This is the story of my first 3D printing project and how it helped to drastically reduce the overall weight of my 3-axis motion control time-lapse dolly system for easier transport on multi-day backcountry, backpacking trips. Not only did my first 3D printing project shave serious weight (in comparison to aluminum) for hiking, it also fueled additional creativity that drastically increased overall system efficiency and incorporated new features for a better user experience. A majority of everything I designed and modified was originally inspired by the creative products from Dynamic Perception (the Stage One Dolly) and eMotimo (the TB3). Below, you'll find a quick outline of the design modifications and enhancement hacks along with a detailed story of the entire process.
If you're not familiar with time-lapse and motion control camera movements, you might want to check out some of my existing, free to view, online short films such as EYE OF THE BEHOLDER and MOUNTAINS IN MOTION to see what it's all about.
Overview (the moco system features):
72" Carbon Fiber and 3D printed Nylon modular 3-axis motion control system with dolly / pan / tilt capabilities. Ultra lightweight and rigid thanks to the 3D printed design made from Polyamide-12 (nylon). About 50% lighter than it's aluminum big brother, the Dynamic Perception Stage One. My custom "hacked" Stage One design eliminated the frustrating threaded rail inserts with a simple clamp design. I also always struggled to accurately level the Dynamic Perception Stage One dolly on both ends (which results in wonky dolly movement) due to it's lack of built-in levels, so I designed torpedo levels to the end caps and cart-- visible from both sides for easier set-ups in unique angled and vertical positions. I'm getting much better results thanks to the levels.
20:1 worm drive (NEMA 17 stepper motor) for the dolly movement offers constant holding power, removing the need to keep the power-hungry stepper motor on to hold position in angled and vertical moves. This feature reduces power consumption and enhances battery run-time by over 10x!
Modular pan / tilt system with snap-in front panel and 50:1 worm drive. Uses a compact NEMA 17 stepper motor. TINY footprint, ultra-light, almost no backlash. Industry standard, Arca-swiss quick release clamp. Can be paired with the eMotimo tilt bracket. I added a knobbed bolt to the tilt bracket for easy on/off mounting during set-up and breakdown.
Custom designed, laser cut acrylic snap-fit eMotimo TB3 "stand-alone" controller hack offers unique configuration options and helps reduce the high center of gravity that is inherent in the standard eMotimo TB3 (causing potential issues in windy shooting conditions). Custom LiFEPO4 battery system offers superior results in cold weather and high power draw (i.e. real-time video moves) situations over the more commonly used Li-Ion chemistry.
Custom 1" Carbon Fiber tubular sections create the dolly track for easy transport and superior strength / weight reduction in the overall system. Features custom designed 3D printed "connection" inserts with brass thermoplastic insert threads and glass-filled nylon bolts to securely join the segments without any rotational play between sections. Shock-coord design makes initial set-up a breeze and functions the same way a tent pole works.
Lightweight hardware: Some small, supporting hardware was custom designed and 3D printed to cut weight (i.e. bearing rollers). A few metal components are used where necessary (drive shafts, pulley, ball-bearings), but all other bolts are made from glass-filled, high-strength nylon for major weight reduction. 6 nylon 1/4-20 1" bolts weight the same as 1 aluminum equivalent. I also cut weight with a slightly shorter (5mm vs. 9mm) drive belt than what is standard from Dynamic Perception.
Test Footage from this rig can be viewed 3D printed Moco Test Shots on Nimia (UpThink Lab).
In June 2013, I was hard at work (in my free time) shaving weight from my aircraft grade aluminum time-lapse motion control dolly system - the Dynamic Perception Stage One and the eMotimo TB3 - to make backcountry time-lapse cinematography more convenient by shedding weight and trimming any fat. I had an up-coming trip planned to the High Sierra with my wife, Karen, and I didn't want my heavy camera gear to hold us back. The existing rig was designed and built by Dynamic Perception and eMotimo, both small companies bringing high quality equipment to the DIY user at affordable prices and with open-source coding philosophies. Both companies produce rock solid gear that has contributed to revolutionizing the time-lapse industry in recent years. While I was extremely satisfied with my existing equipment that was relatively lightweight, I started to dream of an even lighter system.
To cut back on weight for the backcountry wilderness, I decided to take a hacksaw to my perfectly good equipment and begin to hastily chop them up. When I maxed out the ability to hacksaw away anymore weight, I shifted to cheese-plating parts on a drill press in my basement. At this point in time, I'm fairly positive my friends and fellow time-lapse colleagues thought I was crazy to hack apart gear that costs several thousand dollars simply to shave a few ounces. On the flipside, anyone who hikes long distances with their camera equipment and motion control system surely knew why it was worth my efforts and could relate. I eventually got the existing system as light as possible-- about 1lb lighter than stock weight. It was at this point, I hit a dead end without any additional options to truly shave enough weight to make a BIG difference on my backcountry shoot excursions. At the time, all of that aluminum shredding was enough to make a difference during the trip to California to shoot the short film, EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. As months passed, I found myself contemplating the system design for a better solution. I decided to hire a local machinist in Atlanta to mill the Dynamic Perception Stage One for further weight reduction. We chiseled away at the end caps, added mini bubble levels, and added a stamped aluminum insert to remove the C-stand mount that didn't fit my needs (this allowed us to re-tap a 1/4 20 thread dead center). After a few weeks of on and off again work (the machinist was helping me on the side) we only shaved 8oz. Not worth the effort or cost, so I was back to the drawing board. I needed a new solution that eliminated aluminum altogether and didn't rely on high end equipment that was inaccessible without high cost. Could 3D printing be the answer?