Sunday, February 10, 2013

3D Printing, the Frankenlamp, and the World's Awesomest Time Waster

This holiday season, the Cave got a new addition, thanks to the kind generosity of "Santa" (aka Mama Monkey and her folks).   I got a new Solidoodle Pro 3D printer, an invaluable tool and the ultimate plaything for any Maker or Maker wannabe.

While the term "3D printing" conjures up images of red/green glasses and bootleg ViewMaster reels, the real technology is much cooler and occasionally even useful.

I had my first introduction to 3D printing in the Spring of 2004.  It was Wired "NextFest" at Fort Mason, and my friend Debbie and I were fortunate enough to experience a largely splendid showcase of groundbreakingly mundane and trivial technology.  We derisively called it "nyet-fest" at the time.  Nevertheless, nestled in one corner of the exhibition hall, Z Corporation demonstrated something remarkable I had never seen before.  Using inkjet printer components, they had created a device that repeatedly sprayed a fine pattern of water into a bed of plaster, and used it to build up--layer by layer--little plaster statues with remarkable detail.

This demonstration of technology used what Wikipedia refers to as "plaster based 3D modeling" (PP), and one of the first examples of a new class of affordable rapid prototyping tools.  Using it, one could create a small plaster model of practically anything.  If memory serves, Z-Corp's printer still cost around many thousands of dollars a pop, however, and while plaster is fine for making owl statues and Yoda heads, it's not particularly strong or well suited for making functional parts.

The Solidoodle, on the other hand, uses newer "fused deposition modeling" (FDM), which is a essentially a tiny computer controlled glue gun that builds objects layer by layer out of a fine stream of melted plastic.  The technology is emerging and still a little finicky, but has recently become very affordable largely due to the efforts of the RepPap Project.  Unlike plaster, plastic is flexible and durable, and thus well suited for all sorts of functional objects.  Accordingly, I set forth to make useful items and officially designated the Monkey Man Cave as a Yoda head-free zone.

The printer arrived a few weeks ago, and after creating a few custom Lego blocks, replacement missing stool feet, and a new battery cover for a remote control, I was ready for something more sizable and challenging.
The desk in the Man Cave had a nice tiffany type lamp, which my architectural ignorance I will describe as being in the art-deco/arts-and-crafts/mission style.  While I really liked the lamp, I had recently also pruchased a desk-mounted monitor arm, and the lamp was in the way when I wanted to swing the monitor off to the side.  Not content to live with the problem, I came up with a simple solution; Frankenstein the two together, making an unholy monitor arm/lamp union that could combine forces to rule the galaxy while paying homage to the style of the original lamp at the same time.  The 3D printer would be essential.
The monitor arm pivoted on a plain chrome tube that clamped onto the edge of a desk.  To keep the arm from hitting the lamp when it swings around, the idea was to mount the tube permanently on the desk and to wire the tube itself as a new replacement lamp.  To keep with the previous style, however, we'd have to dress up the plain chrome tube.

The existing lamp featured decorative cast metal base topped with beautiful stained glass shade.  I would keep the shade, but the base was too narrow to be re-purposed for the new Frankenlamp.  Instead, I'd have to use the 3D printer to create a new base from scratch.

The first step was easy.  I mounted the monitor stand by unscrewing it from the clamp it came with and fashioned a mounting plate from a large 1/4" thick fender washer.  This I mounted to the desk after drilling a hole for the new lamp wires.

The 3D printer has a maximum print envelope of 6x6x6 inches, so it could not print the lamp base in one piece.  I used OpenSCAD, a parametric code-based design program to create the base with four interlocking pieces that could be printed separately.

Each piece took about three hours to print from a few dollars of black ABS plastic filament.  I used the printer's low-resolution mode, which left the pieces with a subtle horizontal surface texture reminiscent of raw machined metal.

A light coat of spray paint in oil rubbed bronze completed the illusion.

To build up the lamp base, I simply slipped the printed pieces over the chrome monitor support tube. and topped it with a hose clamp that would both hold the parts together and bear the weight of the monitor arm.  A custom top cap piece covered the whole assembly.

I drilled a hole in the top cap to fit a standard lamp assembly from the hardware store, and fastened it to the top with the original lamp shade.

This is the competed Frankenlamp.  Not only does it make a nice addition to the Man Cave, but I was able to add a fabric shade to the original base and reuse it in another part of the house.