Best Workstation For Operating a Mini

I have a Lulzbot Mini. I’ve been using an HP laptop to run it, but the laptop cannot keep up with the printer and is really slow. I have Norton 360 on it to keep it scumware free, and it is patched up to date. However, as time has elapsed over the 4 years I’ve had my printer and laptop, the laptop is losing its ability to run the printer. What is the best “cheap” option in a workstation for Lulzbot Minis?

Perhaps you can clarify – I’m not clear if you use the laptop just to drive the Mini, or if you mean to use it to run Cura as well.

If the former, then use Octoprint on a Raspberry Pi – Octopi is an easy-to-install full-featured Octoprint image ready to use. Works marvelously, and easily keeps up with the Lulzbots. Won’t run Cura, though – even if you put a display on it, it’ll be too slow and lack memory.

We use a leftover Dell laptop that we had lying around. Been working perfectly for several years now on our Mini V1, both to run Cura and to drive the Mini (which Cura does directly via USB).

Here’s a hint: Nothing destroys PC performance like antivirus software. You might try disconnecting your HP laptop from any network connections, fully disabling the antivirus software, and then seeing how well it runs Cura and feeds data to the Mini. Honestly, it doesn’t take much horsepower to send data over a USB connection so it shouldn’t take much of a laptop to do it.

I highly recommend OctoPi / OctoPrint on a Raspberry Pi. I’d suggest a RPi 3B+ over the RPi 4 mostly because the added CPU speed and/or added memory aren’t needed and the 4 has had some teething problems and tends to run hot. You will still need your laptop to do the slicing.

Having a dedicated system to feed the printer frees the laptop for all the other processes involved in getting models ready to print. As your printing gets more complex, it’s not uncommon to have print times of multiple hours or even days. Keeping a laptop / Windows system stable for that long can get challenging but the RPi will happily run that long and longer.

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Another vote for Octopi (Octoprint on a Raspberry Pi). Slice in your favorite slicer. Copy the resulting gcode file to Octoprint (in a web browser) for printing. Add a camera, and monitor from your couch.

I use a laptop to run Cura, download files from Thingiverse and my Google Drive to print, search for answers like this, and other things in support of the Mini.

I’ve heard a number of folks suggest using Octoprint on a Raspberry Pi. To do that, can you still do printer maintenance like swapping filaments, flashing firmware, and adjusting print settings? What won’t Octoprint do for you? As I recall, a Raspberry Pi has no monitor. What do you use to control it if you cannot see what it needs or is doing?

OctoPrint is primarily controlled via its web interface. OctoPi (the OS OctoPrint is installed in) is designed to run on a headless (no monitor, keyboard, or mouse) RPi and you can pre-configure WiFi before you boot the RPi for the first time. A minimal amount of OctoPi interaction is handled using SSH (PuTTY and optionally WinSCP on Windows) which opens a text based terminal window.

Take a look at the OctoPrint website. I think that will answer all your questions (and more).

I also use the OctoPi.

A Raspberry Pi is about $35 for the computer. But this price only gets you the Single Board Computer. It will not include:

  • A case - but there are loads of 3D printable cases. You could buy the official case. I think it’s $8 USD.
  • A microSD card. You can think of it like a hard-drive for the computer. It boots off it and uses it as the filesystem. It can’t work without one. But they are cheap. A 32GB microSD card is probably around $12 USD. I was at MicroCenter and couldn’t find a card in stock with a smaller size (an 8GB card would have been big enough) but at that price… I guess it doesn’t mater. microSD cards are pretty cheap these days.
  • I power supply. The latest version wants a 5v / 3amp charger with a USB-C type charging connector. They’ve always tried to use a design that would be similar to what you would use to charge a mobile phone. Previous versions all used the micro USB plug… but the latest generation of the Pi now uses the new USB-C plug. There have been people who report power issues… but it turns out they’ve been using cheap knock-off chargers. The ‘official’ Raspberry Pi charger is pretty cheap (I think it is $8) and it’s high-quality. It really does supply the amount of power that it claims to supply.

That’s pretty much it for the essentials… it also doesn’t include a mouse, keyboard, or monitor. You won’t need them… ever. You could set up a Raspberry Pi as a desktop computer and … sure you’d want a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Any USB keyboard and mouse works. The Pi uses a micro HDMI connector for the monitor. But for the OctoPrint server … it never needs a monitor – not even for initial setup.

  • Optional: A Web Cam. It supports streaming video of your printer (it will also record time-lapse of your parts printing). The Octoprint website has a long list of web-cams that work. But my favorite is the official Raspberry Pi color camera. It’s about $25. Again… it doesn’t include a case but there are loads of 3D-printable cases for it. But it has pretty high resolution and performance for probably the cheapest price of any webcam. It’s a Sony Exmor camera sensor that does resolution pretty close to 4k video (not exact… but close.)

You download the OctoPi operating system as an “image” file. You can download a free copy of “Balena Etcher” … this is a utility that will copy the “image” file to the microSD card. If you use Windows… Windows will complain when you complete the copy. It will say it doesn’t understand the filesystem and offer to reformat the card. DO NOT REFORMAT the card. There is nothing wrong… it’s just that Windows doesn’t understand the Linux filesystem. Tell windows to “ignore” the issue. Pull out the card. Put it in the Raspberry Pi, and boot it.

After it boots (the fist boot takes a little longer because it sets up a bunch of stuff. When the green light on the Pi stops blinking and isn’t had activity for many seconds … it’s probably booted) you will launch a web browser. Type in the URL “http://octopi.local” (without the quotes) and hit enter. It should dynamically find your service and will begin to prompt you through the initial setup.

The “.local” suffix is part of a standard called mDNS. mDNS is a standard offered by Apple based on their “Bonjour” service. Bonjour is a zero-configuration network protocol that lets devices be auto-discovered with no configuration. It’s all public domain stuff. Microsoft finally started including it in Windows so it should just work as long as you type the “http://” in front. If you just type “octopi.local” then it probably wont resolve correctly (it does on a mac but Windows seems to be fussy.)