3D Printing in the Caribbean

We are trying to have a regular reflection on our work in the Caribbean. This time it will be about 3D printers, something we’ve been working on for a while and which always gets people super excited.

We started working with 3D printers in Thailand in 2013, when Tony’s dad offered us his fairly unused Printrbot LC v2. Printrbot has been a great friend over the years. It’s kind of weird to think that it has come with us from Canada to Thailand, on to Aruba, back to Canada, and now to Jamaica. The little guy has some carbon footprint on him by now.


Like many people, the first time we heard of 3D printing it seemed to open an endless number of opportunities, but once we set it up we weren’t sure what to do with it. Tony’s family were quick to scan him and print out a few replicates of a tiny bust of Tony, and his brother was able to print a bushing for a car he was building. I think the first time we used it in Thailand was to print a bottle opener for our couch surfer, Boris. Apart from that, we printed a logo for “Thailab”, as we called ourselves at the time.

Since then we’ve done many things, mostly printing printers. We’ve now used it to make three other CNC machines: two 3D printers and a 2D plotter. This all started when we left Thailand for Aruba, and Tony’s brother mentioned that he might want the Printrbot back to play around with. So we decided that we would just make a second 3D printer. And since we hadn’t heard of any 3D printer in Aruba, we thought, why not make one that could be used locally.


We got in touch with Elvis Lopez at Ateliers ’89 — an awesome art school operating out of an abandoned hospital — and he gave us the space to host a machine building workshop. The plan was to hold a public workshop to guide a group of interested people in building a set of CNC machines for the public. A month later we were ready, armed with a pile of printed Instructables, a donation of scrap metal from a Island’s Best Windows and Doors, a donation of 1000 florin (~600 USD) from Setar, a box full of stepper motors, wires, switches, metal rods, power supply units, gears, pulleys, belts, and anything else we managed to salvage from old printers we had donated by Maria College, Delta Blue, and Colegio San Nicolas, and some discarded computers we collected from the dump.


And so with the two of us and seven workshop participants we started building. Two months later, we had an operational Prusa Mendel i2 3D printer and a working freestyled 2D plotter, with a CNC router still in progress. The 3D printer required some fine tuning to make it finally work right, but after we perfectly leveled the bed, turned up the hot-end temperature, and added hairspray to the surface to help the plastic stick, it printed beautifully.


What came next was a bit disheartening: no one really wanted to take responsibility for the machines, or had the time to “figure out how to use them”. As the date for our departure to Jamaica came closer, we ended up leaving the plotter and router at the technical school, and the 3D printer in my garage, waiting to be picked up.

Then one day I woke up kind of fed up by the stagnation, and sent an email to Glen Goddijn at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design Aruba, offering him the 3D printer. He jumped at the chance, immediately starting to plan how to integrate it into the curriculum, and arranging for us to give him a few lessons to get it up and running. It didn’t take much to get it printing his 3D sculpture designs, and we soon started talking about ways to bring it to the next level, to set up a more complete lab that would operate within the Academy, but that would also be available to the public.


We managed to get funding from UNOCA and we’re super excited to be setting up the space in December, with some really cool tools, including the DIY tools we made last year, and holding some introductory workshops to get people familiar with the machines and comfortable with the general process of bringing ideas to life.

Back in Jamaica, we now have another self-built 3D printer which is not in a very happy state. Last Christmas, Tony decided to take the Ol’ Printrbot back to his family in Canada, and to use his vacation to build another 3D printer that would be easier to transport. He found the SmartRap design, coming out of a French fab lab called SmartFriendz, it had a simple design, printable parts on Thingiverse, and a sparsely worded construction guide on RepRap. The frame was minimal, being mostly 3D printed and even using stepper motors as structural elements, with a few smooth and threaded rods holding it all in place. Unfortunately, it has taken forever to get it going. The steel rods rusted over from the humidity in Jamaica, and one of the stepper motor drivers burned out and had to be replaced with an external one, with accompanying changes made to the wiring and firmware. It finally started working one day after Tony and our intern Lydia worked on it endlessly, and was able to print 3 rawrs and 2 batman logos. But then, just as it seemed to be a success at long last, the ‘bowden’ tube through which the filament is pushed turned out to be too big, leading to twisting and binding and jamming and cracking and breaking of filament.


One of the difficult things about 3D printing, and many things in fact, on a Caribbean island, is that the parts are not easy to find without an Amazon account, and many of us not in the US lack credit cards and often have to pay double the price in transport and duty and taxes. This sucks.

We are now waiting on that perfectly sized plastic tube [Update: We received it! Thanks Tony’s mom!] and wishing that our filament was fatter [Update: Got some of that, too! Thanks Tony’s Dad!]. The good news is that Tony once again stole back the Ol’ Printrbot from his poor family in Canada, so we can at least print out more 3D printer parts and try to improve on the SmartRap design. Wish us luck!