Making a maker: Frustrations connecting a laptop to a 3D printer

Last week I made a 3D digital design of a water bottle cap in 123D Design. This week, I wanted to fire up a 3D printer and print it.

123D Design bottle cap

It didn’t go as planned, but I’ll get to that later. I’m working out of Noisebridge, a hackerspace in San Francisco’s Mission district. On a Friday afternoon it’s especially noisy and crowded, which means I easily track down a new friend who can help me get started on the 3D printers.

All of Noisebridge’s equipment is donated, which means it can be, well, vintage. There are no shiny new 3D printers with all the latest gadgets, like I saw at TechShop a few months ago. But they do have several printers, all in various states of disrepair. My friend tells me the gorgeous looking RepRap, a highly hackable model of 3D printer that really started the entire low-cost 3D printer movement, was recently repaired, but it’s a bit touchy so as a beginner I should steer clear. Instead, the Thing-O-Matic is my best bet.

All of Noisebridge's equipment is donated, including its 3D printers. It doesn't have the latest Replicator, but it does stock a vintage MakerBot Thing-O-Matic and RepRap. Photo by Signe Brewster

All of Noisebridge’s equipment is donated, including its 3D printers. It doesn’t have the latest Replicator, but it does stock a vintage MakerBot Thing-O-Matic and RepRap. Photo by Signe Brewster

I geeked out a little at the prospect of working with a Thing-O-Matic. Manufactured by MakerBot, the Thing-O-Matic was first introduced in 2010, when MakerBot still believed in open-source printers.

But what’s really exciting is that Noisebridge’s Thing-O-Matic is signed by MakerBot founders Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer and Zach Smith. That has to be good karma, right? The pioneers of 3D printing are watching over me.

Noisebridge Thing-O-Matic signatures

I started by replacing the torn blue tape on the print platform. I’ve seen people do this before before print jobs, and a piece of tape stuck to the Thing-O-Matic informs me this is no different. The tape helps the plastic stick to the print platform.

But after that, things start to go poorly. My new friend helps me download ReplicatorG, an open=-source program that basically oversees communicating with a 3D printer. It’s similar to that box that pops up when you hit “print” on your laptop. I find an online guide for how to select the right settings to get it to connect to a Thing-O-Matic.

No luck. It doesn’t recognize the Thing-O-Matic. I wiggled the cord connecting the printer and my laptop, but it doesn’t help. The Noisebridge wiki informs me I might need an older version of ReplicatorG, so I downloaded several and tried them all. Still nothing, though when I plug the RepRap in my laptop recognizes it immediately.

I played around with this for several hours. I downloaded MakerWare, which is MakerBot’s version of ReplicatorG. That didn’t work either.

Overall, it was a disappointing afternoon for 3D printing. But just hanging out in Noisebridge for a few hours has a certain way of making you feel like you were productive.

Acquaintances I’ve formed filled me in on their projects. A visiting hacker told me about his home hackerspace: Hacklab in Toronto. A kid half my age described how he was building a solar-powered phone charger for his upcoming camping trip. It’s a constant reminder of how little I know as a maker, but also a reminder of the incredible projects that become available once you learn a few skills.

Next, I’m going to file a service ticket with MakerBot. They were already kind enough to reply to a tweet with an offer of help. Hopefully they can help me get connected to the Thing-O-Matic.