Below is the essay Brave Writer alum Ben Whipker wrote in our 2014 College Admissions Essay online class. Ben was accepted to and is studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, with an intended major in manufacturing engineering technology. Way to go, Ben!
It’s the middle of the night. Most houses in my neighborhood are quiet with sleeping inhabitants, but not mine. From my room comes a mechanical whirring, like the combination of a fax machine and a dial tone. It comes from my 3D printers.
I started my journey through 3D printing when my mom showed me an article about them. She thought it would be cool if I built one. I agreed. We decided on the terms: she would pay for my parts if I could build one without a kit. That worked for me because all the kits were poorly designed and overpriced.
Over the next few weeks, I spent all my free time searching different open-source printer designs. I wanted to find one that balanced print size, affordability, print quality, and building documentation. The 3D printers I looked at weren’t comparable to the paper printers sold at an office-supply store. There was no fancy plastic shell to cover the mechanical parts, and no technical help line. I created parts lists by looking at other makers’ pictures of different designs. I finally settled on a printer design called a Prusa because it had some documentation, and because most of the sites I visited recommended it for a beginner. I started ordering parts right away!
It was as if Christmas had taken over the month of March. I was receiving packages from China, Germany, the Czech Republic, Canada, France, and the UK. Each one contained another component for my printer. As I opened each package, I tried to guess where each part might fit. Instructions aren’t always easily available with emerging technology, and 3D printing is no different. After all my pieces arrived, I laid my pieces across the kitchen table and started building.
I encountered problem after problem. I found that many of my parts were designed for other printers or for modifications incompatible with my other parts. Some screws were in metric, whereas others were imperial. For weeks, my nights consisted of hours of scouring hidden forum posts, hoping to find someone else with a problem remotely similar to mine. I would read their solutions and form my own ideas customized for my printer’s problems. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
Finally, I was ready to heat the printer up and try printing. It was about midnight on a Saturday. I’d spent the whole day fixing small problems here and there on the printer. This bolt was too loose or that piece was upside down. They were minor problems, but they were still important. Months of problem solving had taught me more than just the specific answers I searched for at the time. I had many pieces of knowledge. I knew how to connect the printer, set up the software, and set the optimal temperature. As the nozzle warmed up, a string of plastic started to slowly emerge from the tip. I felt a rush of excitement as the first sign of my working printer flowed before my eyes.
I have printed phone cases, vases, robot parts and lots of sea turtles. What fascinates me is that to create the perfect print requires solving a giant puzzle. The smallest detail can affect print quality. If the print bed is a fraction of a millimeter higher on one side the print will lift off of the bed while printing. Red and blue filament require low melting temperatures compared to green and black filament. Motors mounted near the power supply do not work as expected. Even having the air conditioner fan turn on at the wrong time impacts the print. These details absorb my mind day in and day out. I know that even if my first fifty ideas don’t work, I just need to think of the fifty-first, because that might be the answer that changes everything. And, if I get all the components just right, the print will be beautiful.