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Make: 2015 Digital Fabrication Shootout

I’ve just returned from Make: Magazine’s 2015 Digital Fabrication Shootout. Huge, huge, HUGE thanks to Make: for granting me the opportunity to participate, and a thousand quatloos to generalissimo Matt Stultz for keeping the cat herd on point during the tests.

workspace

We testers have been asked not to reveal or discuss which machines we tested until after Make publishes in November, so I’ll do my best to provide a description of the testing process without letting the cat out of the bag or the horse out of the barn or whatever mammal-preposition-structure metaphor you choose. Onward we go.

Full disclosure: I traveled to the Digital Fabrication Shootout in San Francisco at Make:’s expense. I did not receive any financial compensation from Make for the time I spent at the shootout. Fortunately you don’t have to declare having your mind blown to the IRS, because that totally happened. At least twice.

Most of us left for SF on Thursday the 30th. A weather snarl on the east coast of the US caused many of the New Yorkers/Bostonians/Rhode Islanders among our crew to arrive late, but the midwestern contingent, myself included, got in right on schedule. We agreed to meet up at 10AM to let the late arrivals sleep in a bit. This would be the last time any of us got a full night’s sleep for the rest of the weekend.

By some combination of Ubers and hoofing it, all members of our party arrived at the Maker Media lab, tucked inside the Innovation Hangar next to the Palace of Fine Arts.

Several times I witnessed the death throes of the taxi industry as six nerds waited RIGHT NEXT TO AN IDLING TAXI for our Uber to arrive. I’m convinced the killer app for Uber is the convenience of expense reports; reciepts get emailed to you, you forward them on to your corporate overlords, and bam. Done. Also, no tipping, which is darn handy.

The People

Ehmahgerd. The people. An assortment of keen minds at the tops of their games. Some of these folks I know from Maker Faires past, and the rest are now new pals of mine. Once we went around the circle once doing introductions I realized I was hanging out with the Justice League of 3D printing. That’s me, down at the bottom left.

testers

Those of us with prior CNC/laser cutter experience broke off to work on machines of that ilk– with only 3 days to test over a dozen machines there’s not a lot of time to climb a steep learning curve. I’m a 3D printer guy, so I grabbed the nearest printer, moved it over to an empty bench and started working through the testing procedure. Everything is branded at the Maker Media Lab, even the workbenches. Note to self: brand my workbench at home.

branding

The Process:

The testing process was fairly straightforward; every tester put his or her printer through its paces by running specially designed test prints, one at a time. The test models are designed to isolate one specific aspect of the printer’s capabilities; speed, resolution, etc.

In the interest of impartiality, testers were prevented from using any specialized knowledge/3d printing voodoo to ensure successful prints; we used manufacturer-recommended default settings for and followed manufacturer instructions to the letter.

I can’t show you any of the prints but I can show you these shiny and attractive stickers:

stickers

These stickers help to eliminate bias from the scoring process, and here’s how: each print begins with a logging a sticker’s number in a spreadsheet. Other data: the printer, slicer, filament, tester name, temperature, etc wind up associated with that sticker number. One print, one sticker.

Finished prints got labeled with their sticker and dropped into a ziploc bag.

At the end of the day, each tester’s bag is brought anonymously to the scoring room, where it was stored until the prints could be evaluated. The scorer has no idea which tester or machine made the print; as far as they’re concerned each print is just a number.

We had one print labeled 24601 that escaped to the countryside. No idea what’ll happen to it, but I’ll bet it’s miserable now.

All during this process we were ensconced behind a small barrier that kept muggles from getting into a space where safety and liabiity might be an issue. But you could still have come by and thrown peanuts at us.

rope

My Saturday highlight was talking to a gaggle of tourists from Beijing who wandered up to the rope line. Always a treat to see the mental shift in a native speaker’s face when they realize I’m trying to speak broken Mandarin at them.

The testing period was intense; Make: thoughtfully brought in catered eats which were consumed while hunched over laptops and printers, working, working, working. I think I saw the sun maybe twice the whole weekend– day one went until just before midnight and day two went even longer.

This is not to say there wasn’t the usual horseplay and shenanigans you’d expect from twelve geeks in a lab full of technology; far from it! There’s some downtime while print tests are running, so we used that time to document our tests, update social media (check #digfabshootout on Twitter, lotsa good pictures there), and, most importantly, chat with each other.

In between the prints and the coffee and the prints and the Red Bull and the prints there was a lot– I dare say a metric butt-ton of– 3dprinterati cross-pollination. Meeting up with this crew and sharing ideas has my mind going in all kinds of new and different directions now. Also, I gotta up my 3d printing game.

#staytuned, my friends. New stuff on the way soon, once I rest up a bit.