First customer ship, finalizing documentation, and the Chinese Shipping Apocalypse

Hello, world!

Probably the biggest news from this past weekend was that we've shipped our first printer to a kickstarter backer!  We selected a backer in the "Early Bird" HBP full kit pool that was A) a practicing Mechanical Engineer, B) has a residence and a workplace within 15 minutes of Mike's house, and C) had been active on the OpenBeam forum as our first guinea pig:

While we would *love* to tell you that the shipment was completely smooth and kits are flying out the door, the unfortunate reality is that this was a test ship to get a fresh, outside set of eyeballs on a problem that we've been working on tireless for the past two years.  (OpenBeam had already been involved in 3D Printer research and development for over a year when the Kickstarter campaign was launched).  We don't consider this shipment to be a success; as our brave tester had reported 3 errors thus far:

1)  The wrong count of ball bearings were included in the ball joint kit.  This is traced to a kitting instruction error - I (Terence) had kitted up the correct # of ball bearings and photographed the right thing, but put the incorrect number of ball bearings in the work instruction and into the BOM.  As a result, we went through and reworked all the ball joint kits that have been kitted up to fix the error.

2)  The wrong count of screws were included in the end effector kit.  This was traced to a down-rev assembly being included in his kit.  Because I broke protocol and kitted the kit myself, this was considered to be a one-off error.  Just in case, we inspected all the delivered sub-assemblies and checked and made sure that they have been kitted correctly.  They are.

3)  The laser cut plastic panels for holding the power supply in position is too thick.  The specs call for 3mm nominal, which is on the thick side, but would have worked with our supplied screws.  Unfortunately due to the variance in thickness for acrylic sheets, our backer received a piece clocked in at 3.5mm.  This did not give enough thread engagement to fasten the panel.

To fix this, we are going to abandon laser cutting and use CNC routing to fabricate this panel.  A local company is cutting this for us out of an acrylic/pvc blend panel and we are scheduled to receive the first 20 pieces for FAI (First Article Inspection) this coming Friday (day after tomorrow) and the balance of the parts will be available next week once we approve the samples.  The use of CNC routing allows us to use material that would otherwise be incompatible with laser processing; in this case, the material is Boltaron 4335, a flame-rated, high impact Acrylic/PVC blend that has a UL flame rating of 94V0 at a mere 0.5mm.  We will be using a 2.3mm panel for mounting our PSU and the power inlet module. 

Our backer's printer after a few hours' worth of assembly time.  Starting to look like a printer!

Our backer's printer after a few hours' worth of assembly time.  Starting to look like a printer!

In other news:

A)  The Heated Build Platforms had finally arrived!  At 1/8" thick, these things are BEEFY.  And they should be, since that's the foundation for the print to sit on.  (Well, that, and the 5mm thick borosilicate glass plate...)

MikeZ of Z-Designs making a special delivery.  I am sure one of these days someone in our business park will call the cops on "two sketchy looking dudes exchanging boxes out of the back of their cars", just about every day at lunch time.

B)  I rented a bunch of video gear, and ended up buying myself a new external video recorder unit (which is really useful for shooting these assembly videos, as the camera is nearly ceiling mounted, looking straight down, and it's handy to be able to check focus and see what the camera is seeing without having to stand on a ladder:

Preliminary results here - we have about 350Gb of footage to sort through.  I am not 100% happy with this take, so I reshot another take with a 100mm macro lens so you can see the parts more clearly.  I hope to have more footage processed this coming weekend:

Our vimeo feed can be found here; but be warned, most of the stuff on there did not meet our quality standard and we have already reshot all the footage (just pending edit).

C).  Fall Golden Week, along with a new Chinese president's "crack down on corruption", is still wrecking havoc on our shipping schedule.  This is the time when every Western country is trying to get the latest hotness readied for the shelves for the Christmas season, and the entire country had just finished taking a week long vacation.  On top of that, due to recently drug seizures (and thousands of government, provincial and municipal workers being fired / arrested for all manners of crime and corruption), Chinese customs is now doing a 100% inspection on outgoing items.  

Unfortunately, our glass plates, power supplies, linear rails and end effector PCAs are still stuck in the export customs queue.  (It's already been about a week and counting for the glass plates and power supplies).  The bright side is that the plastics are most time consuming to kit and we've already received this into inventory, and our kitter is blasting through the kits.  Unfortunately though, we can't ship kits until *EVERYTHING * is received in - our existing glass stock and power supply stock is only enough for in house engineering testing.

D)  We've outsourced some of the trickier cables to a local cable manufacturing company (basically, as my old boss and mentor would say:  Throw reasonable amounts of money at this problem to make it someone else's problem).  Without the burden of crimping cables (each end effector cable takes *20* crimps) our kitter is freed up to just kit kits.  She's already done 20-60 of each subasssembly kit, and a lot of them are in the final kit form, waiting for the sealing label which we'll apply once we've verified contents of the kit.  We are being extra diligent on the kit contents because it doesn't do anyone any good if they are missing a screw or nut and it really hurts fainancially to spend $5.00 (or more) on postage to ship someone a 20 cent part, 120 times.

E)  Finally, while we've registered the domain for hosting our documentation, videos, and eventual wiki, the site is not active yet.  We'll announce here when we activate the domain.

That's about all for this update.  For both Mike and I, this project had been a huge personal growth opportunity as well.  We look forward to getting these kits into our backer's hands, and back to new product development, once the printer ships.  

-=- Terence & Mike


Stuck In Customs & the *other* Golden Week

Ladies and Gentlemen, first of all, I present to you, the first Kossel Pro with Heated Build Platform kit:

The Kossel Pro kit, shown here with a Heated Build Platform.

As discussed previously, the Kossel family was designed to be highly modular.  Inside that brown box, this is what you can expect to find:

Every sub assembly of the printer has been designed with a 3D printable equivalent in mind, and every sub assembly that you see will be available individually on Amazon once Kickstarter fulfillment is over.  The kit was architect this way to enable people to tinker and experiment, yet at the same time, by having standardized configurations tested and published, we hope to have made the kit easy and accessible for beginners as well.

The kit pictured above will be going to one of our patient early bird backers here in the Seattle Area, maybe as early as later this week.  It is currently missing a few things - one of which, unfortunately, is the new heated bed.

Every product design engineer that deals with China knows about Chinese New Year - where factories often close for 2 weeks or more.  It is called a "Golden week" in China, because of the 1 week vacation that everyone is given - a vacation that is often augmented by the workers either prior or after Chinese New Year, as it is the one time that migrant workers get to go home and see their families.  We've blogged about it before here on the OpenBeam blog - it is the largest human migration in world; it happens every year, and the last place you'd want to be is in a Chinese train station without a ticket to your final destination during this period.

What people may not know is that there is a second Golden Week.  Unlike the one for Chinese New Year, which follows the Chinese Lunar Calendar and varies every year, the autumn Golden Week starts on Oct 1st on the Chinese National Day and lasts for 7 days as well.  And everything shuts down too, during this time period.

We ordered the new heated bed the first week of September - and it had already shipped.  (when we ordered the HBP, the expectation was 10 day lead time - that's the standard lead time for a "fancy" circuit board.)  Unfortunately, UPS says that the shipper filled out something incorrectly.  So, our boards have been - you guessed it - stuck in customs for a week and counting, until the CM gets back from vacation to correct the shipping paperwork error.  

The joys of customs clearance.  Nowhere else in international business can a single paper pushing clerk do so much damage to a company's cash flow with a few keystrokes.

In the meantime, it's full steam ahead with kitting all the kits that we do have all the parts for.  I (Terence) have been banging out work instructions and following up with our vendors on back ordered parts as well to ensure that once we start kitting, we can keep blasting through the kits, while Mike had been working closely with our kitter to make sure she's not idling and that our sub assemblies are going through and passing First Article Inspection (FAI) process.  

Here's more pictures, taken from our work instructions, to give you a sneak preview of what's coming inside all those little white boxes:

As mentioned on the forum, there is nothing more that we'd like than to get these kits into the hands of our backers.  We are almost there!

-=- Terence & Mike

Shipping soon, no, really!

This past weekend had been a physically draining weekend.  Mike Ziomkowski and I spent just about every daylight hour reorganizing the OpenBeam storage lockers to make room for the Kossel Pro extrusions that had been sitting in my parent's garage since last November.  (Yikes, had it really been that long?).  We were joined by my wife Rachel on Sunday as we inventoried every last plastic part and OpenBeam kit into the storage locker, in order to compile build readiness data for the upcoming fulfillment activities.

Every part ever used on every OpenBeam and Z-Designs kit that's sold, or currently in development is assigned a part number.  (Due to the tight integration of our parts in the printer, and the long friendship between the two of us, Mike and I have decided to share joint administration of our part numbering system and our document control system.)  We are using Arena PLM, a cloud based Product Life cycle Management software, to handle our document control and engineering change order management system.  Exactly how we use Arena, and how we use it to facilitate an engineering transfer of our manufacturing to an off-shore contract manufacturer will be the subject blog posts later, but for now, let's just say we're getting a bit more organized.

For the kid who in college ended up on the front page of the school news paper for having a uniquely messy and cluttered dorm room (My old college roommate reads this blog - Hi Louis! :)  Remember when we hung stuff from the ceiling because we ran out of storage space? :-D ), let's just say it had been a long personal journey of growth to get to where we are.  

This is what a Kossel kit looks like inside our PLM system.  Shown here is the configuration with the heated build platform, which is by far the most popular model.  Every ZT-KIT part number represents a kit that we sell on and every ZT-ASY number represents a combination of parts that have had work done to them (such as kitting and sealing them into a plastic bag).  -KITs, are for sale, -ASYs are not.

Astute blog readers will notice that the HBP is actually sold as an Assembly, not a kit, which means we won't actually carry it on Amazon.  Not to worry - this is a unique case where the HBP is an assembly of kits.  We'd rather sell the HBP, the glass plate, and the bed clamps individually on Amazon and let people pick what they need a-la-carte.  Doing it this way greatly simplifies our inventory management.

As you can see, the Kossel Pro is essentially a kit of kits.  We kept things this way to make the printer as modular as possible.  In fact, we will no longer sell printer kits directly after pre-orders closes -  After the preorders close, we will be partnering up with Solarbotics Ltd, in Calgary, Alberta and MatterHackers Inc in Orange County, California, for selling full printer kits, and we will only be selling the sub-assemblies on Amazon.  We are doing this because as engineers with day jobs, neither Mike nor I can offer the support that this truly deserves, and we'd trust these two companies to provide great support to our users.  

When you drill deeper down into the Bill of Materials, each kit is made up of a collection of -ASY sub assemblies.  We have started kitting the sub assemblies, as mentioned two weeks ago, and included in this time is training for our kitter on some basic soldering skills as well as wire crimping skills.  We have made fairly good progress, but there's still a bit to go.

Here's a link to the Google Spreadsheet listing the status of the kitting in details.  At the current rate, we are hopeful that we'd be able to complete First Article Inspection on all -ASYs by this Sunday.  After completing all the FAI on the -ASY numbers, we'll then have to kit them up into the final kit (which is a much quicker process, typically we're just building a ULine mailer box, putting the parts into it with some Geami wrap, and then sealing it off with a print-on-demand label.)  

Once the FAIs are approved, we expect our throughput for kitting to be about 20-40 kits per week.  We'll do batch shipments of the kits to our backers and to our preorder folks.  Early bird backers will be the first to receive their kits, followed by Kickstarter folks, followed by pre-order folks, in that order.  

Now, onto the engineering update:

Our injection molder delivered early!  More importantly, the fixes that we have done to the mold completely fixed the issues at hand.  Here is a change log of the parts.

Auto Probe:

As molded originally, the Auto Probe had two issues:  First of all, the standoff that's acting as the L-arm of the original hex key occasionally have trouble hitting and actuating the pin plunger on the switch.  This was due to the round shape of the stand off and the gap that the pin falls into being a little bit too wide.

We've also significantly increased the down force on the spring deploying the probe.  This, combined with tightening the tolerance on the slip fit between the pin and the pin body, was done to improve the centering accuracy of the probe.  (The Reprap allen key arm was notorious for wandering all over the place, when the probe gets deployed.)  This unfortunately meant that the spring force required to lock the probe into the up position also got correspondingly larger, and the probe would no longer reliably retract with the original spring that we've specified.

OpenBeam's printer's selling point is the auto levelling probe, continuing on Johann's tradition of making Delta printers easy to use.  Obviously, having an unreliable probe wasn't acceptable.

So, this is the change we made to the plastics:

We significantly increased the size of the spring cavity for the return torsion spring, to allow for a MUCH stiffer spring to be installed.  Now when the probe is retracted, there is a nice solid *CLICK* as the probe locks into position.

We also added guide ribs to center the stand off when the probe deploys.  Now the switch is actuated 100% of the time. 

Here's a picture of the actual assembled probe, in deployed and retracted positions:

The other part that we made significant improvement to is the hot end clamp.  We weren't happy with how loose the fit was to the M5 nut and the washer.  So, we added crush ribs to the inside of the hexagonal feature:

The features highlighted in blue are called "Crush ribs" in industry parlance.  As the name implies, it's a thin piece of plastic (rib) that gets crushed in a press-fit situation.  It's job is to collapse and provide just the right amount of an interference fit to make things tight.  I had some reservations in using crush ribs with this plastic (remember, all black plastic parts on this printer is 47% glass for reinforcement!) but it worked really well.

As a "Hail Mary", I also increased the width of the channel for the serrated flange lock nut that the Metrix Create Space crew have been using in their Reprap Kossels.  Now, the push fit connector is just about bullet proof.

Machining the Vertexes

We've had a bear of a time with the vertexes.  I failed the initial run's first article inspection, because some of the holes were off.  

At OpenBeam, we've been taking extrusions for granted; we found a really great supplier and haven't looked back since.  Unfortunately, our volumes were too small for our overseas vendor to handle, so we had to go with a domestic supplier for the Kossel vertex extrusions.  I visited the vendor in Chicago last year in October and gave them the business.

Unfortunately, we didn't specify to the vendor how to cut the vertexes, or how accurate the cuts needed to be.  I had seen a carbide tipped chop saw on my tour and assumed that's what they'd cut the extrusions with.  Afterall, that's what my overseas vendor does, and they get incredible, breath-taking accuracy with that saw, and it's wicked fast.  

We originally had the vendor quote machining the part to completion, but the dollar amount they wanted for the fixture alone would have bought me a small CNC mill.  Because the vendor had already quoted turn key machining, we thought that it was understood that the edges of the extrusions are critical.  We've been holding the part on its end, referencing the machining operations on a face that we assumed was orthogonal to the extrusion axis.  Turns out, our vendor decided to cut the parts on a bandsaw.  And not just any band saw - looking at the cutting marks, it's apparent that the band saw had a broken blade and the blade started drifting during the cuts.

So, our machinists devised another work holding method, called an "Expanding Mandrel":

In an expanding mandrel setup, a nut forces the metal open to "expand" and grab the insides of the part.  Because the insides of the part is formed by the extrusion process, it tends to be fairly accurate.  The two band saw cuts on each end can wander, but the part will still be held true.

Here's a video of the setup in action:

Cycle time is about 8 minutes.  So, rounding up a little bit, we can reasonably assume that we can produce about 16 sets of parts per 8 hour work shift.  Tom is still dialing in the fixture to get it better, although the test fit I got was fairly good:

Yes, that's Mrs. OpenBeam's personal 3D Printer.  I'm late on her unit's delivery too...

Yes, that's Mrs. OpenBeam's personal 3D Printer.  I'm late on her unit's delivery too...

Other project administration stuff:

We shot some assembly footage, but I was pretty disappointed at the video quality.  As a small business owner, you learn really quick what you are good at and what you need improvement on, and video production is definitely in the latter category.  One of the biggest challenge is that we are shooting our video from a hanging camera looking straight down, and it's awfully hard to see what the camera is seeing and what is in focus while I work.   (For the technically inclined, I used the table to set the focal plane when in fact I should be setting the focal plane elevated off the table.  The depth of field is greater past the focal plane than in front of it).  

We will be renting a video recording monitor and a decent microphone and shooting the videos again this week.

That's it for this update.  Here's a few more random pictures taken during the last week.  Enjoy!

-=- Terence

Fancy cloud-based solutions vs construction equipment

Over the last few months, OpenBeam and Z-Designs have been quietly upgrading our infrastructure that's been sorely inadequate to manage a project of this magnitude.  We've migrated over to QuickBooks online, we've deployed Arena, a cloud based PLM system, for managing our Bill of Materials and document control between our vendors and us as engineers.  And, as FiOS fiber optic based internet became available, we jumped out of an unhappy, antagonistic  relationship with Comcast and their "Oh, you may see some network degradation when the ground gets water saturated when it rains" network.

Then, a construction crew working downtown Redmond decides to tear up the main trunk line, leaving 6000+ subscribers without cable, phone, 911 or internet services:

"Hello?  Can you hear me now?"

"Hello?  Can you hear me now?"

Obviously, this isn't Frontier's fault (although, they *were* supposed to have *some* redundancy in their network and how cables are routed).   It still doesn't change the fact that we've been without any sort of connection for the past 48 hours.  This is especially a hard time for me to get hit; my laptop has a corrupted hard drive and Apple, in their infinite wisdom, stopped shipping OSes on physical media as of the last major release.  (And even though I mostly use my Macbook Pro in Windows for engineering, I still needed the MacOS install to install Bootcamp drivers.  That, and we were going to be doing video editing this past weekend).

For our engineering files, we use Dropbox (with a plan to switch to OwnCloud after this project is over).  These software were specifically chosen because they keep a local copy of the data - useful for when I'm on a long flight, or overseas.  While an outage does limit collaboration, there's plenty that I got done this past weekend with regards to documentation which did not require a connection to the internet.

For our PLM and accounting systems and social media though, we are completely offline until our connection is re-established.  (We also live in a part of Redmond that has atrociously bad cell service regardless of carrier, thanks to home owners with a NIMBY mentality when it comes to putting up new cell towers).  

The moral of the story is, if you as a business is dependent on cloud based solutions for operation, redundancy in your network connection isn't such a bad idea.  For most people this could be as simple as a cellular modem / hotspot, which is a reasonably inexpensive investment.  

Try this on a Cartesian printer... :-P

While we were at the 3D Printer World Expo in Seattle, we had the pleasure of meeting Stefanie Mueller, a PhD student from Berlin, Germany.  She showed us a video on her cell phone that completely blew us away.

Now that the video is public (and the paper is submitted), we are excited to share this with you:

WirePrint is a low-fi fabrication technique that prints 3D models as wireframe previews. By extruding filament directly into 3D space instead of printing layer-wise, we achieve a speed-up of up to 10x compared to traditional 3D printing.

It's taken over two years of hard work, with lots of ups and downs, to build our company, recover from our manufacturing issues, move production overseas to a competent supplier, and finally ready the OpenBeam Kossel Pro for launch.  But seeing cool projects like this, and knowing that you've played a small part in building something very cool, makes it all worth while.

-=- Terence