- Written by Kirk Sexton
I thought I would try my hand at 3D printing. I've been to some maker-cons, read a lot about the different kinds of 3D printers, and have always been fascinated by them. I decided to quit talking about them, dreaming up fantasy projects, and just jump in and buy one. As I started, I began keeping some notes, taking pictures of whatever I thought was relevant, which turned into an informal log, graduating finally to a very detailed log including pictures with detailed notes and observations to help me improve my printing. I've found a lot of information online, but none seemed all that thorough, and very little applied to my specific printer. The best source I found was on a Facebook group, but I'm trying to wean myself completely off of Facebook, so that was a less than desirable option (for me anyway). So, I thought why not document it here in case others might have an interest? I'm not going to go into crazy detail, but do hope to provide a little extra guidance for things that I found that might help a newbie like myself get a quicker start. Of course, anyone who has similar experiences to share, are always welcome here - hit me up in the comments or via email and I'll get you set up. So here is a brief documentary of my start; from selection to first print.
How did I come to pick the Monoprice MP10 Printer? I had several criteria to start with to narrow the field. First, I wanted to stay under $500. There are a lot of good beginner options keeping under that price point, and there are a surprising amount variety in terms of build quality, options, and size. I didn't want to be limited by size, so my next selection criteria was a greater than 200mm by 200mm build surface. I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about height, or the 'Z' axis, but it turns out that the build height is a real separator among choices. It appears that among lower cost printers, the taller the build area, the looser the build tolerances. This is just my observation after studying dozens of printers; nothing scientific. After some thought, I decided I wanted a minimum of 200mm build height.
Even with limiting my selection by price and size, I had a few other factors to study up on before narrowing my selection further. Here is a list of some of the other items that worked into my decision, and what was important to me:
Build Surface - Again, a surprising amount of variables to consider. Heated or non-heated? A heated build surface helps with adhesion of the printed object to the build surface. The build platform is in motion on builds, and sometimes it moves rapidly back and forth for intricate parts of a build. The better the object sticks to the surface, the more accurate the build is. As the object grows in height, this can be critical. I opted for a heated bed. Some printers have a solid, non removable print surface. This isn't necessarily bad; it can just make removal and cleanup after a build a little more difficult. Also, if you accidentally scratch up or ding the build surface, it can be more difficult to replace. Those with removable print surfaces have various options to fasten them. The magnetic ones seemed to be the best choice.
Leveling - this can be tricky. The print bed, which is the X and Y axis of a build, must be absolutely perpendicular to the Z axis, which is up and down. It has to be perfectly perpendicular at every point across the surface. Some printers are auto-leveling, some have extensive programs for doing it manually, while some leave you on your own. If this goes awry, you scratch up your build surface, which leads to all kinds of problems.
Support - Does the manufacturer provide a lot of support and learning tools? Is there a big user community? The Monoprice seemed to have less technical support from the manufacturer, but a few user support groups including a fairly active one on Facebook. I'm no fan of Facebook, but thought I could tolerate it enough to use the support group from time to time.
The MP10, from what I can tell, requires less assembly than most. It came in two major pieces with a number of bolt on parts to finish the assembly. The first major part was the base, which is a large frame that holds the build plate, and the mechanical components that move the 'Y' axis. Nestled in the center of the base is the power supply unit and most of the electronics. The other major piece is the vertical frame, the upright part that holds the extruder head, which has the mechanical components for the 'X' and 'Z' axis movements. Included in the box are a number of assorted screws, hex keys, a tiny wrench, the control panel, the filament rack, a plastic scraper, and a SD card containing a sample build file. The User's manual is a pretty sparse thing - 12 pages of 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper folded in half and stapled to make a booklet, making it 24 pages total (including the front and back covers). There are 13 pages of instruction, of which 5 guide you through assembly, setup, and a test print. Another 2 pages walk you through leveling and 6 more pages (mostly screenshots) walk you through software setup. My initial impression was that the documentation was a little on the light side for most, but for me, as a lifelong tinkerer and maker, I enjoyed walking through it and figuring things out. I'm going to list a number of interesting or helpful things I found from my assembly experience, mostly as they vary from the instruction manual. I hope that others may be able to use this as they walk through these beginning stages.
The first two steps have you mount the vertical frame to the base. There are a couple of plates that add rigidity to the vertical frame that are a little different from one another. The instructions don't distinguish between the two, but it is important that they get mounted correctly. As the pictures indicate below, there is a right and a left bracket. As you face the front of the printer, the one on the left has an offset that the other one does not have. This offset should be outward on the rear side of the printer. This bumped out section of the bracket is to give clearance to the Z axis stepper motor. When assembling this part, leave the side screws loose so that the vertical frame may be adjusted back and forth while you thread in and tighten the bottom screws outlined in step 2 of the instructions. You will want to tighten the side screws last.
Step three is not adequately covered by the directions. The intent is to have you remove the screw rod that is part of the Z axis mechanical assembly, from where it was attached to the base for shipping. The directions suggest loosening a screw that holds down a plastic clamp near the front of the base. It turns out there are actually three screws and plastic clamps holding the screw rod in place. Two are hidden from view by the build platform, which must carefully be moved back and forth to gain access. Only then can you remove the screw rod from it's shipping mount. The manual suggested re-tightening the screw, so I did so with all three.
Front, middle, and rear Z-axis screw rod shipping clamps:
There really isn't any illustration to show how the Z-axis screw is mounted, although the instructions kind of describe it OK. If you have never had any experience with stepper motors, linkages, and gear assemblies, it might be a little bit of a struggle. I'm supplying some pics of the Z-axis assembly to show how a proper assembly should look. The Z-axis screw is threaded through a mounting plate that holds the filament motor and sensor, which is attached to the horizontal arm that lifts up and down. You will have to thread enough of the Z-axis screw rod through that platform to give enough clearance to attach the coupler at the bottom (about two and half inches). This area is indicated by the green arrow in the pic below. This is covered in steps 4 & 5 from the User's Manual.
Installing the Z-axis screw rod
To make sure the Z-axis screw was straight, I looked down from the top and aligned the top guide in such a way to make sure the Z-axis rod was parallel with the vertical frame, along the left side.
Z-axis screw rod finish detail:
The rest of the assembly instructions are pretty straight forward, save for one missing step. The cables from the extruder assembly should be plugged in to the left side of the power supply module. I recommend routing the cables outside of the frame, so as to not interfere with the travel of the build plate as it moves forward and back during printing. The connector to the Z-axis stepper motor also needed to be connected.
Control and power cables
Z-axis stepper motor connector
The setup of the printer for a test print was actually easier than the assembly; at least, the instructions were much more clear. The printer comes with a small amount of printer filament which can be used to get through the setup steps and your first print... almost. More on that later. The printer filament is PLA, which is an acronym for Polylactic Acid. PLA is a polymer made from renewable natural resources, making it 'greener' than typical plastics, but still having comparable attributes. Although the printer is rated for varying kinds of printer material, I assumed the included filament was PLA, as that is the material most commonly used. I followed the instructions pretty much verbatim, but in retrospect, I think i would have performed the Auto Leveling instructions first, instead of going straight for printing a level or two. Once auto-leveling is performed, and if necessary, an offset entered for the Z access, it is time to do a test print! On the included memory card is a file called 'cat.gcode'. Gcode is the set of instructions given to the printer that it uses to print an object. Obviously, this set of instructions is to print a cat.
My First Print
Following the directions in included manual, I inserted the SD card into the slot on the side of the control panel. I selected the file cat.gcode, and started the print job. Not knowing what the form would look like (other than being a cat), I was curious to see what shape would start forming on the print bed. The printer proceeded to lay down filament in a hollow oval shape with two bumps on one side. I imagined it to be the outline of a cat face, with the bumps being the ears. As it turned out, it was actually creating a base for my print. The base is necessary in most prints, to provide solid adhesion to the print surface. The solid base, sometimes referred to as a raft, is several layers of filament thick, and has surface with smaller 'touch' footprint on top, to which your actual print is created. This base is easily detached from the final print, once finished.
After and hour or so of printing, the actual print started becoming more clear. However, there was a big problem; obviously, I was not going to have enough filament to finish the print. It would have been nice to have enough filament in the initial supply to at least finish the test print. It only gets you about one third of the way complete. I stopped the print, and set off to purchase some more filament. The results of this first print are below.
Half a cat, the raft, and the remaining filament
I did a little research on different filament types, thinking that my first several prints would largely be experimenting with different objects to see what possibilities I could dream up, not necessarily having success with my first efforts. It seemed important to have decent quality control - no air bubbles, and close diameter tolerance. I spent about $18, next day shipping included, for a 1KG spool of black Hatchbox PLA filament.
Freshly equipped with my new spool of filament, I started my cat print again. This time, it printed without issue. Overall, the print was fairly smooth, and the detail looked pretty good. There was just a tiny bit of 'stringing' underneath the cat's lower paw. This is where the print extended into space without any support underneath. It was only a slight amount, and most people wouldn't even notice it. My first successful print!
I hope this article is of some help to any other first timers as they get started with the MP10. Any comments, suggestions, experiences or write-ups will be gladly accepted and printed here.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
If you are a typical homeowner, you spend the greater part of your home energy budget on heating, cooling, or both. Regardless of whether your primary source of that energy is gas or electric from your local utility, fuel oil, propane, or other form of purchased energy, wouldn't it be great to pare down that cost a bit? Your thermostat might be an easy way to start saving. Up until the last few years, most thermostats fell into two categories; there was the old fashioned manual, or the programmable thermostat. The old fashioned manual thermostats could be as basic as a mechanical coil and mercury model or a digital thermometer model, but the functionality was the same, which was one temperature setting for cooling or heating. If you want a different comfort setting, you get up and change the it by hand. Programmable thermostats are a step up from that. Most allow for weekly schedules, with different day and night settings, and even different weekend and holiday settings. This allows for more economical settings while the house is unoccupied, with cool-down or warm-up when the home is re-occupied. Some even have WiFi capability for remote setting and monitoring. So called 'smart' thermostats are relatively new, and have only been out for the last several years. They are quite pricey when compared to even the programmable thermostats. Are they worth the extra money? Read on for one answer to that question.
How Ecobee3 Was Selected
Before purchasing a smart thermostat, I took a long look at all the models I could find. Before shelling out more than $200 on a thermostat, I wanted to make sure I selected the one that best fit my needs and one that I was confident would be worth the money. Criteria that were important to me were true energy savings, flexibility, ease of use, and compatibility with my smart-home ecosystem of choice.
- Energy Savings: Will the new thermostat pay for itself? Will it save enough money to justify the time and effort I put into installing, configuring, and maintaining it? A total value proposition is more important than a lower cost model.
- Flexibility: I have a relatively unusual heating system in my HVAC setup. My home is about 20 years old, which pre-dates smart thermostat installations. My current HVAC components are likely near end of useful life, so will a new smart thermostat work for new equipment, or will I have to start over?
- Ease of Use: I'm an engineer at heart, and enjoy fiddling with things to optimize their usefulness. My family does not. They want to be able to easily adjust the temperature if they are not comfortable, without the need for an instruction manual. Does it 'learn' from my usage, or does it requre extensive programming?
- Smart Home Compatability: My ecosystem of choice is currently Wink. I also have an Amazon Echo, an IFTTT account, and various other smart-home gadgetry. Does it fit in easily, or does it require a lot of kludgey work-around?
The models I researched were the Nest, Ecobee 3, Honeywell WiFi, and Emerson Sensi. At the time I made my purchase, there appeared to be the best available models out there. At first glance, all of these models seemed to do about the same thing. with the main differences being style and manner of user interface. Upon closer inspection the differences became more noticeable. A quick overview of these thermostats, with their pros and cons, will illustrate why I chose the Ecobee 3 over the competition.
Nest (3rd generation): I was immediately attracted to the Nest first, not only because of it's iconic shape and user interface, but also because it was touted as a 'learning' thermostat. These features are indeed impressive, and helps to set it apart. It was the first one on the scene as far as truly 'smart' thermostats are concerned, and it shows in product maturity. At the time of this writing, the Nest is in it's third generation being shipped, and it appears customer feedback was strongly considered in the improvements to the later generations. Nest is a Google owned company, and produced it's first Nest model back in 2011. The current model (gen. 3) lists for $249, but has been seen as low as $199. Nest claims to pay for itself within two years use. Pluses for this thermostat include easy installation and setup. To program the Nest, simply follow your daily routine, setting the temperature manually as you go. After a week or so of this, the nest learns your daily habits and comfort settings and builds a schedule to follow. This works pretty well for most households, but has drawn occasional complaints among those that don't have a 'daily routine'. Display can be set to different colors or default information settings. Negatives include perceived internet security issues, which Nest claims to have resolved, and has had some outages related to software updates, which were quickly resolved. Probably the biggest issue that many users have complained about is the 3 degree temperature delta that triggers the heating or cooling equipment to come on. It is not user changeable, and for many, this is a deal breaker. some say the user interface is a little too simplistic, offering less tinkering with the detailed settings that many like to do.
Ecobee3: Ecobee is a relatively newer player, and is engineered and manufactured by a Canadian company. They have done well establishing themselves, fighting an uphill battle against the huge thermostat maker Honeywell, and the marketing might one would expect from the Google owned Nest. Despite being lesser known, they have grown quickly, and have an enthusiastic fan base (as if one could have fans for thermostats - pun fully intended). Among thermostats, the Ecobee 3 also has an iconic look; it is kind of like a squared off hockey puck, in size and color. It is kind of like Henry Ford's famous saying about the Model T, "You can have it painted in any color you want, as long as it is black." One odd thing though; the base is white, which you usually don't see once it is installed, but the trim ring is white (only used if the previous thermostat left a larger hole in the wall). For most, they will just see the black hockey puck. This thermostat had some predecessors manufactured by Ecobee, but this is the first with this level of sophistication. The programming is not as simple as the Nest, but it does immediately settle your activity into home or away, and daytime and nighttime temperature zones. This is where this model really shines; not only does it have remote wireless sensors you can place anywhere in the house, it takes them into account as it sets the temperature for the entire house. If you have one room that is always a little warmer or cooler than the rest, place a sensor in there and take it into account. The sensors also perform an additional feature that cannot be under-valued; they detect occupancy. Why is this valuable? Let's say that you work at home during the day, mostly in a home office. The thermostat detects this and sets the temperature to the 'occupied' setting even though the time of day would ordinarily dictate that the home should be 'unoccupied'. Even better, if you are spending your time mostly in your home office, the sensor there tells the Ecobee 3 that the rest of the house is unoccupied, and only occupied in the one room, so it heats and cools to the 'occupied' temperature using just that rooms sensor. This is called the 'follow me' setting. Pluses for this model are the multiple sensors, granularity of nearly any setting, ease of use, and style. Negatives are lack of flexibility in the 'home' screen, and inability to connect to the thermostat directly with the mobile apps - this must be accomplished through both the mobile and thermostat connecting back to Ecobee's servers.
Honeywell WiFi (Model RTH9580): This is a solid learning thermostat with many great features and huge compatibility when it comes to home automation ecosystems. Honeywell has been around a long time, much like Emerson, and they know their temperature controls. This is a larger thermostat when compared to the others, but it does have a large, bright, configurable display that will appeal to many. The frame is silver and kind of wide. The list price is $225, but has been seen as low as $180. This thermostat, like the others inthis group is meant to replace your aging or defective thermostat, while updating the features and capabilities. This thermostat is completely configurable either from the large display or via the mobile app. This model also has published a set of API's that make it super compatible with more than any other thermostat in this group. If you like to tinker with settings and connectivity, this might be the thermostat for you. Pluses are the more granular configurability, the wealth of inter-operability options, and the moderate cost. Negatives for this model include lack of support for installations with no 'C' wire, and overly bright display.
Emerson Sensi: While this model was the lowest cost of any in this group, it performed the majority of the functions most would purchase a next generation thermostat for. This model lists for $129. It has very simple programming, albeit no true 'learning' features, and is a super compatible replacement to most heating and cooling systems default thermostat. This model is not a learning thermostat per se, however, with home automation tools, it can be made to detect whether your home is occupied or not, and change the program accordingly. Technically, this does not meet the requirements that distinguish a 'smart' thermostat from one that is simply programmable, but it still made the list due to price, features, simplicity of use, and the large lit display. Additionally, the ability to adapt to the outside weather, and the integration with a mobile app, one could see that this thermostat is an update away from what other thermostats would call 'learning' ability. Like the Nest and Ecobee 3, this model works with a pretty wide list of equipment, but doe not have the ability to control extra humidifiers, dehumidifiers, or ventilators. The display is somewhat larger than others in this list, but the display is neat and uncluttered. It has a back-lit LCD display that stays lit. Like the Ecobee 3, it does require access to the internet for both the mobile and the thermostat to change the temperature remotely. Pluses are the low price (seen as low as $92), easy installation (does not require a 'C' wire), and fast setup. Negatives include a kind of a plain display, and lack of advanced 'smart' features.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
I don't have a good feeling about this.
I've been monitoring the various Wink forums, contributing my experiences here and there, and have posted a few articles here on the Wink home automation experience. I really don't like posting negative items regarding commercial products, unless a product is just horrible or a sham. I usually look for the best, talk about it, and where I think it may help, offer constructive criticism when it falls short of ideal. I haven't seen much on this in the home automation forums (yet), so I may be among the first to point this out. I think Wink may be on the ropes.
Allow me to offer my recent experiences with Wink (the company not the product). As I've posted here previously, I've enjoyed experimenting with the Wink Hub, connected a variety of devices to it, and documented my experiences here, or within comments elsewhere. As I say, this has been positive for the most part, and I've even gone as far to say that Wink has been gaining maturity in it's offering. Here is the problem - once you get past the hub, and start with their other offerings, things start to get a little shaky. First, there was the well documented and unfortunately highly publicized gaffe back in mid-April of this year. If you missed it, Wink pushed out a firmware update to their Wink Hubs, but bobbled the security certificate. This had the net result of a whole lot of dead (or at least non-communicative) hubs, where the users only choice was to snail mail the hub back Wink for an update at the factory, or for those brave souls that have some basic skills configuring their home routers, a process that you could do at home in about ten or fifteen minutes, Until one of these two processes were completed, your home automation system was offline.
Wink, to their credit, offered a $50 voucher, for limited use on their site, to make up for the trouble. Ordinarily, I would commend them on the gesture, and tell others that this is the way you work customer service and build brand loyalty. It would be great reading in forums saying that Wink messed up, but they did the right thing, and now have a happy customer singing their praises. It didn't really work out that way. First, there was the second or third email from Wink saying that they were sorry, the first coupon code had been rescinded, because it was being abused. To think that a single coupon code for all users to share would not be ripe for attempted abuse, is a wee bit naive. The next "private single-use" code did not work, and finally, on the third try, a single-use personalized code was delivered to those affected. For me, life was good again; I tweaked my router, had my hub updated, and had a $50 voucher burning a hole in my digital wallet. Yes, life was good.
Not so fast. In fact, really not fast at all. I've been wanting to add some remote automation to my garage doors, so I thought I would purchase the Ascend garage door opener. I did a lot of research before picking the Ascend, which is one of the Quirky Wink partnership products, and only available from the Wink site. Even thought there are a lot of products available that can interface with my garage door openers, the only ones certified by Wink to work with their system were the Ascend and Chamberlain MyQ products. As an aside - Wink, please add the Linear controls to your z-wave connected and certified product list. Please? Sorry for the digression, back to the two choices.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
When it comes to voting in Florida, it seems nothing is ever easy. I've written about the ballot initiative "Floridian's for Solar Choice" here before (Freedom of Choice), and believe it to be a pretty solid idea. Now it appears Florida voters have another amendment to consider, titled "Consumers for Smart Solar". So, why two amendments? With a nod to Isaac Newton's Third Law, in Florida politics there is nearly always an "equal and opposite reaction" to anything that anyone might propose. Just for fun, I'm going to call it "Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics". If someone were to come out with an amendment stating that all kittens are adorable, it would not take long for an opposing group to be formed saying they are the spawn of the devil. Think I'm wrong? Just Google "Cat's are Jerks" and see how many references you come up with. Just sayin'.
There has been a lot written about this in the past year, promoting or chipping away at both amendment proposals. Floridians would do well to educate themselves on what is contained in both proposals, but in the age of the sound-bite and ever shorter attention spans, it seems that it is easier for proponents of both to tear down the other proposal than to support their own. Both proposals could pass, one might pass without the other, or neither may pass. All that is assuming that either one or both gather enough signatures to make it to the ballot. In this case, that is 683,000 signatures for ballot initiatives that most Floridians have never even heard of. I'm hoping that more editorial boards and local new outlets make this into more of a story. Some are trying:
Miami Herald - July 15, 2015 - Group attempts to undercut solar initiative with rival amendment
Sun Sentinel - July 16, 2015 - Second group launches solar energy ballot initiative
Orlando Weekly - September 15, 2015 - Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?
Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2015 - Deception Cast Shadow Over Solar Amendments
Overview of Floridians for Solar Choice:
While Floridians for Solar Choice was first, and identifies itself as a grassroots organization, it does have some backing from corporate interests hoping to have greater flexibility in selling solar systems to Florida consumers. For Florida homeowners, the cost of solar is prohibitive and the return on investment fairly long term. One has to live in the home for a long while, or risk not getting the return on their investment if they have to sell their home before the system is paid off. In other states, leasing companies install the solar systems, then "sell" the electricity back to the homeowner, offsetting the leasing expenses. In Florida, only the big power companies that are highly regulated are allowed to sell power. This keeps the leasing option off the table for the homeowner. The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment language allows anyone to sell up to 2 megawatts.of energy to "the grid". The intent is to cover the low capacity producers, such as homeowners, co-ops, and small businesses by allowing them to resell their unused capacity for use across the grid. Some argue that this may cause increased maintenance costs on the grid that will be borne by the other consumers not on solar power.
Overview of Consumers for Smart Solar:
The second group appears to have made the scene primarily to contest the first group. Consumers for Smart Solar may be a bit of a misnomer, as a large part of it's funding thus far appears to be coming from big energy companies, not consumers. This group states that their goal is consumer protection, and that using non regulated utilities (the small home owners using leasing companies) sets up potential for overcharging customers, and straining the grid without paying for maintenance. They believe this could lead to higher costs for non solar customers. The creators of the web site are so adamantly opposed to the first proposed amendment that they do not even mention it by name, instead just referring to it only as the "Shady Solar Amendment". They are concerned that the alternative amendment is "designed to benefit out of state solar companies". Critics say that this new amendment has been created just to confuse the public, and take away from the 60% voter approval needed to pass.
A Few Thoughts to Ponder
Consumer protection can be a good thing, to a point. However, the free market does have a way of sorting things out. Consider the inroads made by the likes of Uber and Lyft. Both of these companies were, and often still are, working outside of consumer protections of the market segment they are competing in, within their local municipalities. The consumers are still embracing both Uber and Lyft, and pressure is being applied on both the legacy players and the new ones to find middle ground. Why can't that happen with solar? If the maintenance of the grid is increasing because of more producers, and no one knows if that will really be true, then cover the cost through a service fee on purchased energy.
The argument that the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment is designed to benefit out of state solar companies really doesn't hold water. Since none of these solar companies can operate in Florida now, it stands to reason that they will all be out of state now. Why start a company in a state in which you prevented from conducting business in? Perhaps Florida should have in-state companies doing this business - wouldn't that be a good thing? Suppressing Floridians options on solar and/or selling energy back to those that can use it is a real innovation killer. For a state that is drenched in sunshine, Florida could be poised to be a front runner in renewable energy, lessening reliance on fossil fuels and the pollution that they create.
The Consumers for Smart Solar initiative appears to be proving Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics. Passing that amendment really doesn't do much other than to simply preserve the status quo. If Floridians for Solar Choice is as horrible as critics say, why not just campaign against it, rather than run with another proposed amendment that pretty much does nothing? In Florida, nothing is quite that easy. If you are a Floridian voting in the 2016 elections, take the time to educate yourself on this - it may determine the "Sunshine State's" solar future.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
I must have one of these. "Kirk here!" indeed.
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