Author Archives: SparkFun Electronics

Hardware Hump Day: The Great Ceramic 3D Printer Experiment

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For the past few months I have been taking pottery classes at a local ceramics studio in Boulder. When I first started, I had a hunch I would end up marrying clay with tech in some way because, well, it’s what I do. But I wasn’t quite sure how. Then I stumbled upon this DIY ceramic 3D printer designed by Jonathan Keep. I immediately knew I wanted to build one of these bad boys for two reasons. First, while it’s been done a whole bunch and there are tons of DIY 3D printer plans online, building a 3D printer is a great way to practice mechanical and electrical engineering skills. I’ve always learned best through practice, so this a great way to wrap my head around the mechanics of 3D printing. Second, by building a ceramics printer I can print clay pots with interesting angles and planes that would be either extremely difficult or impossible to build by hand. 3D printing opens up a lot of possibilities for my ceramics output that I am very excited to explore. I saw both educational and practical value in this project, so I decided to pursue it. It’s a bigger build and slightly expensive, so I will be building it out over a few weeks.

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While Keep included on his website all the files and documents one needs to build this printer, his documentation is not particularly explicit. I spent the majority of the past two weeks going through the files and making sense of them. Keep is a U.K.-based maker and ceramicist, so his files and parts are all oriented for the metric system. The bill of parts was predominantly printed for makers in the United Kingdom. It took some time to translate the files to imperial values and find similarly sized hardware available in the United States.

Before I dive in, I'd like to mention that I have been looking to our in-house mechanical engineer, Evan, for advice and guidance as I pursue this build. He has graciously offered tons of feedback and has patiently answered all of my questions. I’m cautiously optimistic that with his help this thing might actually work.


The first thing I discovered is that the provided files are a bit redundant. Mr. Keep designed PDF files that work well with Adobe Illustrator. Some PDF files repeat parts that have been included in others. CAD files are also provided, thanks to John Nicholson, a DIY 3D printer community member, in both DXF and DWG formats. I am most comfortable working in Illustrator and with a laser cutter, so I chose to use the PDF files.

The ‘All Parts’ PDF offers a layered version of MDF parts aligned as they would be in the actual build. Each part is given its own color, so it’s pretty clear where one part ends and another begins. I grouped each part together and then pasted them into a new file for laser cutting.

The A4 PDFs (Base, Frame Parts and Moving Parts) are fantastic resources for anyone without access to a laser cutter. Using any regular printer, you can print these files on paper and then use that as a template to cut your MDF. This definitely makes building this printer more accessible, but if you have a laser cutter I recommend using it to save time!

The Components PDF offers designs for the acrylic parts as well as any moving parts to be cut in MDF. This PDF is not to scale, but Keep has provided detailed information on how big each component should be, making it easy to scale in Illustrator. Since he is based in the United Kingdom, this is provided in millimeters as opposed to inches, so ensure that you are using metric measurements as opposed to imperial.

The last two remaining PDFs (Base and Top Assembly) also provide detailed designs for the base and top that are not to scale. The measurements are again provided in millimeters. These parts are also included in the ‘All Parts’ PDF and therefore should not be needed as cut files, but are available more as assembly reference.

As mentioned earlier, all required files are included on Keep’s website, but for those who are not terribly comfortable with this format, there is sparse explicit documentation describing the build otherwise. Keep offers a video of himself assembling a printer that has been of immense help to me in my understanding of how to approach this project. If you are thinking about making one too, I would highly recommend watching this more than a few times.

I also found a Google group with ~2,500 members who are currently building — or have built — a version of this ceramic printer. This is an amazing resource, especially for those of you who do not have someone like Evan at your disposal. This community is fairly active so you can expect that someone will respond to your inquiries with valuable feedback.


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I spent many hours over the past two weeks scouring the internet for my parts. I mostly relied on Amazon, Digi-Key, and McMaster Carr. In order to simplify this process for other U.S.-based makers, I am planning on creating my own bill of materials with links to the parts I have ordered. I have yet to assemble the printer in its entirety, so I have yet to test that these are indeed the correct parts for the build. Please stay tuned for this information!

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Laser Cutting

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Keep recommends using 12mm MDF, which is roughly 0.5 inches. I initially tried cutting 0.5 inch MDF on the laser cutter, but it was ultimately too thick for our machine to handle. Instead, I bought 0.25 inch MDF and cut two of each part so I could sandwich them with wood glue, creating 0.5 inch thick parts.

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Keep designed these files in Microsoft Word, so they are not pixel perfect. Before I realized this, I went straight to the laser cutter with his files and later found that the holes for the metal rods were not really round, but more oval shaped. I couldn't get the rods through, and I broke some of my cut parts. I updated my files with 12mm circles in place of the slight ovals and recut everything. Learn from my mistakes — it’s always a good idea to double check these files to make sure they are as you need them.

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At this point, I am still waiting on many of my parts to come in the mail. However, I already had some items, so I was able to begin the initial assembly.

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As you can see, I basically have the skeleton started. Over the next week, I plan to continue the assembly and add the electronics. Stay tuned to follow along with the build!

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AVC 2017 partners (& prizes!)

via SparkFun Electronics Blog Posts

This year’s SparkFun Autonomous Vehicle Competition (AVC) promises to be our biggest yet with the inclusion of three types of autonomous vehicle races, as well as 12-pound and 30-pound combat bots. In addition to the event’s move to Maker Faire® Denver, our friends at Digi-Key Electronics, Wurth Electronics and Aleph Objects (LulzBot) have joined the fun as sponsors and will be providing some extra goodies for competitors on site.

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Digi-Key Electronics: Exclusive Pro-Maker Sponsor

Digi-Key is sponsoring two special awards for competitors this year in addition to hanging out in the pits with some cool product demos. They will be sponsoring the Engineers’ Choice and Crowd Pleaser awards (check out the descriptions here). The special awards are applicable to adult teams only.

Wurth Electronics: Supporting Co-Sponsor

Make sure to stop by the Wurth Electronics station in the pits to make repairs to your bots or vehicles. They’ll have resources for competitors, including some repair/replacement connector products for teams, technical advice on electronic workings of circuits from development engineers and field applications engineers, and a full display of our passive components product line.

Aleph Objects (LulzBot): Student Competitions Sponsor

As part of our increased efforts to support student teams competing in AVC, Aleph Objects is providing 16 LulzBot Mini 3D printers as first place prizes for our student competitions, as well as exhibiting at Maker Faire Denver as another local maker company. This is the first year we are hosting a 1-pound Plastic Ants combat bot competition, where the majority of the bot’s parts need to be plastic, and we’re excited to incorporate some 3D printing lessons into building some of those lil guys.

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This year promises to be bigger and better than ever as we join our sponsors and Maker Faire Denver in celebrating creativity and making, right here in Colorado!

To get the full rundown of this year’s prizes, check out

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And the winner is…

via SparkFun Electronics Blog Posts

Hello, AVC competitors and enthusiasts! It’s high time we announce prizes this year, and we thank you for your patience. At the time of this writing, we have 76 teams registered already for various events. If you take a look at the prize breakdown on the AVC page, you’ll notice there are only first place prizes. That’s because with eight competitions and three divisions (K–12, undergraduate and adult), we’d have 72 winners if we did first, second and third place!

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In response to feedback from competitors in the past, we’ve brought back special awards. In addition to four special awards we’ve posted already, expect to see some surprise awards on race day. Hints: Is your vehicle or bot a threat to human life? Did it even make it off the starting line? Did it suffer serious injury?

We hope the prizes add a little spice to the competition experience and provide sufficient motivation to strut your stuff with us at SparkFun AVC 2017.

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Adventures in Science: How GPS Works

via SparkFun Electronics Blog Posts

This week, we’re taking a look at how the ever-popular Global Positioning System (GPS) works. There’s a good bit of complicated technology flying around in the satellites, so I try to simplify it as much as possible.

To use GPS, we’ll need a receiver and something to interpret the NMEA messages that it spits out. Oh, and an open view of the sky can’t hurt, either. NMEA data contains several different message types, so sites like this prove quite useful in interpreting and parsing the data.

In the video above, I show how to print raw NMEA data to the console, as well as to parse just time and position data. If you are interested in the code for that, it can be found here:

Knowing your position on the surface of the Earth is helpful when you’re trying to drive to Grandma’s house, but when it comes to robotics and self-driving cars, it’s invaluable. GPS is accurate to a few meters, so it’s great for larger robots (e.g., autonomous vehicles), but it lacks the precision to navigate some smaller vehicles.

Have you used GPS for AVC before? How well did it work, and do you have any tips to share that would help increase its accuracy?

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Friday Product Post: Watt’s Up, Doc?

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Hello, everyone! Thank you for joining us today on this fine Friday. We have a couple of new products to talk about today, including the Watt’s Up Meter, the new SparkFun Arduino Inventor’s Guide and a revision to the MyoWare Cable Shield. It’s a slightly lighter week than the last couple of posts, but there’s still plenty of good stuff. Let’s jump in!

Sorry for the puns…

Watt's Up Meter


The Watt’s Up Meter is an all-in-one digital DC ammeter and watt, watt-hour and amp-hour meter. Watt’s Up measures current, voltage and time — and from those measurements calculates peak current, peak power, minimum voltage, power, energy and charge values for you, in real time, for the circuit in which you connect it.

The SparkFun Arduino Inventor's Guide


The Arduino microcontroller makes it easy to learn about electronics, but it can be hard to know where to start. The 10 projects in “The SparkFun Arduino Inventor’s Guide” will teach you to build, code and invent with the super-smart Arduino and a handful of parts.

This is the second book we’ve written here at SparkFun. If you are interested, you can find “The SparkFun Guide to Processing” here!

MyoWare Cable Shield


Last up today is a revision to the MyoWare Cable Shield. The shield still provides a 3.5mm jack where you can attach a three-electrode sensor cable, allowing you to test and use the MyoWare Muscle Sensor without actually attaching it to your person. But it has been updated to fit better with the other boards in the MyoWare product line.

And that’s it! We hope you enjoy the Watt’s Up — or maybe you need a good summer read and check out our new book. As always, we can’t wait to see what you make with these parts! Shoot us a tweet @sparkfun, or let us know on Instagram or Facebook. We’d love to see what projects you’ve made!

Thanks for stopping by. We’ll see you next week with even more new products!

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Getting Started with MicroPython

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Last week we unveiled three new peripheral boards to connect our micro:bit boards up to. Since then we’ve shown you how to get started with the micro:bit using MakeCode, which is a beginner-friendly block- and text-based programming environment for the micro:bit. If you want to get started with the micro:bit using MicroPython, then you’re in luck. I’ve created a Getting Started with MicroPython guide for the micro:bit. If you have never looked at a Python script before, this is a great way to learn syntax, structure, built-in modules and functions and how to use the interactive REPL. Well, maybe with your feedback it will be a great tutorial one day…

There are a few advantages and disadvantages to using one programming environment over the other. The severity of the trade-offs depends on what your project is. I find using the Music module much easier in MicroPython, but I find building projects with interrupts to be easier in MakeCode. Check out the tutorial and let me know what you think.

Getting Started with MicroPython!

SparkFun Creative Technologist Shawn Hymel has created some videos to help you get started using the micro:bit with MicroPython. Check out his recent blog post on all the different ways to program this awesome little board.

We may have some new hardware coming out soon specifically geared toward using the micro:bit with MicroPython. If you are well-versed in Python and would like to contribute some examples for future use, please pull request me here.

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