I hope those of you that got an extra day this weekend enjoyed it fully, and that the final few weeks of summer are being put to good use! After the last update this one will be a bit shorter with some clarifications, production updates, and finally some news on the software. We'll follow shortly with some videos and clips of the actual production process now that it's up and running as well.
Clarifications / updates
After our last update, we got a heck of a lot of e-mails asking questions, centered around a number of things but with three common themes - A) Why could some things start production now, but others not until UL was done (we got this from both sides of the fence if you will) B) Didn't we already do a round of UL? Why do we have to start again? and finally C) Could we clarify shipping times and delivery times for Indiegogo vs. Celery ?
Hopefully we can address some of those questions before moving on to what we've been up to over the past few weeks!
A & B) Why can some things start production before UL, but not others? And why do we have to do UL all over again, instead of just fixing the plastic issue from last time?
UL cares about safety a lot - but even they have limits within reason. So despite the overly thorough, rigorous process we have to go through to get their stamp of approval, there are some things we know for sure will "pass" right now. To understand this fully, let's consider three parts of the extruder in detail and how UL interacts with all of them. The four parts we'll look at are the Snap Disc, the Insulator Gaskets, the Mounting Bracket, and the Auger. You might be surprised which ones are UL critical, and why!
First and foremost, the insulator gaskets - these are packed with some stainless discs to create the insulating section, that isolates the heat into the melting area. These gaskets have to stand up to some pretty extreme heat, pressure, and abrasion...and failure could lead to a number of dangerous scenarios. If the heater overheats, for instance, the gasket could exceed it's safe temperature, and either catch fire or off gas toxic chemicals. It could also breakdown under pressure, allowing molten plastic to spill out, melt the insulation on some of our wiring, and short circuit part of our unit...which leads to a whole host of other dangers.
Not surprisingly, the gasket needs to be certified. But we can cheat a little - the material we're using for our gaskets is already fire certified, so we no longer have to worry about it causing a fire. This means that instead of going through full scale testing, where every conceivable aspect of the gasket is studied (like what happens if you forcefully light it on fire), we just have to worry that in this application, the gasketing material is correctly applied and will perform as expected. In other words, by using a pre-certified material, we only need to show that our specific use of the gasket is safe...not the gasket itself. So we can have our supplier on standby ready to cut thousands of gaskets at a moments notice, arriving here less than a week after we place the order. To us, this is the best compromise from needing to start from scratch (not having a vendor or material pre selected or certified, which would take months instead of days post certification), and risking a last minute fail (if for whatever reason our application is found to be incorrect, we would need to re-do the gasket section...and would no longer have the money to, having already ordered the current design).
The snap disc, like the gasket, is pretty safety critical - it ensures the heater never overheats, even if everything else goes wrong! So, like the gasket, it needs some certification - but unlike the gasket, we don't have to worry about it...at all. The snap discs themselves come pre-certified, already guaranteed to operate by UL themselves. And unlike the gaskets, there's no real risk of failure - even if we did implement them incorrectly, the snap disc itself would not change, only the circuit we wired it to. This means that the snap disc is, right now, already good to go. We can order 500, or 5000, and not worry at all about UL saying yes or no, as they've already given it the official stamp and we're not modifying it in any way in our application. Somewhat counter intuitively, one of the most safety critical components doesn't really need to be tested at all!
The mounting bracket, let's face it, is relatively simple. It has no special safety features and is, to be blunt, relatively boring. It's difficult to fathom that the mounting bracket could ever be an issue for UL and yet, in this list, it's actually the biggest issue! The reasoning here is that, as part of the physical structure, the mounting bracket is actually subject to constraints it otherwise wouldn't - as are pieces that rely on it directly to function. Our hopper, for instance, was previously mounted to the bracket using a 3D printed part. As this turned out to be non fire safe, we had to integrate the hopper mount right into the bracket. The hopper itself forms part of the fire enclosure, meaning that it is a critical safety part...and if the geometry doesn't pass spec, we'll need to re do it. As the hopper and mounting bracket are directly related, a re-do of the hopper could very likely lead to a re-do of the mounting bracket - this is indeed exactly what happened with the switch from plastic parts - and we'd have to re start everything from scratch. So even though the mounting bracket is a very basic piece of metal, it depends on everything else passing to be considered a part of the final design. For this reason, we have to hold off on ordering it in large volumes -along with the majority of our sheet metal! - until the final say. Our Toronto based sheetmetal supplier has thankfully been more than understanding, and has already done a few "on the fly changes" in our samples - so we're able to start getting parts from them almost as soon as we give them the OK. This again makes holding off on these parts the best choice for now.
Last but not least, the Auger. The auger has been the same for quite some time now, as the entire cold section is functionally important and poses no safety risk to UL other than trapping a finger between the auger and barrel (which is dealt with by a cover on the hopper). This means there's effectively zero chance that the auger will cause us any delays. Perhaps more importantly, it uses up our in house machining time to produce - something we can always use some more of! So we've made the decision to start auger production early, and have hundreds of them ready for when UL says we're OK. We know UL won't find issue with them, and producing them now frees up our machines to produce other parts later, when our production rate will be critical.
All in all, almost every part has a different and complicated relationship with UL. It's for this reason that we can't just "pick up where we left off" with our testing...as every part is connected in some way and part of the larger puzzle, UL is required to test the entire unit from start to finish, as is. If, down the line, we wanted to switch our snap disc to another fully certified unit of the same rating installed in the same way, we would only have to re test that one specific change - but completely removing 3D printed parts from our unit took slightly more redesign than switching out one fully certified component for another. Although all of our components are still certified, their implementation with our in house parts has changed, and so their behavior must be re-studied in full. Similarly, all of the parts we've modified ourselves that either directly or indirectly influence the safety of the unit, must now be re tested from scratch. Thankfully, that process is underway, and we should have the good news soon!
C) How do all of the various shipping dates line up? (production vs. shipping vs. delivery, for Indiegogo and Celery)
When quoting our production and shipping dates, we've always been quoting the date that production and shipping begin, not the date they finish. Though we've tried to make this relatively clear with discussions about production rates, and how various delays affect various backers, consider this an official confirmation of how everything lines up timing-wise. Once UL gives the final stamp, we can start shipping product - but there will be a ~2 week delay between the final approval, and the first units being assembled, tested, and ready to go out the door. This is because it will take time, somewhat obviously, to build and test them! We could do all of that now, but if we ran into an issue and had to start from scratch, we wouldn't have enough resources left to do everything a second time...so we have to wait until we're sure to be able to proceed.
Once that final 2 week delay is done, shipments will begin! We are sending units out on a first ordered, first shipped basis, with "early bird" units being the sole exception to this cue (they come first). That means that if you were one of our very first campaign backers, your unit will be shipped out ~2 weeks after our final approval. But, if you just bought yours today, you're near the end of the que, so you'll have to wait another 2-3 months (based on production rate) before your unit is shipped. We've done a lot of work to ensure our production rate can hit the necessary numbers - hundreds of units a month - to minimize this wait time, but unfortunately there's nothing we can do to eliminate it completely.
Finally, once units are ready to be shipped, they actually have to arrive at their destination! This leads to one final split in timelines as various regions take more or less time to ship to. ProtoCycler is neither small nor light as far as consumer goods are concerned (44lbs or 20kg!), so shipping logistics are anything but trivial. To get around this, different regions use different shipping methods. North America are direct shipped using the local carrier, so should be quick - say a week. Europe is similar to North America, except that those shipments are sent to Europe in bulk shipments, at which point they're sent off individually. This bulk shipment adds a few weeks for two reasons - enough units need to be ready to go that the bulk shipment is "filled", and of course it takes time to send units across the ocean, though we are working to minimize that for our EU customers. Last but not least, we've got quite a few customers that don't call either Europe or North America home, which we're using individual international shipping for. This has the widest spread of delivery times as it's largely at the mercy of the local carrier, and how well they play nicely with our international carrier.
Putting it all together, the delivery times can vary wildly, even with the same "shipment start" date! If you live in Toronto, and ordered an early bird unit from the campaign, you'll get your unit almost exactly 2 weeks after UL. But if you just ordered last week to a remote corner of the Sahara desert, the realities of production limits and international shipping times mean you'll be waiting a few months longer. In the future, we'll be able to mitigate these issues by building up stock and restricting sales to areas that are too remote for us to easily fulfill - and for now we're doing everything we can to minimize the production time, and working with our carriers to speed shipping as much as possible. Hopefully that gives everyone a better overview of what exactly happens between production and delivery, and as always don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions!
With the unit off at UL for testing, in house production underway, and our vendors standing by for final approval, we turned our attention to the software that runs ProtoCycler - specifically, the desktop application and the ability to load new plastic settings. We'd written up a very basic application a long, long time ago that had served it's purpose well. If you've ever seen some software running ProtoCycler at maker faire, in photos, or at our office, this was it:
While functional for our purposes, it needed a serious face-lift and a lot more usability for our customers...so over the past 2 weeks, it's been effectively re-coded from scratch! Though still very much a draft, we've made a ton of progress in getting the desktop application ready for download. In addition to switching over to a cleaner look from the standard windows/java "grey void of despair", we've added a ton of functionality, including but not limited too:
- New, more robust communication link and underlying drivers
- Full scripting capability for the user
- One click preset updates - add new plastics with ease
- Direct diameter control in manual mode
- New graphing system for displaying system parameters in real time with full data logging capability
- Real time sensor output allows you to "see" what the sensors are seeing
- Full fledged installer now installs all required software, drivers, etc in one seamless experience
- And, of course, a whole new look:
We've still got a lot of work to do here - particularly in the appearance, options and settings, and internet connectivity (extrusion servers, webcam monitoring, etc) realms - but we're pretty excited with the progress we've made over the past couple of weeks and thought you'd want a quick look at what the ProtoCycler app might look like! We're always open for feedback so if you think it's hideously ugly, missing some critical features, or anything else at all...just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll see what we can do!
Anyways, that's it for this week - more production media to come soon, and thank you as always for your support!
-The ReDeTec Team