My followers on Twitter will be aware that for the past few weeks I’ve been working with a couple other guys on building a 3D printer, namely a RepRap Longboat Prusa. I’ve been interested in them for a long time, mostly because they tickle my sci-fi nerd side just right, but apart from endlessly fantasizing about them I hadn’t really pursued them further. One of my long time gamer friends asked me late last year if I’d be interested in going halves for a kit. After I mentioned the idea to another friend he jumped on board as well and the 3 of us waited eagerly for the kit to arrive.
In total we’ve spent about 48 man hours total over 3 days putting it together, getting the wiring done and then troubleshooting the software and interfaces. It’s been an eye opening experience, one that challenged my electronics knowledge like it hasn’t been in quite a few years, and the result is what you see below:
We decided not to attempt to print anything since at this point it was getting close to midnight and we didn’t want to keep the Make Hack Void space open any longer than we already had. But from seeing it do the dry run it appeared to be functioning correctly (it’s printing a small cup in the video) albeit a little stiff at some points. We think that’s due to 2 things, the first being that the large gear on the extruder platform is warped slightly and sometimes hits the mounting hardware near it. Secondly we were running the steppers at a low voltage to begin with so with a little more juice in them we’ll probably see them become more responsive. We’ve still yet to print anything with it but the next time we get together you can guarantee that will be pretty much all we’ll do after we’ve spent so long on getting it running.
What this project opened up my eyes to was that although there’s a torrent of information available there’s no simple guide to go from beginning to end. Primarily this is because the entire movement is completely open source and the multitude of iterations available means there’s near endless numbers of variations for you to choose from. Granted this is probably what a lot of the community revels in but it would be nice if there was some clear direction in going from kit to print, rather than the somewhat organized wiki that has all the information but not all in a clear and concise manner.
The software for driving the machines is no better. We started off using the recommended host software which is a Java app that for the most part seems to run well. At the moment though it appears to be bugged and is completely unable to interface with RepRap printers, something we only discovered after a couple hours of testing. RepSnapper on the other hand worked brilliantly the first time around and was the software used to initiate the dry run in the video above. You’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of that particular software in the documentation wiki however which is really frustrating, especially when the recommended software doesn’t work as advertised.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that whilst there’s a great community surrounding the whole RepRap movement there’s still a ways for it to go. Building your own RepRap from scratch, even from a kit, is not for the technically challenged and will require you to have above entry level knowledge of software, electronics and Google-fu. I won’t deny that overcoming all the challenges was part of the fun but there were many road blocks that could have been avoided with better documentation with overarching direction.
All that being said however it’s still incredible that we were able to do this when not too long along the idea of 3D printing was little more than a pipe dream. Hopefully as time goes on the RepRap wiki will mature and the process will be a little more pain free for other users ,something I’m going to contribute to with our build video (coming soon!).
Way back when I used to host this server myself on the end of my tenuous ADSL connection loading up the web site always felt like something of a gamble. There were any number of things that could stop me (and the wider world) from getting to it like: the connection going down, my server box overheating or even the power going out at my house (which happened more often than I realised). About a year ago I made the move onto my virtual private server and instantly all those worries evaporated and the blog has been mostly stable ever since. I no longer have to hold my breath every time I type my url into the address bar nor do I worry about posting media rich articles anymore, something I avoided when my upstream was a mere 100KB/s.
What really impressed me though was the almost instant traffic boost that I got from the move. At the time I just put it down to more people reading my writing as I had been at it for well over a year and a half at that point. At the same time I had also made a slight blunder with my DNS settings which redirected all traffic from my subdomains to the main site so I figured that the burst in traffic was temporary and would drop off as people’s DNS caches expired. The strangest thing was though that the traffic never went away and continued to grow steadily. Not wanting to question my new found popularity I just kept doing what I was always doing until I stumbled across something that showed me what was happening.
April last year saw Google mix in a new metric to their ranking algorithm: page load speed, right around the same time that I experienced the traffic boost from moving off my crappy self hosting and onto the VPS. The move had made a significant improvement in the usability of the site, mostly due to the giant pipe that it has, and it appeared that Google was now picking up on that and sending more people my way. However the percentage of traffic coming here from search engines remained the same but since it was growing I didn’t care to investigate much further.
I started to notice some curious trends though when aggregating data from a couple different sources. I use 2 different kinds of analytics here on The Refined Geek the first being WordPress.com Stats (just because it’s real-time) and Google Analytics for long term tracking and pretty graphs. Now both of them agree with each other pretty well however the one thing they can’t track is how many people come to my site but leave before the page is fully loaded. In fact I don’t think there’s any particular service that can do this (I would love to be corrected on this) but if you’re using Google’s Webmaster Tools you can get a rough idea of the number of people that come from their search engine but get fed up waiting for your site to load. You can do this by checking the number of clicks you get from search queries and comparing that to the number of people visiting your site from Google Analytics. This will give you a good impression of how many people abandon your site because it’s running too slow.
For this site the results are quite surprising. On average I lose about 20% of my visitors between them clicking on the link in Google and actually loading a page¹. I shudder to think how many I was losing back in the days where a page would take 10+ seconds to load but I’d hazard a guess it was roughly double that if I take into account the traffic boost I got after moving to a dedicated provider. Getting your site running fast then is probably one of the most important things you can do if you’re looking to get anywhere on the Internets, at least that’s what my data is telling me.
After I realised this I’ve been on a bit of a performance binge, trying anything and everything to get it running better. I’m still in the process of doing so however and many of the tricks that people talk about for WordPress don’t translate well into the Windows world so I’m basically hacking my way through it. I’ve dedicated part of my weekend to this and I’ll hopefully write up the results next week so that you other crazy Windows based WordPressers can benefit from my tinkering.
¹If people are interested in finding out this kind of data from their Google Analytics/Webmasters Tools account let me know and I might run up a script to do the comparison for you.