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Selecting a 3D Printer

  • 28 December 2014
  • Author: Dan Santee
  • Number of views: 3222
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Selecting a 3D Printer

Since starting to work with my 3D printer, I've had a few people ask me about cost and printer recommendations.  There are many options, but essentially two very different ways to go - build or buy.  Both have their rewards and pitfalls, and I'll try to go through some of those here.

Before you decide on a printer, you'll need to know a couple of things - what kind of material you want to use for printing, and how large you want the things you print to be.  The two most common materials are PLA and ABS, but if you want to print more exotic materials like nylon and wood (yes, wood), you'll need to do additional research to make sure that your chosen printer can handle those.  PLA is sugar-based and biodegradable, plus very forgiving to print for the novice, but can be brittle and shatter if dropped on a hard surface.  It also gets very soft at higher temperatures (>120F), so if you think it may be outside in the sun, in a sunny window, or in a car, it's not a great choice.  It's perfect for things around the house, such as electronics project boxes, replacement toy parts, and even replacement 3D printer parts, because of it's tolerance to wear and tear.  ABS is petroleum-based and a bit harder to work with, but is slightly flexible (so as not to crack easily), more temperature-tolerant, and costs a little bit less (at the time of this writing, a 1kg spool of 1.75mm ABS is about $18, and PLA is about $24).  It does require a heated build plate (the thing the part sits on while you're printing it), so make sure your printer has one if you're planning on using ABS.  PLA smells a bit like waffles while printing, and ABS smells pretty much like melting plastic.  My wife and I have never minded the ABS, but it can cause problems for some people.

The build plate and printer z-axis (the up-and-down motion) determine the maximum size you can print, and are difficult or impossible to alter after you get your printer setup, so make sure you get a large enough printer for the things you want to print.  Typical sizes range from ten cubic centimeters (four cubic inches, about the size of a softball) to twenty cubic centimeters (about eight cubic inches).

If you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, buying a printer is your best bet.  Prices range from $500 (the XYZprinting Da Vinci 1.0 3D Printer) to $1300 (the MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer) and $2500 (the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer).  Personally, I'd stay away from the Mini for anything but classroom use, as you'll quickly exceed the build size.  The Da Vinci is fine for the price, but requires proprietary filament spools, which may be more expensive in the long run.  Many others (such as the FlashForge Creator Pro) make great printers, but since I've never used them, I don't have much of an opinion on them.

There is a second path, though - but you need to be more of a journey than a destination type of person.  You can build a 3D printer.  It's actually not that hard to get up and running, and there are some truly great online resources and communities out there to help you when you get stuck.  Anyone who can wield a screwdriver and soldering iron is up to the task.  These types of printers are called RepRap, and are designed to be self-replicating.  This means that (with some limitations), your printer can build a new printer - and upgrade itself.

You can buy an i3x kit for under $500 (the Aurora3D RepRap Prusa I3, for example).  They come with everything needed to get started except for a small piece of borosilicate glass ($20) and filament.  I opted for the 1.75mm version over the 3mm version, since the filament costs about the same, but 1.75 can give you finer build quality (at the expense of some speed).  I was happy with the kit, but shop around a bit to make sure you're getting what you want, when you want it.  It took me about three days to put my kit together, and I wasn't in a particular hurry.  The first two days I assembled all the hardware and wiring, and the third day I installed all the software I needed to get up and running with the printer.  Since then, I've gone a bit crazy with upgrades, but I've learned a ton about the 3D printing process, and upgraded my printer many times for little or no money.  The more I print, the more I change my printer to suit my needs, and I can always head out to the Thingiverse for inspiration.  This is just the beginning.

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