The search for an inexpensive, field-ready 3D printer continues: Anet A6 (review)

One of the reasons 3D printing exploded seemingly overnight a decade ago has a lot to do with the RepRap project, an initiative to build a fully open-source and largely 3D-printable 3D-printer. The idea of a machine that could replicate itself was pulled straight from the pages of science fiction, and yet, here were machines–janky, kludgey, barely functional, machines–assembled from parts clearly fabricated by those same machines. They were conceptually impressive, but not a particularly awe-inspiring sight to behold.

And then came Josef Průša and the Prusa Mendel.

Affectionately known as the Ford Model T of the 3D printing world, the Prusa Mendel was the first of the open-source 3D printers that was designed to be easily mass produced. It looked good and it ran great. Released under an open-source license, it was replicated and iterated on a massive scale. That didn’t prevent Průša from building a successful company. The current Prusa i3 MK2 is among the most successful desktop 3D printers in the world, and certainly one of the best.

There are a lot of Prusa i3 clones.

Clocking in at $197.69, the Anet A6 is the most expensive printer in this review series. It’s also the biggest, with a massive 220mm by 220mm by 250mm build area. It’s an upgraded version of the popular Anet A8, with a larger build volume and a better user interface, but not much else. From reviews, this printer seemed like a solid representation of what you can get at the top end of the menagerie of sub-$200 Prusa i3 clones. It (and its smaller A8 brother) certainly have the fan-base and hacking community to support its reputation.

Anet A6, working hard. Photo by author.

This acrylic-framed beast ships as a kit, so expect to spend half a day putting this printer together.

If you’re going off of dollar per cubic millimeter, this is the best bang for you buck by a wide margin. And that’s about the extent of the good things I have to say about this machine.

For an explanation of our testing protocols, please see: We’re gonna beat the heck out of these machines: The search for the best dirt-cheap 3D printer for fieldwork.

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Build a dirt cheap, tough-as-nails field computer in a Pelican case

IMG_20150720_233502091For and updated version of the BeagleBox, please go here: The BeagleBox 2: a dirt-cheap, tough-as-nails, 3D-printed, versatile field laptop.

Fieldwork is tough. You’re in the elements, facing wind, rain, and salt spray, sometime on an open boat far out in the Atlantic. You and your gear takes a beating. But you’re out there because there’s science that need to get done.

But your equipment is controlled via computer, and your data entry mandates a computer, which means your precious laptop needs to come with you. For graduate students and early career scientists, this can be a dilemma. I’ve see the calculations happen as my colleagues prepare for the field–do I take my one and only computer out into the field and risk damaging it, or do I leave it brute-force my way through sampling without it. That is, if they’re lucky enough to have alternative methods they can employ. For some gear, there’s no choice but to take the computer.

This equation is, counter-intuitively, getting worse. Our sensors, sampling devices, and scanners are getting cheaper and lighter. Rather than buying a $20,000 piece of equipment, you can get a $20 chip, but there’s a trade off, and the trade off is that chip based systems rely on external processing power, they need a general computer, and that means your laptop is coming with you.

I don’t like going out on the water with my laptop. Losing it would be frustrating and time consuming. It’s tough, but it’s not tough-as-nails. And it’s definitely not cheap.

So I tapped into the wealth of Maker experience I’ve accumulated over the last few years and build a new one, using a single board computer, some extra peripherals, and a 3D printer. And I shoved the whole thing into a Pelican case. Say hello to the BeagleBox, a dirt cheap, tough-as-nails field computer for about $200.

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Scientists’ Guide to Field Gear

Field work can be rough. Depending on where your research is located, field seasons may require months of planning, tons of gear, days of travel, and the possiblility that everything may go completely FUBAR at any point. The burden of a successful field season often falls on the shoulders of young graduate students, who may be designing and planning a major research project for the first time. We at Southern Fried Science would like to do a little to help make your field season just a bit easier.

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