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November 22, 2017Hardware

3D Printed Components

It's been over a year since I started this blog, and this is my 48th post. And I'm still feeling like I've got a lot to talk about. So let's hope I can keep it up.

The Commodore 8 Bit Buyer's Guide has recently undergone a pretty major update. And I'm trying to produce a new Feature Page, one for each product, every business day. Sometimes that's not possible, because on some day's I've already got a super busy schedule and simply can't fit it in. But that is the aggressive schedule I'm trying to hold myself to. In order to keep myself motivated I'm tweeting (#8bitbuyer) every day about one product, pulled at random, from the guide. Whatever product I tweet about, that's the product for which I write the feature page. You can follow this stream on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/hashtag/8bitbuyer

The guide is now up to 175 products, projects and kits, up from just over a hundred. And these come from 25 vendors, up from just 15. It isn't that this many products just spontaneously sprang into existence, but that I keep digging deeper and expanding the set of available products to buy.

For example, I dug into the catalog at Retro Innovations, and pulled out cables, adaptors and rom chips, and have listed them. I discovered Poly.Play and all the stuff they carry and listed that. And I discovered some older projects like the 64JPX adaptors that are still commercially available and I listed them. Among numerous others. If it's available, if you can pull out your credit card, place an order and have a thing for your Commodore 8-Bit, then I want you to be able to find it in the Buyer's Guide.

There are some caveats to that. I don't want to list used products of limited stock that people are selling off from their personal collections. You can generically use ebay for that sort of thing. If someone came into the possession of 25 or more Commodore REUs, but they were technically all used, I'd probably still list them. What I'm saying is that, as the editor of the guide, it's a judgement call what I think will benefit people to be able to find.


3D Printing

All the above said, I had a tough time with deciding what I should do about the relatively new phenomenon of 3D printing.

By their very nature there is no stock of 3D printed products waiting to be sold off. Someone somewhere has designed a 3D model and upload the file to a publicly accessible catalog. And there are ways you can turn that into a product you can hold in your hand. I'll get into the details of how to do that below.

One problem that I wrestled with is that there is a virtually unlimited number of such 3D printable products, and their lack of stock means once they're in the catalog, there seems little reason to pull them from the catalog. And, doesn't that present a philosophical problem? Won't simple 3D printable components eventually overtake everything else? This was my concern.

Someone on IRC suggested some 3D printable products and gave me links to items on thingiverse.com. I decided to peruse Thingiverse for everything I could find that is C64 related and just see what I could come up with. What I found was about 12 or 13 things. But immediately didn't see the utility of listing a couple of them. They simply fell below my radar of what I thought would provide enough value that it merited a place in the guide. And I reduced the list to just 10 things.

The philosophical problem is not yet a real problem. There are in reality only 10 things, not the theoretical infinite number of things. And the truth is, I am a person with judgement, and if I feel that the 3D printed options are getting a bit out of hand and not providing the right value, I'll cull them as the need arises.

I had one other problem though. Thingiverse is not a supplier. They're just an online catalog with pictures and related–links, and they host the 3D model files. My concern for the Buyer's Guide is that I want you the Commodore enthusiast to be able to get your hands on the products in as practical, straightforward and realistic a way as possible. So, let's get real, how do you actually get the real, physical, 3D printable component?

How to Acquire a 3D Printable Component

As it turns out, it's a hell of a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. I was pleasantly surprised. And I'm glad to be able to pass on this news and the details of my experience to you.

The Commodore 8 Bit Buyer's Guide provides a link to the component's page at thingiverse (or other online 3D printing catalog). Like this: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1561772 Which takes you to a page that looks something like this:

Screenshot of Thingiverse.com's C64c Keyboard Brackets page

You don't have to have a sign in, you don't even need an account, you don't need to give them your email address. You can just click that blue "Download All Files" button at the top of the rightside column. It downloads a zip file that contains a standard structure. A couple of text files for readme, licence and attribution information. A folder called images with a couple of rendered pictures of what the item is. And a "files" folder which contains the actual model file or files. In the case of the C64c Keyboard Brackets, there are actually two components, the left and right brackets. So this zip package has 3 files, one for the left bracket one for the right, plus a third that contains the models for left and right brackets together in a single file.

Next, you need to find a source for printing the model files. Thingiverse recommends two websites that help you find a source and connect you with that source. I picked one of them at random, treatstock.com. I can't speak to how the others work, but my experience with treatstock.com was seamless and easy.

You do have to make an account with them, because you're going to be placing an order, so your account will maintain your order history and also facilitates communications between you and the source that actually prints your item. Fortunately, creating an account was dead simple. Basically just a name and email address. You don't have to provide any credit card information and creating an account is free. They get their money by taking a cut of whatever you pay when you decide to actually place an order and get an item printed up.

TreatStock makes the process of ordering incredibly easy. There are buttons on the main page that say, "Order 3D Print." That's all you have to do to get started. Their main page also has a simple overview of the entire process end–to–end. Here's what they say:

  1. Upload Model
    • Upload your files
    • Find 3D models in our catalog
    • Hire a designer to help bring your ideas to life


  2. Select a Service
    • Choose from over 100 materials and colors
    • Compare prices, reviews and locations
    • Place an order with the best service for your project


  3. Order Delivery
    • Track the production process of your order
    • Our friendly customer support team is always here to help
    • Fast delivery within 5 days with free shipping insurance

It is in fact even easier than they describe. Step 1, upload your model. You don't need to find a model in their catalog, and you definitely don't need a designer to help you bring your own ideas to life. The 8 Bit Buyer's Guide already gave you the page whence you downloaded the model files for the item you want. Uploading is a snap, in my case, I only uploaded the one file which contains both left and right brackets.

Selecting a service is also very easy. Once you've uploaded the file, they know what its dimensions are. Some services are only going to be capable of producing item within a limited size range. The services that can't produce your item are automatically removed from the list.

There are a choice of materials, which is initially a bit daunting, but they do have simple description text beside each choice to tell you how they're different. And they are generally ordered by price, least expensive first. I went with ABS Plastic, second cheapest, very durable and doesn't biodegrade. And you can also choose your color. The C64 parts are mostly monochromatic so whichever you choose, the whole thing will be produced in that one color.

There is a small gotcha to consider. Varying the material and color changes the set of available sources. The reason for this should be obvious. Some sources simply lack the ability to print in certain materials or to produce certain colors. After toggling through a variety of color options, I discovered that in ABS Plastic, with some colors, there was a source available right here in my home town of Kingston Ontario. The next nearest sources were Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver etc. Other Canadian cities. Especially because these are an internal component, I would gladly forgo some color options, for the ability to have it locally printed where I could drive to pick it up.

I placed an order with the local Kingston source. It cost $10.85. A tad pricey, but not outrageous. We are after all now talking about production runs of one at a time. Before 3D printing, making one thing would be prohibitively expensive for all but companies that were prototyping in advance of mass production.

Payment was handled via my pre-existing PayPal account. So that was a snap. The site then tells you when the source has completed producing the part. I expected it would take a few days, but the source got back to me before the end of the business day. I used the site to send him a message, saying I'd come pick it up after work. TreatStock gives you the address and renders it to a map to show you where the source is located. Zooming in on the map, I discovered that the Kingston source I used is just a house, in the middle of a new residential division! It was just a 10 minute drive up the road.

When I arrived, I went up and knocked on his front door. The parts were ready and waiting. And I didn't have to come with cash because they'd already been paid for. The guy just handed me a set of keyboard brackets for my C64c. Amazing. It's the next best thing to having a replicator. Given the absolute ease with which I went through the process on my very first try, I am more confident than ever recommending printable 3D components in the Buyer's Guide.

Right bracket, bottom view Left bracket, bottom view

Quality

3D prints are pretty cool. You get a thing, and it's like it just comes out of nowhere. For designers, it must be totally amazing.

However, 3D printing is not perfect. If you're expecting to get what you would get from an injection mold, you'll be disappointed. The printer prints in layers. And the layers are stuck together using some chemical magic that I'm not even trying to understand. The parts are sturdy, there is no doubt about that. For internal components, such as these brackets, there is virtually no downside. They're the right size, they add a splash of color when you open the chassis, and they are more than robust enough to hold up your keyboard.

I'm a bit more reluctant to recommend 3D prints for enclosures. Simply because the quality is below what we would normally expect. However, if that doesn't bother you, and if you'd rather have a 3D Printed case than no case at all, then by all means, that's why people have taken the time to design those models.

Feel free to ask me any questions, either in the comments on this article, or in the comments on any of the feature pages that are being built out for these components.

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