Failure Isn’t Failure

Why do we even talk about failure in maker circles, anyway?

I love it when an idea comes together. You picture something in your head, hunker down with your tools, put time and effort into the project, and create exactly the thing that you imagined.  

And sometimes, exactly the thing you imagined just does not work at all.  

It’s long past time to address how we talk about this kind of thing in the maker community. I had a project go sideways recently that I think showcases how silly it is to for makers of all stripes to talk about failure as often as we do.

Before I get to this particular less-than-successful project, though, I think I need to tell the story of how we came to own a 3D printer, because understanding that will help you understand why I started this project in the first place.  

The 3D Printer

In March of 2017, a friend and local maker contacted me out of the blue and offered a printer. I was blown away by the generosity and couldn’t quite believe it. He said that he just got a new one and no longer had room for it. Besides, he said, there was a catch. It didn’t actually work. But for the low low price of getting it working again, it was all ours.  

The printer is a Velleman Vertex k8400. It’s a Belgian printer from 2015 that in many ways represents the early growing pains of 3D printers. It’s a cool little machine, with a frosted acrylic case and mounts for filament spools jutting out from either side. While the fundamentals of 3D printing haven’t changed much, the level of polish and refinement and the standardization of parts in the industry has really improved since its release. Reviews and discussion threads from 2015 and 2016 point out that the Vertex can produce excellent results, but requires more care and fussing than its contemporaries, even right out of the box. Our printer came to us as a retired workhorse with thousands of hours of print time on it, so you can imagine how that went.  

Keep in mind how the filament spools are mounted. This will come into play later on. Image from https://vertex3dprinter.eu/producten/vertex/ .

Still, it has totally and fundamentally changed how the kids and I approach our projects. I’ve spent two years tinkering with the Vertex and have swapped out many of the proprietary parts for standard ones, parts so standardized that four years after the Vertex was released, they now cost pennies on AliExpress. You can learn a little more about the overhaul in a series of vlogs over on the YouTube channel, at youtube.com/lovemakesharetv.  I could go on and on about the tinkering we’ve done, but the big takeaway is this – in the past two years, its status has gone from half-working curiosity to semi-reliable to total lemon to, at long last, feature- and quality-competitive with many new mass-market printers.  

So the printer works well. In getting there, it’s bred an instinct in me where I tinker and improve and upgrade and am constantly, constantly looking for opportunities to improve. It’s like I’ve said to people getting into 3D printing – it’s as much a lifestyle as it is a tool. And I think it’s a very positive lifestyle, one defined by curiosity and a growth mindset.

So where did I get into trouble? What was the project that made me decide, once and for all, that I was tired of hearing makers talk about failure all the time?

The DIY Master Spool

There’s one other 3D printing concept we need to talk about briefly before we get to the point. Filament for these printers comes on big spools, like spools of thread. The spools themselves – usually made of plastic – add a lot of weight and cost and waste to the 3D printing process. They make filament more expensive to buy and to ship.

filament spool
An empty filament spool. That’s a lot of waste, on top of everything else.

In the last year or so there’s been a movement away from those spools to what’s called a “master spool” system – so, you make or buy or print one spool that can accommodate a roll of filament. By reusing the master spool, you reduce the overall environmental impact and your costs go down. Win win.  

Here’s where I made my mistake.  

I bought a roll of black filament from Filaments.ca a while back with the intent to make my own master spool. And I did.

deconstructed filament spool
Disassembled the spool and hacksawed out the core.
master spool WIP
A 3D-printed core for the new master spool. Note the registration key so I can fit an end cap in place and it’ll hold securely.
assembled master spool
The homemade master spool, loaded with black Econofil PLA from filaments.ca. The endcap unscrews to replace the roll of filament.

Unfortunately, I forgot a key feature when designing my master spool – a hole through the middle so I could hang it on the holder on the side of the printer.  I spent my time on the little removable endcap and totally whiffed on including the most important functional feature.

I had two options at this point. The obvious solution was to remodel the core of the spool to include a hole. The less-obvious solution was to entirely re-engineer the way filament was dispensed through the extruder gears and into the printer. Naturally, because I’m me, I elected for the latter.  

My intentions were good, I promise.  

The short version is, I exhaustively measured everything and designed exactly the system I wanted in Autodesk’s Fusion 360. I printed it in the clear PLA filament I use for most of my functional prints – I don’t know why I make things in clear, maybe I just like to see my working parts doing their job. I snapped some bearings into place to make the rollers spin freely.  

And it didn’t work. It snagged. Didn’t dispense filament. There was too much resistance, and it seemed like things were flexing and sliding around a bit. 

I redesigned it a little. Made the rollers wider. Added a base that the pieces slotted into to make sure that everything stayed rigid. Printed it again.  

It still didn’t work.  

Every problem I found, I’d solved. Every vector for failure had been addressed. But it still wasn’t working. All I needed to do was make a round thing spin. And it didn’t work. And I didn’t know why.  

It didn’t work. And I didn’t know why. But I don’t call it a failure.

But I don’t call it a failure.

People in the maker community and in Silicon Valley and in business and now in education all talk about failure. Fail fast, you might have heard. Fail gracefully. Fail.  

I don’t like the casual use of the word failure. In my mind, failure has a connotation of big. Monumental. It means the end of something. Sure, we can make language fit what we want it to say. That’s what language is – expressing an idea that we all agree the word means. But when we’re talking about creative projects, we’re not talking about failure. Not really. It just doesn’t fit.   

There is no fail state unless I decide there is one.

See, getting it wrong is part of the creative process. Sometimes that can lead to failure. But I’m not there. I’m on no timeline here. There’s nothing riding on the DIY master spool, other than my pride. There is no fail state unless I decide there is one. Without a defined fail state, every attempt that doesn’t work as intended is just another iteration on my learning. It’s a step towards figuring it out.  

My filament dispenser didn’t work. But – why would I saddle it with the heavy language of failure? The stakes are so low that it’s far more valuable as a learning opportunity. And the other thing is – as I’m developing this idea, as I iterate on this thing to make it match the thing in my imagination, I don’t think I’ve even done anything particularly wrong. Prototyping, testing, and iteration are key parts of the design thinking process. I’m not mad that I’ve gotten as far into the design of the DIY master spool and filament dispenser in this way. 

I want to leave the discussion of failure, and this less-than-successful project, on this point – one made by Adam Savage in his book “Every Tool’s a Hammer.”  

“Failing at things, genuinely screwing up, is an inescapable part of the human condition. I frankly don’t trust anyone who say they haven’t failed at anything. Facing yourself, and the places in which you have not performed to the degree you’d hoped lends a vital tonic to one’s character.  

“But in the context of creativity what we’re talking about here is not truly failure per se. True failure is dark, it hurts, it affects others, and it’s not something to be recovered from. Failure is getting drunk and not showing up to your kid’s birthday. None of that describes the type of failure that’s become such a buzzword.  

“In all this talk of failure, what we are really talking about is iteration, experimentation. What we are talking about is the freedom and willingness to try a bunch of new things in the pursuit of new ideas until we find the thing that works. Because creativity does not move in a straight, unbroken line. It is a path that twists and turns and doubles back on itself sometimes. It’s never linear. There will be ‘wrong turns’ that feel right and seem to be taking you in the general direction of your goal, but gradually veer far enough off course that you have to backtrack to the fork in the road and take the other spur – the other branch on the decision tree.” 

If you can take anything from this, from Adam Savage’s words and from mine, I hope it’s a little bit more freedom in your creativity. Not freedom to fail – freedom from the very notion of failure itself. And the dizzy, wondrous lightness that comes with it.

As always, folks, paddle your own canoe.

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