Designing The Micro 3D Printer. 2013-2015
In 2013, three of us were hiding away in a garage working on the most exciting challenge. Our mission was to build the first truly affordable, easy to use, consumer 3D printer. The entire year of tireless designing and engineering paid off, and in April 2014 we raised $3.4 million on Kickstarter, selling nearly 12,000 units! For any product designers and engineers, read along for the journey.
Before team M3D came to be, Dr.Armani and David Jones were working on the most interesting project on the East Coast. Their goal: to create a consumer friendly 3D printer and make it affordable. I joined as a third member in the summer of 2013 to do... well a little bit of everything.
The vision for this printer was a comfortable sized, friendly cube - something you could easily fit on the corner of your desk. The challenge was that 3D printing is an intimidating subject for most consumers. It may be fascinating to read about it in the news, but to most individuals a personal 3D printer is beyond their imagination. Most of the initial ID was focused on finding a printer footprint that consumers would be comfortable with. After a great deal of research and customer discovery, we set forward with an 11 inch cubed base dimension to set as our design constraint. A radius was applied to soften the character of the cube and give it a more friendly impression.
With the industry moving so quickly, it was crucial for us to be the first $300 3D printer on Kickstarter. Mechanical engineering immediately went underway as it was crunch time to figure out the composition and inner workings of the printer. This was an immense challenge since nearly every traditional component of the 3D printer had to be redesigned and engineered to fit the envisioned housing. Above are images of the gantry development process. All the while, ID elements were worked on in parallel.
The first housing prototype was littered with a ton of mounting points. This gave us the flexibility to iterate on each component necessary, whether it was motor locations, belt assemblies or the electronics board, and install each version for testing. It was messy, but that's what prototyping is all about. Since we also had to design with assembly in mind, I'm proud to say the final product has a total of three screws! The rest of the product is composed of snap fits, which lent to quick assembly speeds but a nightmare with shipping.
We ordered a batch of housings that served as a base for our next set of prototypes. The units were CNCed polycarbonate, carefully assembled with glue, then shipped from overseas. These samples were painted so we could better envision a selection of color options. With this first iteration housing, we could quickly start developing internal components and mapping them to a functional layout. Thank goodness for 3D printers! On a regular day anywhere from 10-20 prototypes of a single element were printed and tested. This allowed for quick iterations in figuring out ideal motor placement, areas to route cables, and general organization of components. Given the printer's tiny footprint, this was quite a challenge.
The design ideation process and testing for the sliders was hefty. The sliders were important mechanically to ensure print head stability. The challenge here however was that they needed to be as space effective as possible. We were fighting to gain every millimeter in build area possible, so they had to mate efficiently with the corner gantry components.
Our next goal was to set a color palette. We wanted to provide our customers with enough color choices to create a more welcoming 3D printing experience. However, it was important not to overwhelm the customers with too many choices. The hues of the blue, orange and green changed numerous times as development continued. It was a never ending hassle to match colors between injection molding, painting, web and printing processes.
We settled on a staple black and silver mixed in with three fun, vibrant colors you wouldn't traditionally find in 3D printers. This was part of our goal to appeal to a new market rather than just tinkerers and engineers.
The next design task was focused on one of the most crucial elements of the printer. Designing the extruder head. The extruder is a key component of the printer, whizzing around constantly as the printer prints. It resides in the center of the printer, making it a key point of focus. Not to mention, we housed the X-axis motor along with a second motor for material extrusion all within this unit. This subsection's design was important if we wanted to maximize our already limited printing volume.
Several weeks were dedicated to exploring the infinite possibilities for the design. The final design contrasts slightly with the softness profile of the printer. Its chamfered edges paired with the curvature of its side profile made it a neutral yet elegant design for such a central component. The lower chamfer also gave us a few more millimeters of printing area.
Another important yet subtle element is the grommet - a piece that secures the cable assembly to the printer base. The design needed to provide a smooth transition yet remain a forgettable component. It matches the curvature of the printer base and guides the cable up at a desirable angle.
As with any startup, you end up wearing plenty of hats. In addition to mechanical engineering and industrial design, my responsibilities encompassed everything from UI and UX design, to the design of our spools, all graphic design and even packaging design.
The packaging design was important if we were aiming to have a physical store presence. Most existing printers ship in plain brown boxes with the company logo slapped on. To appeal to our markets however, the 3D printing experience starts with unboxing. It was important to keep the aesthetics clean and professional, yet still intriguing and appealing to potential customers.
The goal was to build some anticipation before revealing the printer. After removing the outer telescoping box, the customer is presented with a "Let's get printing" quick start guide, welcoming them to the world of 3D printing. Under this layer of manuals and accessories hides the gem they've been waiting for.
My experiences as lead designer, engineer and a creator of the Micro 3D printer have been nothing short of incredible. Again, this post is merely a reflection on my design processes and creations within the company, not an advertisement for the product.... but as a proud creator I will say, it's time you Pre-Ordered your very own 3D printer! Learn more at www.themicro3d.com