Gizmag visits the Aleph Objects 3D printer factory
By Heidi Hoopes
February 28, 2014
Aleph Objects, maker of the LulzBot line of 3D printers, recently made the switch to a new facility in Colorado, big enough to meet its expanding production needs and designed to add more injection-molded and laser-cut parts to the printers. I toured the massive cluster of 135 operating 3D printers, asked about AO’s upcoming plans for not only new printers but other hardware, learned how customers and community drive innovation, and met a fascinating LulzBot client who’s using the Open Source/Libre technology to jumpstart his vision of the future. If you’ve ever wanted to see 135 3D printers in action simultaneously, look no farther.
While the hallmark of a RepRap-based printer is its ability to print copies of itself, changing some 3D-printed parts to injection-molding or laser cutting allows the company to finish printers more quickly. But 3D printing is still used at LulzBot to fuel quick iterative prototypes, print many parts, and as a foundation for creating injection molds.
The 3D Printer Cluster
The cluster of 3D printers is housed in a deceptively small room, with 135 printers in four rows and stacked three high. Most of the printers are the most recent model, the TAZ 3, but a row of AO-101s lines the back and still happily churn away at their assigned parts.The room is also quieter than one might expect, and you can even check the printing schedule and parts list on the company’s website.
Cluster technicians circulate the printer room, relocating printed parts to bins which flank the printers, parent and child being kept together for just a little while longer. Some of these parts may even be used in printers being shipped tomorrow. The cluster can output nearly 40 kg (88 lb) of parts a day, and could double that without adding extra printers.
TAZ Development and New Products
It’s important to note that while TAZ development has had discrete milestones, being initially introduced in May 2013 with the TAZ 2.0 released in October 2013, and the TAZ 3.0 just last month, in reality development is an ongoing evolution – something that the LulzBot online community knows well. Some of the community’s improvements even find their way into future iterations of the TAZ, as did a user's design for the filament spool holder.
I was able to see an operational 4.0 version of the TAZ, nicknamed Guava, but as I was told by Jeff Moe, CEO of Aleph Objects, “You don’t have to be at our headquarters to see our new design.” New designs are not locked down under patents, but available online in AO's code repositories.
The TAZ 4.0 will offer, among other things, easier set-up, a better power supply, and streamlined two-filament printing optionality. The Easy TAZ Mini is another printer to look for later this year, with the company soon presenting its goals for feedback from the community for the smaller TAZ sibling which is ready to go out of the box.
New dual extruder and Flexystruder nozzles are also due to be released soon, for use with 11 filaments, including the rubbery NinjaFlex, food-safe T-Glase, and sandable LayWoo-d3 (LayWood).
A 3D scanner is also being discussed, with Harris Kenny noting that Aleph Objects is in the business of open hardware, not just open printers. With nine acres of land to still expand on and 40 new employees being planned on for 2014, there’s room for even more product lines.
A LulzBot Case Study
While visiting, I met LulzBot user Marcin Jakubowski, the founder and director of Open Source Ecology. OSE creates the Global Village Construction set, a modular and open-source system of the most critical tools to build a civilization, like a tractor or power generator. 3D printing is an essential component of the continual iteration and development required at OSE.
Jakubowski is not only a supporter of Aleph Objects because its product enables him to simulate building his designs in a fraction of the time as using metal would, but because of a shared perception of how open development spurs technological advancements.
The next direction Jakubowski would like to take is offering training workshops to teach others how to make one of OSE's tools. Because the Lulzbot designs are completely open-source, Jakubowski can choose to offer a modified LulzBot design for workshop attendees to create from scratch and learn to use.
However, while open source principles may dominate at one level and allow end users to access the newest advances on the TAZ without paying upgrade fees, the company’s products are accessible to those who aren’t power users. Kenny refers to AO's reputation for excellent customer service and highlights that other printer companies use the LulzBot Budaschnozzle with their products.
For the upcoming Hardware Freedom Day, AO is giving away eight TAZ 3 printers to hackerspaces as a demonstration of its support of those making “contributions to the free software and open hardware community."
In the video below, you can see the previous LulzBot printer cluster, featuring several dozen 3D printers working simultaneously.
Source: Aleph Objects, Inc.