Monday, July 22, 2013

3D Printing an Ant Farm, Ant Queens, And Asphyxiation!

(don't forget to check out some of the ant videos i've linked to that I captured after the break)

I purchased a 3d printer back in May at Maker Faire.  ( Check out that story here ). Overall i'm still pretty happy with my purchase, though looking back I might have gone with a less expensive printer such as the ultimaker or another one of the 3d printers out there, or even perhaps waited for the botobjects printer, due out in October if you preorder now that boasts 25 micron layers, dual extruders, and a 10x10x11 build area.

While the 2x is a great printer it does have its shortcomings and for the price, $2799, these simply shouldn't occur.  Makerbot industries sells two printers one is called the Replicator 2 and the other is the Replicator 2x "experimental", like the x planes of the 50's and 60s.  One would think that everything the replicator 2 can do, the replicator 2x can do just as well but can do a few more things if you wish to experiment and tweak, but you'd be slightly incorrect.  The Replicator 2x has an actual smaller print area, by about 2 inches on two axis, which is pretty significant.  In addition while the Replicator 2 is geared for PLA plastic, a more rigid and environmentally friendly plastic that smells like pancakes when printing.  The replicator 2x is geared for ABS plastic, which is a bit more flexible and when printing smells like you're melting your action figures in the oven.  Which brings me to the point that the replicator 2x really can't print PLA well.  You CAN print PLA, but typically you'll get one or two prints then the nozzles will clog or the plastic won't stick to the base, or a bunch of other issues which will result in "air prints", where the printer goes through the motion but you'll end up with nothing printed or half printed.  

To "fix" these issues you will likely have to print out "upgrades" in ABS for things such as a better feed mechanism, belt tension clips, or pay additional monies for 3rd party upgrades such as aluminum arms so the build platform has more stability and less likelihood that you'll need to re-level the base platform after every build, in addition to a heated glass platform to replace the supposed "level" aluminum heated print bed. (end of mini-review/rant)

Which this all brings me to the test prints I decided to do to test out the printer boundaries.  I found and wanted to print out an awesome ant farm by 3Dizingof from thingiverse but the download had been removed in response to the "closed nature" that makerbot industries regarding their 3d printers as well as verbiage that put into question who actually owns the items on thingiverse as well as what makerbot industries could do with those items. (which, isn't unfounded be it now that makerbbot industries was bought by http://www.stratasys.com/ ) Which angered many of the designers and they removed those files themselves, and  now on thingiverse the files and their listing have been completely removed. So...

I ended loading up my old copy of Cinema 4d, 3d modeling software, which I had purchased ages ago, and designed a simple ant farm, not as elaborate or as cool as 3Dizingof's version, but had a few elements that were the same, e.g. front and back view ports and tunnels connecting the two sides.  

With a design I was happy with I attempted to print it out in black ABS.  The first attempt was unsuccessful to say the least which was partially my fault in that I didn't use support option for the innards of the nest, and didn't use a raft to help with some warping that occurred, so in the morning I saw this  mess in my printer:
While you should never leave a print "unattended"
some prints take so long its unavoidable, unless you
want to "pause" the print and restart the print and
hope everything matches up and continues on.

When i finally got a working print,  It took only took 34 hours(i said sarcastically ;)  and almost a entire spool of black plastic ABS! This also pushed my printers capabilities as it printed to the very edge of the build platforms in both width and height. I used both supports and a raft this time around.  The raft helps "stick" the print to the base so the corners to curl upward.  ABS when it cools shrinks slightly which when printing from the bottom up you'll run into a situation where the bottom is colder than the top and will start to pull in on itself and cause cracks or warps to occur.  This is also another reason why the rep 2x has a "enclosed print area to help maintain a "warm temp" to aid in gradual cooling.  However with this large of an object even the raft didn't save my print from becoming warped on one side really bad.  In fact the ant farm seperated itself from the raft on one side entirely which you can tell in the pic by the severe warp.

thats not a camera lens trick the top is severely warped to one side.
After removing all of the support material and some initial sanding I decided to use some casting resin to make at least the top/bottom now flat as could be, and actually that worked out pretty well.  I then just had to cut some acrylic to the right dimensions and account for the warp,  which wasn't a big issue since I left quite a gap to place silicone calk for use as a glue and filler/sealer.  The resin I used however was an off white color when cured. There was also some fairly large cracks from the abs cooling along the sides but i just filled that in with epoxy resin glue, which is clear, then sanded it down flat.

At about the same time I purchased my 3d printer,  near where I work, I happened upon two queen ants walking around on the pavement, not sure if they were actual queens, i scooped them up in a plastic vial and then setup a test tube rearing environment at home.  Gladly in a few days time they both started laying eggs.  One queen was about 2x larger than the other but they appeared to be the same species (still yet unidentified).  After a month or two went by I was happy to see both had larva and then pupa and ultimately new worker ants.  The larger queen also seem to start to feel the pinch of crowding in the small vial. So the plan was to finish the 3d printed ant farm for the larger queen and colony and then make my own "gel" ant farm for the smaller queen and her colony.

The first thing i did was open up a few holes into the ant farm with a drill. I then placed some 3d printed barbed nozzles into holes with some glue,  this is so I could attach clear tubing.  The clear tubing was, one for getting the ants into the farm, and then eventually having the tube go to the ant farm's out-world where the ants explore and gather food.  The second thing I did was coat the innards with joint compound, which cures to a stone like texture and could also absorb water for when the nest needed hydration.  In the design I put a hidden channel down the middle of the farm but wouldn't be exposed to any openings in the ant farm once sealed with joint compound.  This channel allows for me to insert a pipette and squirt water into the nest and it'll be absorbed by the joint compound which then hydrates the nest. (you can see the white resin at the bottom now too in the pic below, which you can click to embiggen any of the photos on this blog)
added joint compound for texture and base for ants.

At this time I also started to create another farm using acrylic and some "ant gel" I had.  I wanted something similar to those you can find on thinkgeek, and other "geeky" online retailers.  I went to tap plastics, pick up two identical pieces of acrylic out of the bargain bin and some square 1/4" tubing, then using some welding solvent created a box.  I then added some ports and used the 3d printer to print out in the natual abs filament some legs for the stands and a top decorative portion. This turned out really well.  I then put the ant gel into the farm through some tubing and a syringe and about a day and a half later i moved the small queen into a tube attached to the ant farm.  The colony has investigated the main area but have yet to "move in".  Eventually they should be thirsty/hungry enough to search out in the main area which the gel acts both as a food and a water source.  Eventually when they do move in i'll attach their "entry port" into another outworld for them to explore and forage.  

Gel Ant Farm just like thinkgeek!

that open slot is for placement of a ikea strip leds (not yet installed as
i'm trying to get the ants "into" the farm still.
this is the smaller queen and her colony, actually doing well!
So as I had finished the acrylic version of the ant farm and moved in the smaller colony, I again set back to working on the large ant farm. I decided to place some sand/gravel into the inner area with some watered down pva glue so the ants could pull away some small rocks if they wanted to "customize" their area a bit. I then placed two pieces of acrylic over the top and back using silicone to glue everything up nice.  I used some on the silicone on the port into the farm as well and left it to dry over night.  Well the next day I noticed that everything looked good and all I needed to do was throw some paint on to hide the clear resin and the white resin, so using some "rustoleum for plastics" spray paint I threw on a couple of coats of paint. After spray painting I noticed that the port into the ant farm was loose and took some super glue and glued it on tight once again.  I left the farm sit for about 4 hrs or so and when i came back everything was dry. However it still did smell a bit "spray painty".  This was about 2am when I brought it into my house.

Finished Ant Farm, and also ant death trap (so to speak)
So i went an grabbed the larger queen and her colony they were running all around seemingly wanting to get out of the vial asap.  So I hooked the colony's vial up the port in via three other tubes with some cotten balls. The colony quickly moved out of the first tube into the second larger tube area grabbing their eggs and pupa and larva.  Soon they were all in the second tube.  So i pulled off the their original home and stoppered up the end with a cotton ball.  Then using a led flashlight I coaxed them into the tube closest to the ant farm and stoppered up that tube again with a cotton ball.  So the idea was this is where I would leave them letting them explore on their own time frame and hopefully move in. I started watching them to see if there was any issues or panic setting in.  Oddly they seemed fine at the time.  So after a few hours of watching I decided to go to bed around 5:30 am.

I was recording video for both colonies the entire time from the move into their ant farms and onward. So about 45 min after I had gone to sleep the video of the larger colony showed the colony in panic then slow down and then stop completely.  I didn't think about it at the time but the off gasses from the spray paint (which was still curing) likely caused them to asphyxiate.  I didn't think about how most certainly the gasses from the curing paint could seep into the ant farm, which was partially hollow (i printed at 35 % infill so it wasn't a solid piece) not to mention the cracks here and there from the warping that I didn't fill in with epoxy since they were so small and which the paint did fill. Ultimately I believe this was their demise now, and instead of waiting a few days for the farm to "cure" be it pain, resin, or caulk, I moved them in too early.  The gasses seeped into their area and they no longer had a "clean" air supply and it killed em.  I didn't think about this as I was hooking things up because it was all "exterior" work for the most part that I had just done and the interior had been dry and curred for a few days.  I awoke about 3 hrs later and went to check on them and found this:

removed tube from ant farm, all are dead.  you can see the queen was huge!
So sadly the large queen and her colony are now all dead only the smaller colony remains.  I still would like to find another queen and try out the larger ant farm, which should now be safe once again. (Though a friend suggested a trial run with some ants outside just to be sure then if they don't die initially, it should be good to go for a new queen.)

So here is some video of the ants while in their tube before they passed away.  I took these with a webcam and some scavenged lenses from a toy microscope.

Check out my youtube channel for videos of the other colony and updates!

Hope you enjoyed this post and thanks for stopping by!


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