trying to get it to fail. So far, it’s been very reliable.

Everyday prints (Seej bloxen, catapults, and the like) come off the print bed every time, with no mid-print failures, filament jams, or PLA ramen clouds.

Finally! This morning I had a filament break below the drive gear where one can’t grab it with a pair if pliers. Normally I’d take apart the extruder, clear the jam, and then reassemble. That’s easily a 15 minute job on a Rep1 that throws everything out of calibration.

Series 1? Just feed more filament into the extruder. It’s back online in less than a minute.

Later today I’m going to throw an entire Faire Play armor set at the printer, all at once, just to see how the machine handles it.

As always, #staytuned, my friends. Exciting ride ahead.

Hands on with Blokify

TL;DR Summary: If it’s not a federal crime to give away an app this fun for free, it should be.

We’ve been busy here at Zheng Labs since the turn of the new year. It’s a bit of an open secret among the 3Dprinting cognoscenti that I’ve got a 3d printing Kickstarter in the works; the duergar eat and sleep at the Forge these days, prototypes of prototypes are drafted and printed at a breakneck pace, and if the bellows withstand the strain and the flow of anthracite remains steady we should have something ready for public consumption in a month or two. Sooner, hopefully, rather than later.

Here’s a teaser image. #staytuned, #watchthisspace, and #allthatjazz.

teaser

But! It can’t all be long-term projects at Casa de Zheng, lest the six or seven malcontents who follow this blog lose interest and wander off into Mirkwood. So let me dig into an app I’ve been wanting to play with for a while: Blokify.

opening

Blokify is designed to make crafting 3D models kindergarten-easy. There’s only so many ways one can build with cubes, after all, so I see some Minecraft influence here, but the designers have eschewed the ultra-low-resolution aesthetic in favor of nicely-designed, toony blocks.

If you’d like to get Lao Zheng on a get-off-my-lawn rant, ask me how Minecraft’s (WASD && voxels) method of 3D modeling leaches poison into the young minds of the next generation of CAD UI designers. Thanks mucho, Notch.

The flowing river is a nice touch. The pleasant music puts me into a building mood.

Kid-level software needs to be crazy intuitive as far as I’m concerned, so I just jump right in to the app without reading any startup guides or watching tutorials. The first UI element I poke the cobblestone block in the upper right corner. This brings up a bunch of other blocks that I can use, but for now I think I’ll stick with basic stone.

blocks

I turn my attention to the gubbins in the lower left corner. It looks it might be a camera navigation tool, so maybe it’ll orbit the camera around building area. Turns out it does something else, to which I’ll return shortly. But I still have to figure out how to move my camera around before I can build anything of consequence.

I recall that I don’t live in 1995 anymore and I’m holding a device that responds to swipes and multitouch, and start doing that. Touch with one finger to pan the camera, multitouch to orbit. Pinch to zoom. Ok, now we got this.

Tap the helpfully-checkerboarded ground to place a block and it drops onto the field with a meaty thunk. Tap the top of the first block and a second attaches with a satisfying crunch. In a few seconds you’ve got a field full of stone blocks. Sometimes blocks fly in from the sides of the field, their origin determined by some algorithmic sorcery. The sound effects really make this app entertaining. CRUNCH! THUNK! SNAP! Every block addition creates a little puff of dust.

first build

I could do this all day.

The edges of the checkerboard and an invisible ceiling limit a build to 13x13x13 blocks. Some non-triskadekaphobic over at Blokify likes primes, apparently.

Touch and hold a block for a bit and one can swipe to make a row or column. Swiping blocks into existence is fun and clicky-clacky.

horizontal

Touch and hold a little longer and the block crumbles into nothingness.

The circle in the lower left corner turns out to be an undo queue. Scrub counterclockwise and watch your model undo itself in time, then scrub clockwise to restore it.

The medieval themed blocks I’m working with naturally remind me of Seej bloxen. So I’ll make one of those.

A Seej bloxen is roughly 5x3x3cm. If I assume each Blokify block is 1cm, I’ll have to make a double-scale bloxen to get enough resolution to make the mortises underneath. Scaling the bloxen down later is trivial.

But first a few thoughts on the building process. It’s very easy to just tap tap tap the bloxen into existence, although here and there I have a bit of trouble hitting the hotspots on the sides of blocks when I need to make an overhang. It’s easier (and more fun) to sketch out my empty volume with a few wooden support blocks, and then destroy them later.

bloxen supports

I want this Blokify bloxen to be backwards-compatible with existing Seej bloxen, which means the tenons on top need to be aligned down the x-axis. Unfortunately there’s no way to put a Blokify block halfway between two others, so centered tenons are impossible with a 6-block wide bloxen.

blocks

I was looking for an opportunity to bring the model into Maya anyway, so I’ll do my vertex surgery there.

The export is two taps away through an email attachment, and it’s on my desktop in a few seconds. Well played, Blokify.

For most folks, this is where the creation ends and the printing begins, but I’ve got some edits to make and I’d like to poke around the polygons for a bit.

Here’s my first surprise; the textures on the blocks are actual geometry! The stones here are bumped out a bit and tile nicely.

into maya

The second surprise is a little less exciting: the are some long, thin, nasty-looking polygons at the junctions between blocks. Polys like these make editing a model difficult. Down this path lie non-manifold geometry and madness, so approaching these goblins with a keen eye and a keener blade is in order.

In my humble assessment Blokify doesn’t deserve to have this feature held against it, though; the subset of users who are going to edit these models in a third-party application has got to be vanishingly small. In-app editing is perfectly cromulent.

I’m able to delete the top faces of the bloxen, align the tenons down the midline, and sew the patient back up without any trouble.

The print proceeds without incident, and I’m staring at a new bloxen. Five minutes from first launch to the start of printing. Nice. For those poor souls without access to a 3D printer there’s a Shapeways export option.

Here it is, printed on my Replicator 1 with this Blue PLA.

Bloxen, Blokify

downloadTo sum up: I really like this app. It’s easy, really easy to make kid-friendly models and get them onto a printer. There’s a more-than-adequate library of free block types built into the app, and premium content’s just an AppleID password away. (Blokify lets you purchase “diamonds” for spending in-game on new blocks and environments.)

Two features I’d like to see:

1. Explosives. If the proclivities of the younger Zhengspawn are any indicator, the ability to make a design go kablooie when I’m done with it would be a huge hit with the under-10 set.
2. A bevel feature. The final print’s edges are a little sharp. Not so much a problem for me, but little hands might find the corners undesirable.

Blokify’s available on The App Store, natch.

Happy building!

Radiant Li Beta: First Impressions

TL;DR summary: Experienced Minecrafters will have no trouble navigating the interface, but Li needs more documentation or a tutorial mode for inexperienced users. This beta is well on its way to dual-purposing the Minecraft learning curve as a way to create 3d models. No STL export capability as of 9/10/13, so for now it’s a curiosity while we await the release of the Lionhead 3d scanner/printer. This could be big.

There’s phrase from Dao De Jing : 千里之行,始于足下, or, “A journey of 1000 li begins with a single step.” (A li is a Chinese distance measurement that’s roughly 1/3 of a mile.)

One must undertake the grandest journeys on one’s own initiative, and that’s what Radiant Fabrication plans to do with its much-anticipated Lionhead All-in-one scanner and printer.

Li is the name of the Lionhead’s scanning, modeling, and printing software. Li uses a Minecraft-like interface to build 3d models locally, without the internet connection required by services like Printcraft. In theory it’ll run the Lionhead 3d printer/scanner, but I haven’t tested that capability yet.

Li gets its name not from Laozi, but rather from the rabbits of Watership Down. In the world of talking rabbits, li translates to “head.” In our universe, the one sadly lacking anthropomorphic hares, Li is the one tool, the head, if you will, that you’ll need to run the Lionhead when it ships: scanning, editing, and printing will all controlled from Li.

Big old caveat: Li is a Beta, and it had been released for less than 24 hours when I got to it. Expecting a completely polished user experience would be unfair.

So! I launch the software and start my stopwatch. The goal is to mark my metric for 3D software accessibility: Time To Cube. How long does it take to design and export a 1x1x1 cube in a format that I can use with one of my 3d printers?

Blaunch

And, go! The UI looks a lot like Minecraft, or at least what I remember Minecraft to be circa mid-2012.

Blink and you’ll miss a small notice that says “Press F1 for Help” on startup. This notice really needs to be made more clear on first launch– I only noticed it after quitting and restarting a couple of times once I’d backed myself into a corner. This notice seems to go away on its own if you leave the application alone for a few seconds.

Li doesn’t ship with a README and documentation as of today appears nonexistent, so I’m on my own for figuring out how things work. I’m not a Minecraft guy, so I go with what seems intuitive and press the 2 key to give myself a cube and plunk it down. I click on the ground and get bupkis. No cube.

AH! Left-click to Remove, Right-click to place. This seems really non-intuitive to me but I’m reminded this is the way it’s done in Minecraft. When in Rome and all that.

It turns out the tools at the bottom of the UI are best thought of as volumetric brushes. Right-click to place a sphere comprising a bunch of Minecraft blocks, left-click to carve a sphere’s worth of blocks from an existing structure. Now it makes sense. It looks possible to make custom volumetric brushes, too, which conjures fevered dreams of painting with ZOMG VOLUMETRIC SQUIRRELS

The software defaults to a single voxel placement/deletion mode, which will be handy for making simple models or trimming a little bit here and there from a model built from bigger primitives.

Heads up: with a few exceptions for illness, vacations, zhengspawning, and funerals, I’ve been using Maya for modeling almost every day for the last 15 years. I’ve got Maya reflexes, Maya muscle memory, and Maya expectations. My existing 3D experience is going to taint any interaction with new software. I also haven’t played Minecraft in over a year, so while I’m familiar with the basics my WASD+mouse navigation skills are mushy.

So I floundered around in Li’s UI for 26 minutes (!) before turning off my stopwatch and handing Li over to Elder zhengspawn, who is twelve years old and recently stopped playing Minecraft in favor of WoW.

She made a 3x3x3 cube in less than 25 seconds. Then she made a 正, and was well on her way to sculpting that rocket motor Elon Musk’s been Tony Starking with lately before I kicked her off the laptop to try again.

Having observed the master at work, I threw myself back into the Time To Cube test. Twenty seconds this time, now that I know what I’m doing.

launch

I’ll just export this model as an STL so I can take a look at it in netfabb and evaluate the mesh, and…

unforeseen problem…phooey. There’s no way to export one’s model from the current version of Li. This is a little disappointing, because I was hoping to evaluate the mesh and maybe give it a test print on my Replicator.

One can save an model as a .radiant file, but as far as I can tell doing so creates a closed binary. I’ve tried to open the .radiant cube with Textedit, Netfabb, Meshlab, and even cat and got nowhere. Opening up the .radiant format to experimentation from the outside could foster all kinds of creativity, so I’ll put that on my feature request list along with STL export.

A .radiant file containing a 3x3x3 block cube is 27MB. Lawdy, what’s going on in there?

I’m going to wait for the next version of Li before I try again, so #staytuned. This software’s got a lot of promise as a tool for younger modelers, but without an export option one can’t really use it for much beyond experimentation today. As long as I’m wishing, a Minecraft import would be a nice feature. I’m sure there’s a few epic structures people would like to print on their shiny new Lionheads without going through Printcraft.

Also, I’d like a pony, but I realize that may be an unreasonable request at this time.

One big plus in Radiant Fabrication’s favor: their email communication with me has been solid. I’ve been pinging my questions and bug reports off them all week and they’ve been ponging helpful responses back, which bodes well for their future as a 3d printer/scanner vendor. Together we squashed a couple of irritating OSX 10.6 bugs, so the software’s in better shape than when it was first released.

One thing I learned during my conversations is that one can hold down the Alt (option on OSX) key during startup and get this configuration dialog.

config

Check out the “PLAY!” button. Radiant Fabrication could have put any number of words into that button. CONTINUE. NEXT. PROCEED. OK.

But they chose PLAY, with an exclamation point. That gives me an idea of where they plan to go with their product line. They want kids to have fun with 3d printing. Grab a toy, scan that toy, tweak that toy, print a new toy.

This could work. It really could. I’m excited to see the next step on Radiant Fabrication’s thousand li journey.

PowerEx Maha MH-C801D AA/AAA Battery Charger Review

TL;DR Summary: The PowerEx MH-C801D AA/AAA battery charger is easy to use and worth the higher price tag over a dumb charger. The LCD screen can be a little difficult to read, especially under low-light situations. Don’t believe the marketing photos when it comes to readability.

Last week, the lovely and talented Mrs. Zheng3 suffered through a night of fitful sleep brought on by the pathetic hourly chirping of a dying pager desperately trying to suck the last few electrons from its poorly-charged AA batteries.

It’s my fault, really. For years the battery charging duties in Zhenghaus have been attended by a venerable Die Hard battery charger. McClane, as it has come to be called, is what the Folks Who Know About Such Things call a dumb charger, which means he’ll just sit there and keep pumping juice into an already charged battery, shortening the lifespan of the cell.

I’ve got dozens of rechargeable AA’s of various stripes here in Casa de Zheng, from my pricier Sanyo Eneloops to the afterthoughtish Amazon NiMH’s. They’ve seen service in myriad devices, droids, cameras, and controllers and every now and then we find one in pretty sorry shape. They can’t seem to hold a charge for very long.

The lovely and talented Mrs. Zheng3 put at least one of these duds into her pager before hitting the sack. You can’t tell just by looking at it that a battery’s going to suck.

So upon waking for the eighth time in eight hours, the lovely and talented Mrs. Zheng3 looked deeply and lovingly into my eyes, held my hands, and, in that sultry and slightly haggard way she has after a restless night, like a naiad who bleary-eyed sipped too many mimosas with the sylphs and dryads in Elysium the night before, if that naiad was forced to carry a pager for work by her out-of-touch IT department, with pursed and waiting lips, gently, ever so gently, told me to buy a new f***ing battery charger.

Amazon Prime saves marriages. You read it here first.

How much of a charge any given AA has in this house is always an age-dependent crapshoot. Here’s hoping the PowerEx MH-C801D can bring some of them back to reliability. It’s got a conditioning mode that might do just that.

PowerEx MH-C801D: Die Unböxenung

The back of the box for the PowerEx proudly advertises that the battery status updates are “in English.” This feels like a sop to crochety dudes who are upset that the buttons on their phones are too small and that the Monkees are three times the band One Direction will ever be because at least the Monkees played instruments and didn’t prance around like strippers for crissakes. The rest of us learned to accept Engrish as the lingua franca of technical manuals in the 80’s. For great justice.

Here’s what comes in the box:

Unböxenung

A charger, a power brick, two cables, and (pictured below) a plastic case that looks like it’ll hold 8 AA’s. Ten points to Ravenclaw for including non-polystyrene fill in the packaging. Also not pictured are a double-sided single page instruction sheet and a glossy promotion for PowerEx’s other products.

The product feels sturdy enough, and the power brick’s LED glows green like wyrmwood when it’s plugged in. It’s a nice variation from the blinking blue LED constellation up in this humpty-bump.

PowerEx MH-C801D: Das Batterieladenungenschlaft

(My German’s pretty rusty, but I think it’s safe to just make words up by stringing loosely-related concepts together. German’s the Human Centipede of languages.)

The instructions (in English!) for the MH-C801D indicate that conditioning can take up to fourteen hours. I have this thing with new electronics. I don’t like to leave them plugged in for too long without supervision. At least, not at first. So I set the battery charger up in my bedroom with the idea that the smell of burning plastic should rouse me from my melatonin-fueled catatonia before the house burns to the ground.

The UI for battery conditioning is an artifact of the consumer electronics design process. Keeping costs down requires engineers to use hardware without adding fancy gewgaws, so it’s insert a battery, press and hold the (cryptically labeled) conditioning button within 5 seconds, wait until the LCD screen displays a very tiny “condition” indicator, and then put in the remaining batteries.

My coffee maker’s like this, but worse. I can program a homebrew robot that turns photos into Etch-a-Sketch drawings, but I can’t program my coffee maker to brew coffee before I wake up. I’m really looking forward to the day when Siri-like assistants are cheap enough to be included in Happy Meal toys. I guarantee that I’m going to forget how to do this the next time I condition a battery, likely six months from now.

The LCD tells me that I’ve got a range of battery charges from the handful I popped into the charger, and the conditioning process begins with an initial charge. The display’s a little faint, so I have to get all up in its grill and squint at the indicator.

After an hour or so battery slot 1 has fully charged, and slot 6 has already begin to discharge.

discharge

And just before bedtime the recharge process has begun in slot 6 while the other slots continue to discharge. The aforementioned conditioning button is on the left side of the unit.

recharge

Sometime overnight everyone got topped up, and the charge is done. Also, I didn’t wake to a raging inferno, so the unit passes the new electronic-gizmo-kill-you-in-your-sleep anxiety test and is now a welcome member of the household.

Every AA I can find in the house gets a conditioned replacement, which means I have a new passel of batteries in need of love. No problems, and a day later I have another eight conditioned AA’s to put in my new plastic case.

box

Take a look at the right side of the box and you’ll see that it can hold AAA’s as well, if they’re inserted crosswise. The MH-C801D can recharge and condition AAA’s too, I just didn’t have any around that I could use to test this feature.

PowerEx MH-C801D: Die Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

I still have a few AA’s left over that have been neither conditioned nor recharged, so I shall attempt a rapid charge. This is the default mode for the PowerEx, just drop your batteries into slots and wait. It should take about an hour.

The instructions warn that the batteries may become hot to the touch during a rapid charge. How hot? Not hot enough to be uncomfortable to the touch. Not snuggly, but not uncomfortable, and you shouldn’t be snuggling with batteries anyway, you pervert.

Note to self: buy and review one of those thermometer guns Gale used on his teapot in Season 3 of Breaking Bad.

Thankfully the designers resisted the urge to make the charger chirp or blink when it’s done, unlike some products I could name. Sometimes the features that don’t make it into a product are as important as the ones that do.

The lovely and talented Mrs. Zheng3’s pager hasn’t chirped once since the battery swap, so I think we can call this one a success. Go out, grab one of these, and ensure domestic tranquility and equitable charge distribution in your home. In English, or whatever language flöatzens your böatzens.

ComposiMold: First Impressions

The friendly team at ComposiMold recently sent me a sample of their product for review. Like many experimenters I’m mostly unacquainted with mold-making and casting but I’m willing to get messy and give it a go. Let’s dive right in and see how this stuff works.

TL;DR Summary: ComposiMold is easy to use, reuse, and reuse again, even for a casting n00b. It’d make a great gift for a Maker kid. Highly recommended.

Composimold: The Unboxening

open container

Opening the 10-ounce container releases the faintest waft of lemon. It’s not unpleasant or pronounced; only bloodhounds and those accustomed to huffing day-old mimeographs will have the chemoreceptors to detect the scent.

It’s firmer than I expected. I was thinking I’d have something a little gooier, but when ComposiMold is cool it’s got the consistency of a flexed bicep. At 10 ounces the sample container feels satisfyingly dense in the hand. I feel like I could make stuff with this.

Virgin ComposiMold looks surprisingly like honey. So much so that the lovely and talented Mrs. Zheng3, slightly less talented than usual at 5:30am, nearly dropped a heaping spoonful of ComposiMold into her oatmeal. I probably shouldn’t have left the container on top of the microwave last night.

In theory, the mold making process is simple and straightforward: heat ComposiMold, pour it over the object you want to reproduce, allow to cool, and then extract your object.

Naturally I screwed it up.

Jumping into this project like an enthusiastic idiot I naturally made a a rookie mistake right off the bat. I forgot to coat my mold container with a release agent. So I restarted the project. What you’re seeing here is actually take two on my quest to replicate a Seej bloxen.

So! Into the microwave with you, ComposiMold.

in the microwave

Another brief installment of Zheng’s household hints: before photographing the inside of a microwave you’ll want to clean it so the Internet doesn’t think you’re a gavone. Put a cup full of vinegar in the microwave and nuke the bejeezus out of it. The steam will soften the Hot Pockets splatter off the inside of your microwave so that you can wipe it clean with a rag. The healing brush in Photoshop will take care of any pastacules you might have missed.

Thirty seconds in my microwave and I’ve got a golfball-sized nugget of ComposiMold suspended in honey-like goo. Stir with a craft stick (always, always, always have craft sticks around any maker project), give it another 20 seconds of non-ionizing radiation and we’re good to go. During the melt the lemony scent is a little more pronounced but doesn’t stink up the kitchen.

bloxen, masonry
I’ve decided to try and cast a Seej Bloxen for my first project. I’ve made sidewalk chalk bloxen using a 3d printed mold, but I’m interested to see how ComposiMold picks up the detail in the 3D modeled grout and stones of something I’ve already printed. This particular bloxen was produced during my review of Filabot’s recycled ABS filament.

Composimold: Making A Mold

I give the bloxen a rub with some vegetable oil and put it into an old laundry scoop. Here’s where I run into my first unknown unknown in the mold-making process.

pouring

unforeseen problemThe plastic object I’m trying to copy is less dense than ComposiMold, so it wants to float. I try holding it down with a craft stick, but I’m unwilling to wait half an hour for the ComposiMold to solidify at room temperature. I throw the whole thing in the freezer to cool and abort the first try at mold-making.

It’s 9AM on a Sunday morning so I take a break and have some cheese danish before the kids get up and eat it all. After twenty minutes and a cuppa joe I cut open the mold to see how well it captured the details. Click to embiggen.

detail

The detail’s quite fine here. ComposiMold even picked up the layer artifacts left by the 3d printing process. Each of those parallel lines is about 100 microns wide. I can’t use this failed mold for casting, but it provides an excellent chance to test ComposiMold’s reusability.

Forty-five seconds in the microwave and I’m back to pouring a new mold. Easy peasy George and Weezy. So far ComposiMold is living up to its promises.

This time I’ll try suspending the bloxen from a stiff piece of hookup wire before I pour. I drill a small hole in the side of the bloxen, superglue in a wire scrap, and wrap it around a craft stick. (See previous admonition about having craft sticks around.) I’ll use a plastic cup for my mold container this time, because I can just cut it away without having to worry about pre-treating it with mold release. The vegetable oil gets everywhere and I don’t want it schmeered all over my camera and light box.

suspended

The bloxen remains submerged this time, if a little off-kilter as the unsecured bottom of the plastic tries to float upwards. The newly-poured mold goes back to the freezer for fifteen minutes or so before I cut away the plastic cup.

The mold resists my hobby knife with the strength of an overcooked ham, but splits easily and the bloxen pops right out. A little vegetable oil on the inside of the mold and it’s ready to be filled with Plaster of Paris.

ready

Composimold: Casting

ComposiMold’s produced a perfectly usable mold. The process has been simple even for a mold-making novice, but today I’m wishing I paid more attention on casting day in sculpture class.

In all fairness, I was trying to get the lovely and talented not-yet-Mrs. Zheng3 to notice me at the time.

plaster

Notice that almost all the bubble artifacts on this plaster bloxen faces inwards; this isn’t ComposiMold’s fault, it’s mine. Either I didn’t get the plaster/water ratio correct or I didn’t agitate the mold enough after pouring, or my plaster’s old, or something else. I’d love to see what ComposiMold can do in the hands of someone with more casting experience. ComposiMold also sells a bubble buster that will assist in the casting process that wasn’t included in my review sample.

A couple hours of playing with this product has given me all kinds of great ideas for where to go next with this. Traditional casting and 3D-printing are a powerful combination, so #staytuned for another casting attempt, this time with cement. The younger Zhengspawn and I have a project in mind that’s perfect for ComposiMold. We’ll see how an 8-year old does with this stuff under lax supervision.

If you’d like me to put your Maker-related gizmo, material, tool, or software through its paces at Zheng3.com, email me and I’ll give it a shot.

First Filabot Recycled ABS Print

The fine folks at Filabot were kind enough to send me a sample of their Recycled ABS filament so that I can put it through its paces. My first print is an upgraded Seej Battle Pennon with a cylindrical finial, which you can download for free at The Forge.

Pennon, Rounded

Note to other manufacturers, I’ll be happy to take a look at your product and give it a fair evaluation on this blog. email me if you’d like to get the ball rolling.

Filabot’s located behind the Tofu Curtain in idyllic Vermont. I have strong attachments to that state; I went to college there, got my first real job there, met the lovely and talented Mrs. Zheng3 there, returned there after years in Toronto and Chicago, and frankly expected to end my days chopping wood in the Green Mountain State before life’s capricious winds required a move back to the wilds of the American Midwest.

So I know and love the local culture of Vermont, and it surprises me not in the least that a Vermont entrepreneur would be among the first to start a service recycling ABS plastic for 3D printing. Filabot embodies good-ol’ Yankee frugality blended with hippy-dippy save-the-earthism and a splash of tech savvy for flavor.

Here’s Filabot’s dealio: you buy a pound of their recycled ABS and they send it to you with a prepaid shipping label in the box. When you’re done with the spool, send it back to them with as many failed prints as you can cram in there.

They complete the cycle by pureéing your fails and feeding them back into a Filabot to be made into new filament.

The box of filament arrived a few days ago, and perhaps surprisingly for a package shipped from Vermont, did not smell of patchouli. Just a 3d-printed spool of filament held together with zip ties. Nice touch on printing your own spools, Filabot. Dollars to donuts that cardboard is recycled too.

Filabot Spool 1

I’m presuming that this spool is Filabot’s Orange ABS. Note that the color gets a little inconsistent further down the spool. I don’t expect this to be a problem for me, since many of my models get a post-print spray-painting and those that don’t are utilitarian in nature.

Filabot Spool 1

I’ll be printing with this spool until it’s gone so I can really beat on this filament and see what it can and can’t do. So far, the filament is smooth and consistent in texture. No bubbles or lumps.

I suspect it’s a little more brittle than other ABSes I’ve used. I’ll give it a few dozen more meters of printing before I make that judgement call, though.

All three parts of the flag printed smoothly with no extrusion problems in my Replicator1. I went with an extrusion temperature of 250°, a little hotter than Filabot’s recommended 230°-240° range. This filament doesn’t smell any worse than traditional ABS when it’s melting, which is to say it’s not bad at all. I’ve used ABSes that are flat-out stank, so this was a pleasant surprise.

So! Stay tuned for more prints with Filabot’s recycled filament. Bloxen are next in the queue.