Brendan Dawes

Analogue + Digital


Adventures with my @makerbot Thing-O-Matic

UPDATE: You can now see everything I make with my Makerbot at


So if you've been following me on Twitter you may have seen that at the beginning of January I bought myself a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic, a DIY 3D printer. The idea of having a personal desktop 3D printer than can create physical objects at the touch of a button simply blows my mind and has huge implications for how we'll purchase / get certain products and things in the future.

But before I could live in the future I had to build it...

We're going to need a bigger boat

When the box arrives you look at all the parts and can't help but feel a little bit overwhelmed; hundreds of nuts and bolts plus lots of other bits just stare out at you. Yet somehow you've got to turn all that into a working robot that makes things. The biggest thing I learned whilst building the Makerbot is to have lots of patience. Don't rush it and take your time. Put the kettle on, then jump on over to the Makerbot wiki and follow their mostly great instructions. Once you've built the first part (the automated build platform) you'll be filled with confidence that this thing is doable; and it's such a great feeling as you gradually see all the parts build into an actual machine. All the way along you'll be saying to yourself "damn, I built that!"

One thing I would say - make sure you've got the tools. You don't need loads of expensive specialist stuff but one thing I couldn't have done without is a bench vice. I had a small multi-vice that I got as Christmas gift (geek) and it was worth its weight in gold. If you're in the UK I can recommend the Stanley Multi-Vice which costs £18. I used it to construct the ribbon cable connectors as well as adding the thumb wheels to certain bolts. Oh, and talking of bolts you'll save loads of time if you take all the M3 16 nuts & bolts and put them into a container; the amount of time I could have saved by not fiddling around in a little bag is incalculable! Also keep things organised; only get out the parts you need for the piece you're building.

Smells like lazer char

To be honest the entire build went without a hitch apart from not pre-sanding the char caused by the laser cutting process. Because I didn't do this when it came time to pass the rods through the holes the char made the opening too tight. I had to dissemble some of the end stops and sand away the char. Bloody annoying. Take the time to remove it, even if it's just from where the rods fit and you'll save yourself loads of time.

Putting it all together

Eventually you have all the components built and it's time to assemble them together. The electronics bit is a little bit tricky fitting everything in there and at the time I found the lack of a wiring diagram a little confusing. Since then however Makerbot have added a handy wiring diagram. 

After  around twenty hours of build time, I now had the Makerbot complete. I was pretty damn proud of this thing; I'm no electrical engineer but here was this thing making machine sat in front of me. Now it was time to plug it in and see what it can do.

Houston we have a problem

When I first plugged it in, my Mac couldn't connect to the motherboard. Eventually I found out that the motherboard wasn't quite sat tight in the Arduino. It looked like it was but it wasn't. Once I made sure it was in properly my Mac coud see it without a problem. After the initial calibration tests I did a few test prints of a cube. Everything was great; the future was here and I could hold it in my hands. I had a couple of issues with the x platform suddenly stopping which turned out to be the grub screws on the x motor spindle working loose as they weren't as tight as they should have been. A little adjustment stopped that problem.

We weren't out of the woods just yet though. I tried a more complex print, went out for an hour and came back to find the extruder motor — the thing that pulls the plastic through — was no longer running. Was the motor burnt out or something? After a Google here and there I discovered I wasn't alone with this problem and it turned out the motor couldn't draw enough power from the board ans so eventually just stops. After speaking with the lovely people at Makerbot, and making sure the motor still worked by attaching it to a 9V battery, they sent me a relay board to fix the problem. Sure enough it worked like a charm and as of last night I'd done over four hours or printing without a hitch, including the infamous Stanford Bunny.

The only minor problem I found was the plastic reel loop started to quickly get tangled and I had to check every now and then to make sure it could feed through properly. I've now ordered the deluxe reel kit from Makerbot which will solve this problem. More money to shell out but I think it'll be worth it.

I'm excited about the possibilities that now sit waiting to be ejected from my Thing-O-Matic. Of course like anything it's all about what you decide to make — the Makerbot is just a tool like any other, but wow, what a tool! If you're thinking of getting one I'd say go for it. Don't expect it to be trouble free — we're not yet in a place where you can order a plug and go 3D printer from Amazon in the same way you might buy a microwave; this is for people who don't mind spending time building things, solving the odd problem, taking things apart and tinkering. If that's you, I think you'll love it. 

In the UK I bought mine from Robosavvy

Making models

I should just mention that before buying the Thing-O-Matic I didn't have a 3D modeling program on my Mac. Seriously 3D was never something that interested me. So now I had to quickly learn how to make some stuff. For me Google Sketchup is perfect for my needs right now especially for just playing around. There's some great tutorials online including how to get Sketchup models ready for 3D printing on the Makerbot. The first thing I modeled printed perfectly! I'm also looking into Blender and found this great tutorial about using Blender to make engineering type models rather than large breasted impossibly thin fantasy women.