There is no question: you will own a 3D printer – it’s only a matter of time. The situation today is like it was with the early personal computers, at first it was the hobbyists who had them and most other people wondered what they would use one for. But over time their usefulness became obvious and the difficulty of acquiring, using and supporting them diminished by leaps and bounds. So, with 3D printers where do we stand today?
I’ll confess that I’m on the vanguard, but it’s pretty clear where things are headed. Today’s 3D printers, and by that I mean the whole ecosystem supporting them, has moved past the really early “you have to build and understand everything yourself” days. Think back to when owning a computer meant you had a build it yourself. 3D printers have moved beyond this stage.
Unlike the early days, now Amazon lists many 3D printers you can buy assembled and ready to use. Of course you can still buy a kit. Though ready made printers are essential for mass adoption. Still, most all of the assembled printers require the kind of fussing that a consumer would not bother with. The prices for assembled printers start at ~$300 and go up from there. There are a few for that kind of low price that are useful and probably even worth it. But to avoid headaches it is advisable to spend over $1,000.
Virtually no printer that says it is a consumer product is really telling the truth. Because they are mechanical beasts, luck also plays a role in user experience. Some cheap printers work well for some users, and not well for other users. Higher prices mean better quality design and, importantly, better materials and build quality.
The number one issue that needs to be ‘solved’ before 3D printers are something that you pick up at Best Buy and just plug in is bed leveling. Most printers print things using a layer thicknesses of 0.1 to 0.3mm. That is 100 to 300 microns for us chip guys. The very first layer that goes down on the print bed is make or break for everything that comes after. If the print head, which is usually extruding a 0.4mm strand of molten plastic, is too high the plastic does not adhere and simply wads up into a sticky ball at the end of the extruder nozzle. This then gums up everything that is done after. If the head is too low, then the print head is jammed against the bed and the filament can’t some out. This can lead to melted plastic gumming up the heater and extruder internals. Most often though it will temporarily block the nozzle, but regardless the print will not begin properly.
Printers do all sorts of things to improve results when they print the first layer, such as using a heated bed to improve adhesion, running slowly to make sure the first layer sticks well, and extruding a bit more material to make sure the first layer mushrooms out a bit to increase surface area and pressure against the bed. All of these operations are controlled by what is called slicer software. This software reads .STL files and slices up the shape to determine the tool paths for each of the hundreds or thousands of 0.2mm layers needed to complete a print.
Bed leveling needs to be done so every point on the bed is the right distance from the extruder tip, usually 0.1mm, at the start of the print job. Today this process is most often done with checking to see if a sheet of paper will “just” slide under the tip, not too easily and not too stiffly. The thing is, this takes several rounds of moving the print head to the corners and adjusting wing nuts. The print head sometimes can have gobs of hardened plastic on it, which will throw off the process. The whole operation will need to be repeated at varying intervals to keep things working.
Some expensive printers, and at least one cheap one, boasts auto-leveling. But this should be classified today as an unsolved problem for consumer level devices.
At the start of this article I posited that there is a 3D printer in your future. Despite the truth of the saying that a 3D printer is not a tool, it is a hobby, they have immense usefulness. After having a printer at home for many months, I decided that I needed one at my vacation home for over the holidays. I had become used to the notion of thinking of something useful and then having the ability to find or design it, and hold it in my hand shortly thereafter. Online there is a vast collection of free things that can be printed easily. If you have never looked at Thingiverse.com, I suggest you do. Thousands of people have submitted their designs for everything imaginable, so that you or I can simply download them for free and print them.
It is true that the first thing you print with a 3D printer is new or improved parts for it. However, there are many other applications. When it hits you that you can get exactly what you need with out going to the store – it is a revelation. Or even more importantly, you can get something you could never find in any store. Here are few of the things I printed in the last few weeks, while out of town.
I own three printers. The first was the Micro3D – it was a Kickstarter that cost around $300. I bought it without knowing a lot about 3D printing. While I can say it works, it has many faults. But, remember it is just $300. It is a closed design that made many trade-offs to hold down costs. Most higher quality 3D printers use stepper motors – NEMA being the favored brand. The Micro3D uses low cost motors with a small gear to lower the shaft rotation rate. They also built their own print head. There are lots of print heads on other printers that have evolved into open standards – not unlike open source software. These have matured to work really well and replacement parts, upgrades, and problem solutions are readily available. With the Micro3D you have to live with their design, as is. There are other cost cutting measures in their design like the way the heater coil is used as the thermal sensor – requiring factory recalibration of the firmware when it needs to be replaced. Lastly it compensates for a range of design issues by running at a snail’s pace, making it frustrating when you build larger things.
My next printer is the FlashForge Creator Pro. Compared to the Micro3D, it is a serious piece of hardware. It performs really well and has required very little fussing. It is based on the open source design of the Replicator Makerbot, which means that advice, parts and upgrades are readily available. In fact, the FlashForge already comes with a number of community enhancements to the original design. It costs around $1200 on Amazon and prints at a much higher quality, size, speed and reliability than the Micro3D. Of course there is still some fussing with bed leveling and a few things you’ll want to do to make it work better. But it was up and running very quickly.
For my vacation home I went back to the low-end price range, but this time bought another printer based on an open source design. I bought the Wanhao i3, based on the Prusa i3. Actually I bought a re-labled version from Monoprice.com – called the Maker Select. It took a number of upgrades – most of them downloaded from Thingiverse.com – to get the best results. Also there are a few somewhat tricky things about keeping it calibrated. But there is an active Google group where advice can be gathered. When it is calibrated it prints as well as the FlashForge. For $350 with free shipping I cannot complain.
There is one model by Zortrax, the M200, that claims the highest ease of use and the least hassles for people who not not want a 3D printer hobby. At $1900 it is not the cheapest, but also by no means the most expensive. It requires their proprietary software and filaments. It also has a slightly cumbersome procedure for running prints. However, it is apparently the best no hassle printer available at the consumer level. Remember when the Apple II came out and was only available as a finished product and all the tinkerers said it was “too expensive” and not easily upgradable? Well, stay tuned to this one.
I’d have to say that I “need” a 3D printer. Yes, I am an early adopter and I really cannot make a financial justification for owning one, let alone three. But just like the personal computer, prices will come down and the technology will improve dramatically. I cannot say if it will be in 5 years or 10 years, but your 3D printer will be there sitting on your counter next to the tool box (or coffee maker) sooner than you might think.