Review – M3D Micro 3D Printer

I wanted a 3D printer for a while. So, I have been watching Noe and Pedro Ruiz with Adafruit. They have a great show on the Adafruit YouTube channel called 3D Thursdays. Originally, I was holding out for the Flash Forge Creator Pro. Then Adafruit added the retail version of the M3D to their store. At just under $500, that fit a gift card I had been holding onto. It was also a simpler printer for someone getting started.

I am a digital guy. So this whole real world 3D printing thing is new to me beyond watching the Adafruit team. What follows are the things I ran into from the point of view of a complete rookie in this area. I had to have concepts and terms click that experienced folks with printers take for granted.

Buying the printer

I mentioned I had a gift card. It was the typical visa type card. It was enough to cover the printer. But, I wanted some other items from Adafruit when I ordered. The purchasing system will not let you specify multiple credit cards and how much to apply to which card. Some creativity let me work around that limitation. I purchased an Adafruit gift certificate with the Visa gift card. It promptly came via email. I then applied that “to my Adafruit account creating a store balance. That allowed the printer to deduct from that balance and overflow costs to my credit card for the extra items like filament, etc just like I wanted. One of those items was a good digital calipers tool. Critical later when you want to print your own items.

I also made sure to wait till a Thursday to order. This let me use the 3D Thursday discount code they give out on the show good to midnight. Awesome that it saves me money, but it also lets Adafruit know the sale is because of Noe and Pedro’s hard work. PS saving me money really meant I ordered more to compensate. I had a budget I had set so I used it all.

Out of the box

There are plenty of unboxing videos out there for the micro 3D. It was well packaged. Just be sure to follow their directions step by step. Do not forget to remove all the tape, foam inserts and gantry clips before hooking it to power and USB.

I made sure to have a flat stable table with room for a filament spool stand next to the printer.

Videos I found useful:

Mac vs Windows

I am a Mac person. The current version works but keep in mind the Windows version is ahead of the Mac version in features and firmware. Whenever you start up the M3D software regardless of platform it will check the firmware version. The software and firmware versions are intertwined best I can tell. If I update firmware to print from the Windows version when I go back to the Mac side then the firmware must downgrade before I can use the Mac M3d software. Same going back the other way.

Firmware

My particular printer does not print center of the bed when on the Mac firmware (2015-10-23-03) despite what the M3D software shows before printing. The print head can go to the center when told. I had even tried the full system recalibrate. The problem goes away when doing the exact same print from Windows with newer firmware (Beta 2016-01-08-12).

You can get scared you bricked your printer if the update gets interrupted. So far I have been able to just go back to the Mac side force a fresh downgrade to recover. There is a tech note on firmware updating in the tech support pages.

Filament and feeding

The biggest problem I had with printing was getting my head around good filament feeding to the printer. Most of the time the internal feed path from under the print bed worked reliably. At times it would still catch. You know when you have filament binding/friction issues because your print will skew as it builds. Drag causes higher layers to be off compared to where they should be.

Remember I said I’m a digital guy? Yeah.. I was dumb and just put the external PLA spool on a hatch box spool holder I got from Amazon. Without what is called a spool bearing. Meaning that it didn’t fit centered and thus did not rotate feeding filament when gently pulled. That gave me most of my skew problems. When Pedro via Twitter pointed out skew means friction I went after fixing that. Did I mention these guys are great about sharing their knowledge? And without making me feel dumb for not seeing the obvious.

I customized and printed two of this bearing from thingiverse. Remember those digital calipers? Came in handy here. But only after I read this Make article on how to use them. When I first took them out, I had an image of Noe and Pedro dressed as wizards waving around digital calipers like a magic wand. I had to measure the hole in the PLA spool and the tube on the holder then customize the bearing print accordingly. They are not a perfect fit because I’m a noob. They probably need to be a hair bigger or have some sort of locking washer to hold them in. Still good enough for me and now I can gently tug with two fingers on the filament and see it turn the spool without catching.

Another thing I learned. Not to be afraid of the emergency stop or abort print buttons. Several times I had not calibrated after changing filament or bumped the print head taking out a print. I could tell I was getting skew or bad layer bonding early. Just be sure if you use emergency stop to use the set bed clear button before you can print again. Calibrating the bed position again isn’t bad idea either. It is better than wasted print time and filament. And this unit is SLOW, but seriously what did you expect for such an easy to use printer for $500?

PLA vs Flex (tough 3D)

So far the best prints I have gotten from the M3D have been with their own PLA 3D ink filament. I have some blue PLA I got from Adafruit and it works, but not as well for when comparing my best prints.

Flexible aka tough filament can be Ninjaflex that I got from Adafruit or the new “tough 3d ink” that I got from Micro3D directly. I haven’t opened my Ninjaflex roll yet. But, I have tried the tough ink. You will get absolutely miserable layer bonding if there is any skew at all due to filament binding. It’s obviously because it ends up a big spaghetti mess instead of the object you expected.

I seem to get way better results printing the tough ink filament from Windows with the updated software and firmware that “knows” the filament cheat codes for the new tough ink. On the Mac version, you have to trick it and setup a custom filament profile. That is another reason I wish they would keep the Mac and Windows in sync.

Slicing

I have been around IT a long time. The concept of a printer language was not new to me. So the slicing/gcode thing didn’t throw me for a loop.

Slicing is where software takes our 3D object and turns it into printer language (gcode). That gcode are the actual actions the printer takes to put the filament where it needs to go to create our object. The M3D software does a good starting job at this. I did buy a copy of Simplify3D to get more efficient prints with better support structure. The only downside to using Simplify3d is that you cannot just hit print when ready and have the printer start up. The M3D uses some special serial port communications protocol that prevents Simplify3D from talking directly to the printer. So you have to print “tool path to file” then use the “add spool job” in the M3D spooler engine to print that file. Similar to what you see in this gcode to M3D YouTube video. I found that I have better control over support structures and overall printing speed seems better due to Simplify3D being smarter than the M3D software itself. Another great feature of Simplify3D is that it lets you animate a preview of how the object will print. so you can look for problems before spending an hour or more on a print.

I do need to spend more time setting up established print profiles in Simplify3D for quality and filament types I want to use often.

Skirt/Brim

This is not an option in M3D software, but is something you can have enabled in Simplify3D. The benefit to me so far is that it gives the printer a chance to purge out filament as it gets warmed up to print my object. That leaves the excess filament off to the side instead of on my object or throwing the raft out of whack.

Raft

Raft? I almost always print one on the M3D. At first filament adhesion to the print bed was not an issue. It did get worse over time with many prints. So the printing of a raft gives the print a more level footing. The downside is that often the raft is harder to break away at higher print resolutions for me. I could probably improve this if I get my head around what all the numbers mean in the Simplify3D settings. That is again something you have little to no control over in the M3D software natively.

The rafts on my first M3D software based prints when the printer was new broke away great. Seems both Simplify3D and M3D generated rafts have fused more with the objects than they did at first. I suspect either operator error or all the knocking around. Or maybe it’s print quality related. The higher the settling the more heat that gets to small area on this printer.

Octoprint

The Adafruit guys love Octoprint. The idea of using an idle Raspberry Pi2 for a print server is certainly attractive. It would save me from leaving my laptop attached to the printer for hours when I’d rather take it with me to Starbucks. You can even turn on mobile interface for your phone or tablet.

I tried using Octoprint from my raspberry pi 2. It was unbearably slow on my B+ so just stuck with my Pi2. I simply could not get it working with my M3D when starting from the Mac firmware. Octoprint wanted it’s own firmware update of the M3D to let it communicate. Even after letting the firmware update my printer, nothing would work. I kept having to downgrade back to the Mac firmware version.

Next, I tried using Octoprint with the beta windows firmware. It let me communicate to the printer and did not prompt to upgrade firmware via Octoprint. I could move the head around. When I tried to print a gcode file that I previously ran with M3D spooler; the print head tried to go up out the top of the printer. So I figured I needed to calibrate from within Octoprint. That bought me a small burn hole into the front left as it moved the printhead outside the bed area. I would NOT be messing with Octoprint and M3D if you are a rookie like me. I am giving up on it until better step by step tutorials are out by experienced folks.

Updated There is a M3D-Octoprint tutorial on Adafruit that mentions leveling each corner manually. It is all on me for not reading that tutorial over again before messing with Octoprint.

Summary

I will make one comment about M3D support. When I first started having issues I was worried indicated printer hardware alignment in the first few days I sent in a support ticket. They are either so busy or so understaffed I have only received automated ticket email on it. That is even days later. I have emailed back asking them to close the ticket. If fast technical support on the retail version is a concern, you should take that into consideration before buying.

I love my M3D as someone new to 3D printing. I have learned a lot and made some mistakes. Hopefully, if you are as new as I am to 3D printing you can learn from my experience so far. It will continue to be good for portable printing and small lower detail parts. I expect in a few months I’ll graduate to the Flash Forge Creator Pro unless something better comes out for 2016.

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Review – Cocoon Slim Backpack

I have been using a pretty well made shoulder laptop bag. It has lots of good pockets and the stiching is not flimsy. However, it is still a shoulder bag and that gets uncomfortable during a 15 minute walk to and from work.

So I asked for the Cocoon slim backpack for Christmas. It is an exclusive for now through the Apple Store. This is the same company that brings us the Gridit products.

I asked for the backpack for two reasons. First, it has a built in Gridit section. Second the slim profile places the weight down the length of my spine better when carrying the backpack. Way better than a traditional shoulder bag.

The bag has a very solid feel. The zippers are well made and do not feel like they will separate as a lot of bags do. The sections do unzip to the point you can lay it open fully flat. That completely exposes the built in Gridit section. I was able to organize the items I want to carry but not always use onto the Gridit platform. I found my small Gridit board still fits flat just laying on top of the built in platform. This makes it easy for me to routinely pull out charging cables I need often without opening it all the way.

The laptop section has a soft sleeve area for an iPad or other tablet. Then an adjoining pocket for up to a 15\” laptop.

There are an external pocket on the front of the backpack closed by zipped for slim materials. And one in the front cover but within the laptop compartment. That\’s it. No other pockets as you would expect to keep it slim. Perfect for a back and forth backpack.

I\’m very satisfied with the backpack. An excellent well made bargain for the price.

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Product Review – Pebble Watch

Pebble

I was excited to find my Pebble waiting for me this weekend. Reviews by other backers have generally been good. You can find several others listed below so I will not rehash all of the common details. Instead, I want to touch on a couple of issues specific to my experience.

I wore my Pebble to dinner on Friday night. The $spouse’s comment was that it looked like something out of a cereal box due to the black plastic. My reply was: I was just as excited to get it as when digging the prize out of said cereal box. Granted, it is not formal wear like a Rolex. It does handle the things that I wanted it for. Viewing information and controlling music on my iPhone when walking to and from the office or working out. Even the black rubber band it comes with works best for my immediate needs. I won’t mess it up with water or sweat.

Issues – Siri and Bluetooth

I have run into a couple of the reported issues. The Siri blocking issue frustrates me most. This occurs most of the time when the Pebble is active with my iPhone and I try and trigger Siri. You will see the bluetooth selector next to Siri’s microphone icon. If the pebble is selected then it dead ends the audio and Siri cannot hear you. Sometimes you can select the iPhone to get Siri working again. Often it will flip back to the Pebble if you have lost Bluetooth connectivity. Such as leaving the watch on your desk and carrying your iPhone around the house.

I did find that I never have the Siri issue when I am in my car. My iPhone is set to automatically pair with my car handsfree system. The non phone audio of my iPhone also automatically associates with my TuneLink bluetooth adapter that goes to the line in of my car audio system. Siri functions every time normally without hooking into the Pebble by accident.

There is another issue I have noticed that no one else seems to have mentioned. If I open an app that consumes a lot of iPhone memory and other resources I think the iPhone is killing the Pebble app. It comes back when the Pebble communicates with the iPhone. That triggers the popup to request approval for allowing the Pebble to talk to the phone again. This is something I hope Pebble can fix in a software update to better hook approved status and not keep prompting going forward.

Issues – Notifications

I have had a mixed experience on notifications. I had some sporadic issues with even normal notifications working such as iMessages. A reboot of my iPhone seemed to clear that up.

Email notifications gave me a brief headache. I did not want every single email showing up on my Pebble. So I killed display in lock screen on the main settings for my two primary mail accounts in the iPhone. However I left it active on my VIP list which is supposed to override the settings. I had hoped this would mean that I only saw email on the Pebble from that list of people. Unfortunately that temporarily broke email notifications.

I did a run through to reset all notification styles and got it working again. Then moved it back to VIP list only and that seems to have cleared it up for me. I am now just seeing email notifications on my Pebble from those on my VIP list.

I strongly suspect the reset notification hook dance has a tie to the Bluetooth reconnection after the iPhone and Pebble gets back into range of each other.

Update 2/17/13 7PM I have found I definitely have to do the trick of changing notification type to none and back to the desired type like banner after I have gotten the pop up requesting permission to give the Pebble permission to connect to my phone. It is consistent.

Summary Opinion

I love the watch so far despite the odd bluetooth and Siri issues. I think it will fit the need exactly as I intended. Future software updates should keep the experience improving. It is not going to be a purchase for everyone for a while yet. But perfect for my walking and exercising needs. One other scenario I look forward to with the Pebble. I listen to a lot of audio books. Now I can leave my iPhone plugged in and charging on the night stand with airplay of my books to speakers. I get to see important messages and pause the book if needed all without having to take the phone from it’s charger.

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Product Review – Philips Hue Light Bulbs

I have been using the Hue bulbs for a monthnow. I purchased the starter three bulb kit from the Apple store. It worked out well since I have a floor, table and kitchen overhead lamp in my apartment.

Setup

The setup was very straight forward. I just have to install the Hue app on my iPhone after hooking up the controller box to my router andinstalling the three bulbs. You just press the button on the controller and the app sees and associates the unit to your app. Nowyou can control the bulbs with any of the preset lighting profiles.

The App

Now the bad part of all this is the app. It is nearly pure garbage. It tries to sync the profiles between your online account and to alldevices with the Hue app connected to your controller. My experience has been that it often glitches and you get duplicate or missing profiles across devices. They would have done better to support iCloudor dropbox sync support. The worst part of the app by far is the timer function. You can set profiles to start and stop on a timer. Youwould think that the timer settings get loaded into the controllerunit. The best I can tell is that the timers only work if you leave the app running on the device where you set the schedule. Any glitches in connectivity can cause them to fail to go off as well. In a nutshell they are completely unreliable.

General Experience

Overall the setup was very simple. The app is the worst part of the experience for automation. The bulbs are 60W equivalent. If you needbrighter then these are not the bulbs for you. I did enjoy takingphotos and setting my own color profiles as long as I was satisfied manually switching to those profiles rather than scheduling them. I definitely do not regret the purchase, since I can climb into bed and flip all the lights off at once. If I need to get up in the middle of the night I can flip them all to a low power profile like “moonlight.”That is great so I can move around without waking myself up too muchfrom bright light.

Keep in mind the limitations of the scheduling if you are considering this purchase. That might be a deal breaker for most folks. Instead look at the Belkin WeMo to control your existing lights.

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Griffin Powermate – Mic Mute Button

I picked up a Griffin Powermate last week on a whim. It is a usb connected solidly built alluminum control knob. You can press and turn it to trigger events. It also has a blue LED light for giving status feedback. It can work on Mac and Windows.

It comes with a number of default actions for controlling applications like iTunes, Safari etc. You can add your own and even trigger scripts with it. Griffin provides some apple script samples with the software for the powermate. These can do things like place the led into a triple flash alert mode.

I took the supplied scripts and saved them in a Scripts subfolder on my mac. Then I setup a new Control group for podcasting. You can only choose one active set per powermate at a time. Yes you can connect multiple powermates if you really want. I then found and added the applescripts for controlling skype that I found over at Mystic Coders. Next I put together triggers to toggle muting both an active skype call and the input audio level for my Mac. This way if I am on Skype with someone and they are recording I can mute for coughs, interuptions etc. I have the action also zero out then restore the input audio level as well. That solves muting my mic if I am the one doing the recording.

Setting up the Triggers

For the Trigger: Mic-Mute: Under Advanced I check to match light state for “Default” This only runs the below actions if the light is in the default state. This keeps it from running twice once we change the light state while muted.

  • Action: InputVolume-0: AppleScript: set volume input volume 0

  • Action: Skype-MuteON: AppleScript: run the skype mute script from Mystic Coders

  • Action: PM-LightPulse: AppleScript: run the Griffin provded script: AlertX3.scpt

For the Trigger: Mic-UnMute: Under Advanced I check to match light state for “Alert x3” This only runs the below actions if the light is in the alert state as defined in the Griffin script. This keeps it from running twice once we change the light state while unmuted.

  • Action: InputVolume-72: AppleScript:  set volume input volume 72

  • Action: Skype-MuteOFF: AppleScript: run the skype unmute script from Mystic Coders

  • Action: Clear Light State

That does it. Now when I go to record a podcast I flip my active control set for my powermate to my Podcast set. Press the knob to mute and again to unmute. It flashes while muted to ensure I know I am muted to save me from talking for several minutes without getting it recorded.

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Review – DualComm – Ethernet Tap

I saw mention of the DualComm Ethernet switch/tap on my twitter feed a few weeks back from @Pauldotcom.  It is really difficult to sniff traffic without a hub or business level switch.  Or you could do a pass through feed using a dedicated pc.   The DualComm tap provides a very simple and affordable way to tap traffic by putting a port replicator feature in a small switch.

So I ordered the USB Powered 10/100 Ethernet Tap DCSW-1005.  It cost $59.95 and they take paypal.

Ethernet Tap
Ethernet Tap

It works like a champ.  I plugged it into a spare apple usb power plug where all my network hardware is.  Then I patched the cable from my router wan port to the port two of the switch.  Port one then went to my cable modem.  I tested and found all my Internet connectivity works fine without issue or performance hit.  Then I just plugged the port five from the Ethernet tap to a old Thinkpad laptop I have for such things.  I did have to order a Linksys USB Network adapter to have the second interface on the Thinkpad for sniffing the traffic.  The onboard nic is used for normal network access, ssh, etc.  Testing Ntop, Dsniff, URLSnarf etc all work perfectly.  It was amazing that I could not find the USB wired network adapter in any local stores.  I had to order that Linksys adapter from Amazon.

All said and done.  The DualComm DCSW-1005 works great!  And having it be usb powered means no dedicated power adapters to be lost or mislabeled.  If you need an Ethernet tap for your security work this is a great find.

PS If you are like me and forget how to put an interface into promisc mode under Ubuntu linux.  Andrew Hay has a great post on promisc mode setup I keep handy.

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Photo Comparison – Kodak Zi8 – Canon S2 IS

I did a quick comparison shot between what is supposed to be a 5MP still shot ability of the Kodak Zi8 HD video camera and my old Canon S2 IS. The Canon is a 3MP camera. But it shows you how soft the Kodak makes still shots. It makes great HD footage when well lit. But there is no substitute for the right tool for the job. My old still camera with optical zoom is still a way better still shot camera.

Kodakzi8Canons2
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