You may have heard of the Tibetan sand mandala ritual.
In a process that can last weeks, monks create an elaborate, patterned design by precisely layering tiny quantities of coloured sand. It is a painstakingly slow and meditative process, resulting in a sculpture of exquisite beauty.
Then, in a metaphor for the transitory nature of life, the entire creation is destroyed.
In some ways, it’s a bit like the whole 3D printing thing — at least in my limited experience.
I’d been following the technology closely, but was leery of plunking down too much money for a novelty I might not use much. Last year, when a U.S. company called New Matter put their MOD-t printer on a crowdfunding site, their slick video caught my attention.
Thus began my journey through the Five Stages of 3-D Printing.
Stage One: Excitement
WOW! Indiegogo has this new printer on an early bird special for $149 (U.S.)! It’s going to eventually retail at $399 (U.S.). Think of the money to be saved and the widgets to be printed.
Plus, the company’s mechanical engineer promises that the endless tweaking that has plagued early home printers will be a thing of the past.
“All of the little fiddling and adjustments that have been — to date — required to get good results, have been done for you. So it’s one-click printing, and you’ve got a great object,” said Derek Schulte in the video.
Great, where do I sign up?
Right here, on the Indiegogo page. And don’t forget $90 for international shipping. SOLD! The purchase was made May 28, 2014.
I tweeted my early bird purchase. A colleague also signed on before the early-bird special was gone.
Stage Two: Anticipation
New Matter pledged a delivery date of April 2015. During the nearly yearlong wait, the company was great — providing regularly emailed updates on the development and manufacture of its new product. It emphasized it was working on providing the best printer it could — that it was continually trying to improve components, firmware, printing resolution, etc.
Yay! This printer is going to be awesome!
On March 6, 2015, an email landed. The MOD-t would be delayed. New Matter was transparent in explaining the reasons — manufacturing issues one can expect with crowdfunding campaigns. Now, said the email, early birds would be waiting until mid-September at the earliest.
At the end of October, it arrived.
Stage Three: Frustration
On setup day, I took the MOD-t over to my friend Dave MacQuarrie’s house. Dave is a maker — fabricating things of his own design in everything from wood and metal through to plastics. He has some 3D printing experience, and a great head for troubleshooting.
Out from the box came the MOD-t. Sleek and futuristic, its clean lines whispered the promise of slick devices coming soon. We installed the software on my laptop, carried out the simple assembly, and upgraded the machine’s firmware.
“It’s beautiful,” said Dave. And it is.
Then came time to feed the PLA (polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic) filament into the print head. We waited until the head had reached the appointed temperature (200 degrees Celsius, displayed on the laptop) and inserted the PLA. There was supposed to be a firm tug as it started feeding.
We tried again.
Nothing. Nothing. NOTHING.
After repeating all steps four or five times, we eventually got the filament in place.
Just a hiccup, I thought.
I selected a small puzzle from the New Matter store — one of many free designs to get you started (there are also free designs to be found online in such vast repositories as www.thingiverse.com).
The head moved into position. The build tray (a base that moves smoothly along the X and Y axes while the printing head takes care of the Z axis) whirred and calibrated itself. The printing would start momentarily.
We tried again.
Stage Four: Satisfaction
Roughly an hour later, the MOD-t decided to co-operate (like the filament, we never did determine precisely why it had failed to co-operate). It started printing, eventually producing the small New Matter logo.
Neat, but not as trouble-free as I’d hoped.
I packed up the Mod-T and took it home.
“Cool” said my son, as soon as he saw it. “Let’s make something!”
We looked through the New Matter store, settling on a cube-shaped marble run/puzzle.
“Behold the Cube of Confusion!” says the caption. “A multi-dimensional puzzle with myriad pathways that’s equal parts confounding and amusing. Drop a marble in one end and see if you can get it out the other ... The fun never stops ... ”
We downloaded the plan and pressed “PRINT.” It was a little after 10 Sunday morning.
The head heated to 200 degrees C precisely. The build tray calibrated and whirred. The print head lowered itself.
“It’s printing!” exclaimed Isaac. “Cool!!!”
And it was. Super cool. Bit by bit, the layers started coalescing into three dimensions. At 7 that night, it was still printing. A dialogue box told us it had about another 14 hours to go.
“When you get up tomorrow, it will be nearly done,” I told my son.
Stage Five: Disappointment
I woke up early, could hear the MOD-t industriously working downstairs. The cube, I could see, was nearly complete.
Except on closer inspection, it was clear something had gone awry. The final layers had shifted somehow — almost as if the table had been bumped hard.
There’d been a hiccup in code — or something — that had caused the printing to go off-track.
I looked again. Fine strands of filament were now landing well off the mark, a collection of stray plastic hairs.
A few minutes later, my son came running down.
“Something went wrong,” he said, disappointed.
Yes, it had. Some 21 hours of manufacturing had indeed produced a “Cube of Confusion.”
I pushed off the power button.
The MOD-t is silent tonight, the “Cube of Disappointment” looking a little frazzled, haywire. I see from the New Matter forums I’m not the only one to have run into issues like this. One person complains of having had some 20 failures.
But there are others who are pleased, happily and successfully making widgets from the comforts of their own home.
The Tibetan sand mandala analogy comes to mind again. Incremental layer upon layer, the Monks produce something collectively greater than those individual grains of sand; something we can admire, behold, contemplate.
But that’s where the comparison ends. The mandala, especially as it is destroyed, teaches us something about our own impermanence; about the ebb and flow of time.
It also, perhaps, teaches us to reach a little deeper — rather than being captured by the latest shiny thing.