There are loads of desktop 3d printers available these days. Chances are, you know someone who has one. Or maybe you've seen one at your kid's school. But should you buy a 3d printer?
If you or your family members are interested in technology or DIY crafts, a 3d printer might be a fun tool to have around. Keep in mind that they often involve a bit of trouble-shooting, tinkering and maintenance. So, as long as you have the patience to solve the occasional mechanical issue (such as cleaning a clogged nozzle) you should be good. You'll also have to learn 3d modeling software, if you haven't already. Sketchup is a great program for beginners - and there's a free version.
Our desktop 3d printer is the Original Plus model by Ultimaker. We use it to prototype some of our designs to assess form and fit. We also print the occasional DIY object like the tea cozy I use every morning. (But we don't use this machine to print any of the pieces we offer for sale. For that we rely on production quality 3d printing through dedicated fabrication services.)
There is quite a wide price range of available machines. So, if you're not sure it's something you'll use or be interested in long-term, you can always start out with a lower-cost model. We haven't tested any of the printers in the lower price range ourselves, but we've heard rumors that the quality is still decent.
Some things to consider before buying:
What are the width, depth, and height of the printable space? Each machine is different, so make sure you're buying one that allows you to print the things you're interested in.
How fast does it print? Our machine allows us to adjust the layer resolution of the print to cut down on the printing time. But we still occasionally have prints that take up to 48 hours. And a print could certainly take longer than that depending on it's size, complexity and layer height.
This brings us to the next point of consideration. What layer resolution do you want the machine to be capable of? The thinner the layers, the smoother the surface. Our Ultimaker Original Plus can print layers as thin as 20 microns (0.02mm). That's pretty thin - but even at that resolution the prints have a fine ribbed texture.
What degree of assembly is required once you receive the printer? Our printer had to be fully assembled and it took us a whole weekend. So make sure you know what you're getting into, otherwise you might end up with a box of parts gathering dust without ever printing a thing.
What printing process and material would you prefer? Ultimaker machines, like the one we have, use a 3d printing process called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). But there are two other categories of desktop 3d printers: Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP). There are additional 3d printing processes but they are generally used in more expensive production machines. But then again, technology develops quickly and by the time you are reading this there may be desktop products for these other methods. If you're interested in learning more about the various methods of 3d printing, the article linked here explains them thoroughly.
In my opinion FDM printers are probably the best category for beginners. If you go with an FDM printer, I would also advise starting out with PLA filament, so you don't have to worry about venting unpleasant fumes.
According to this forum, the Formlabs Form 2 (SLA) printer doesn't require special ventilation either.
In addition to the 3d modeling program you use to create your designs, you'll also need software that translates that design into instructions your printer can understand. Most 3d printers should be compatible with Cura, which is free. But you'll want to confirm compatibility, or inclusion of similar software, before buying to avoid an unpredicted expense.
The last thing you'll need to consider is post processing. Once your print is finished and ready to be removed from the machine, you'll need to do some clean up work on your design. This means breaking away any support scaffolding surrounding your design. If your design is super complex this might involve hours of careful removal with pliers, an exacto-knife and even getting in there with sandpaper and files.
This print of ours has lots of support structures that will need to be removed.
Don't mistake the 3d printer for the instantly gratifying Star Trek Replicator. These machines require much more human effort than the famous science fiction device. But if you're interested in taking on a medium to long-term hobby, 3d printing can be a lot of fun.
The following are links to review sites that can help you compare desktop 3d printers to decide which one is right for you.
You can find more articles about desktop 3d Printing linked on our dedicated Are.na channel. We've also included a few promising kickstarter campaigns there as well.