Sincere apologies for our lack of correspondence over the past month! We felt we'd done a little too much "promo" for July and so decided to stay more quiet for August and focus on fulfillment (updates below). As part of fulfillment, we needed to move to a new space so we can assemble and test all of the ProtoCyclers. We had a great place lined up and had submitted the lease for September first - Sadly, the week before we were supposed to move, we found out the building contained significant amounts of asbestos, and had to find a new space at the last minute. It's also taking us a lot longer than expected to deal with our suppliers and manufacturers, and complete our DFM. Sadly, based on talks with our component supplier on Monday, between UL revisions and waiting for samples, we're going to have to delay shipment further until December / January.
This doesn't, however, mean that we haven't been working incredibly hard every day to keep fulfillment moving along! Bringing novel technology to market for the first time is an incredibly challenging task, and everything ends up taking twice as long as expected despite the best estimates. For instance, our machine shop's waterjet cutter broke down for almost 2 weeks in August, leaving us unable to continue testing parts for production. While we re directed our efforts at the electronics and shipping logistics to continue being productive, it's small unforeseeable issues like that that really start to add up, causing everything to take much longer than we'd like. So, we are unfortunately taking longer than we'd hoped, but we aren't spending any of your hard earned money in the meantime - it's all being saved for when we can guarantee production - and we're working around the clock to get fulfillment completed ASAP. Read on to find out where we are now, what's been completed, and what's holding us up.
We've made a lot of progress in the past month. The functional/UX design of the unit has been finalized, and all components tested for functionality and reliability. RFQs and final supplier selection is expected to be fully done by the end of the month, and the design including DFM will be finalized shortly after that (mid Oct). It's important to note that the unit has already been designed for manufacturing overall, but specific manufacturers will inevitably make final changes based on their equipment. It will then take roughly a month to assemble the first units, which then must go to UL testing for final "as manufactured" approval, which will take another month or so while we finalize packaging and software. This leads to shipment of the first run units beginning in December. Shipment of standard units will follow shortly after, by January. Areas like shipping logistics, packaging, and even what tools will be included (like a wrench to change the nozzle) have also been completely sorted out for our campaign backers. The specific timeline is therefore as follows, from now until shipment:
The extruder is effectively ready for production - We've been testing the (gearboxless) Nema 23 we're using as our final drive solution, along with the 2 sensor algorithm, exhaustively - and they both work great! The hot section is CNC'd out of two sections of aluminium with a removable nozzle, and bolted to the cold section. The cold section is a simple pipe with a CNC auger, as well as a plate from our metal supplier to anchor the extruder and mount the motor. A robust chain drive couples the stepper to the auger as it's proven to be the best combination of cost and durability over the long term. The only remaining component to test for the extruder are the snap discs, which disconnect the heater electrically in case of an overheat. It's difficult to find ones that will reach the temperatures we need, but we've found a company that can make us units in the 400 C range which is perfect! As noted above they're on order, and as soon as they've been confirmed by UL we'll begin manufacturing the extruder. Anything not UL critical like our auger and brackets will begin production before this to save time (as soon as we have our new space), and components like heater units and stepper motors are being ordered by the end of the week so that shipping won't cause a problem.
As a short example of why the process takes so long , compare the two CAD drawings below. The first shows the state of our extruder at campaign - functional, but very difficult to manufacture (and with the old gear motor). The new design that we've been finalizing over the past 6 months shows the new, manufacturing ready design. When we launched our campaign, we assumed that modifying the design for manufacturing would be relatively trivial, but between waiting on manufacture feedback and stress testing, it's taken much longer than we'd hoped.
The grinder, like the extruder, is effectively ready for production - we've ground as much as we can print with it and it's showing no signs of failure whatsoever. While we wait to finalize testing of the extruder, we're modifying the tooth profile of the grinder. This has no effect on how or when we produce, but we'd like to improve the grinding experience as much as possible while we have the time. As most have seen, the grinder consists of two toothed shafts intersecting with each other to shred parts. These shafts are then geared to a double chain drive, which gears the grinder down significantly before reaching the interlock / torque clutch mechanism. This simple device uses a moving gear and a solenoid to engage the grinder in reverse at any time, but in forward only when it is safe to do so - this is the UL critical part, so the rest of the grinder can begin production once this has been approved. The grinder runs on bearings and is of course entirely metal, so it's relatively heavy duty. We'd like to make a few final tweaks to the grinder, namely the specific gearing ratio and tooth profile. While neither of these require alteration to our manufacturing processes, as it's simply a different sprocket for the gearing or line of G-code for the tooth profile, it is a very difficult balance to strike between chunk size and grinding speed. As we're still waiting for the extruder and RFQs to finish, we're spending a little bit of extra time to finish this. However, when the extruder is complete, we'll begin producing the grinder as well. As there's significantly more "non stock metal" involved, as opposed to the single bracket for the extruder, this is slightly more at the liberty of our suppliers - but we've recently made a new hire specifically to deal with supply chain management so we're confident this won't be an issue (more about that in an upcoming update). We're going to be assembling as much of the grinder as possible prior to the UL approval of the clutch mechanism, so that we can save time once the clutch mechanism has been approved.
These have actually been finalized for a very, very long time - effectively pre-campaign. The only change has been the addition of the second sensor, and the addition of the stepper driver. The electronics are therefore effectively ready to begin production - from the power supply to the micro controller right down to the line noise filters mandated by UL. The only reason we've held off on ordering in bulk is because the circuit fabrication and electronic components are by far the most reliable part of the process and assembly happens last, so placing our order for the circuit boards before everything else doesn't really make sense (and as mentioned below, we don't want to dip into campaign funds until we're 100% ready to MFG ). This is because they're all off the shelf parts, instead of custom fabricated metal, so there's no lag time in anything - and almost all of the components come Pre-Approved for UL, so the final test is simply a check to make sure we've used the right components instead of having to stress test the circuits.
The software is 95% complete in functionality, and about 60% complete in terms of GUI aspects (it's just kind of ugly). For the functionality side of things, we're effectively tuning the PID algorithms as well as we can similar to the grinder tooth profile. GUI has been left to the end as it's not as high priority as the actual manufacturing, and can happen at the very end as we begin shipping. Below, what the current GUI looks like - a few thousand lines of code allow you to modify any aspect of ProtoCycler, monitor all values in real time, log any output, and even run basic scripts, all without touching the firmware. It's ugly as sin, but it works great!
Speaking of firmware, it's also ready - when production is underway, it will be re-formatted (it's a bit of a single file mess right now), documented, and posted online.
Accessories (Puller, Spooler, Etc)
These actually proved to be quite difficult to deal with, as both the sensor placement and the spooler geometry involved more work than we'd hoped to allow easy manufacturing without incredibly costly injection molds. The spooler design originally swung out from the unit, but this didn't last nearly as long as we'd like and wasn't as "hackable" for those that wanted to use different spools, so it now extends horizontally and is user modifiable in height for different sized spools - see below. The final designs are now in testing and working well, with the vast majority of their components being off the shelf or in house (as opposed to custom from a supplier). The accessories will be assembled in conjunction with the chassis (see below), as they mount directly to it. Components are either already in house or on order for the first run units, and the remaining components will be ordered in bulk with everything else.
Chassis & Enclosure
The chassis is very similar to the inside of a computer - it effectively uses bent sheet metal to hold everything with strength and rigidity. This has admittedly taken us the most time to finalize the design on as it's dependent on the other components (like our motor switch), and was the least prepared for the campaign - but the resultant chassis design is rock solid, easy to work on, and forms the backbone of Protocycler. The enclosure, as everyone has seen, goes on the outside. Similar to our grinder, there's a relatively large amount of custom metal going on here, so we're somewhat at the mercy of our suppliers. However, the design is very easy to manufacture and is required last in the assembly, so we're not expecting any issues here (the grinder would be the hold up if anything, as it needs to be assembled before it can be installed in the chassis anyways).
As mentioned in the intro, we had a bit of an issue with our new assembly space - it was filled with asbestos, which is not a safe thing to have around! We're therefore currently working out of a very small temporary space, but we've already found a second manufacturing facility and have confirmed there's no asbestos this time. At the current point in time, we're largely waiting on components like the snap discs to come in, finalizing the tooth profile of the grinder wheels, etc...none of which needs our new space to progress. And, as mentioned above we have a new building lined up for the end of September at the latest, which is when we'll need to begin setting up for production. That being said, the frantic re-organization that occurred when we found out about our previous space 2 weeks ago certainly took more time than we would have liked, and we will have to move again (~2 days) before we're ready to begin assembly. Once we have the new space, we can set up our machining equipment, and begin producing all of the parts needed to assemble ProtoCycler. We'll start with anything UL critical so it can undergo final testing, and switch to any non UL-critical components once testing is underway. This ensures that we'll be ready to assemble units once everything has been approved, instead of waiting further on in-house production.
As mentioned at the start, we are really sorry we disappeared for so long. It wasn't until I started getting e-mails and Indiegogo comments in the past week or two asking where we'd disappeared to that I realized it had been over a month since our last update, and at that time we were right in the thick of the building dilemma. We've also seen some people who are less than happy with how fulfillment is progressing, to whom we apologize. As many people know, we originally planned to begin shipping units in August, which has now come and passed - and first runs were going to show up even earlier. We've since run into both a major issue with our main motor, and a host of other unexpected surprises that all result in everyone waiting another couple of months for a unit they should already have. We are, like you, extremely disappointed in this - we want to ship ProtoCycler so badly it's not even funny, and we're now behind the deadline we set ourselves, and may ultimately slip slightly further.
Please know, however, that we and a host of talented and experienced supporting members are working our hardest to bring ProtoCycler to your front door as soon as we possibly can. It is very difficult to bring novel technology to market, and takes an incredible amount of time and energy to accomplish. We work 12+ hours a day 6-7 days a week unpaid, on everything from testing the latest algorithm revision to working with our suppliers to find a more reliable component that's still cost effective. We are not spending any of the campaign money on things like traveling to Maker Faires, rent for our office space, or anything else other than the actual fulfillment of orders - the same is true for post-campaign pre-orders, which are not even charged until fulfillment is ready. We believe very strongly in providing a recycling system for 3D printing that really works, and are doing everything we can to make that dream a reality. It is sadly taking us longer than we'd planned or hoped, but we're still very much committed to that goal and are getting closer and closer every day.
So while it is certainly frustrating that we are behind in fulfillment, we are trying our hardest to make safe, affordable recycling for 3D printing a reality - and your continued support means an incredible amount to us in the meanwhile! Please try and be patient with us as we work through unexpected surprises and unforeseen delays, and we will (as always) try to do a better job of keeping everyone updated with our progress, which is admittedly not at all one of our current strengths. In the meantime, manufacturing is nearly upon us, and shipping won't be long after that!
-The ReDeTec team