Considering a 3D printer purchase? Jeremy shares his Printrbot Plus experience, and makes the case for and the case against 3D printing at home.
Two years ago, I bought a 3D printer to use at home and I am not sure that it was a good idea. I got a build-your-own model made from laser-cut wood called the Printrbot Plus. I chose that model as it had a big build volume, can print both ABS and PLA materials, and at the time, was one of the least expensive models available. It was about $900 for the unassembled kit and $1,000 for an assembled unit. I love building kits of just about anything, so getting the unassembled version was a no-brainer.
I was immensely excited when I got the kit. For two straight days, I shirked most of my parental duties, took over my kids play area, and assembled the printer on the linoleum floor.
Bit by bit, the Printrbot Plus came to life. It took a while, but it was not very difficult to assemble. It was a bigger challenge to keep my daughter, Harper, from raiding the piles of pieces and hiding them in one of her purses than it was to build. I only lost one screw. Total victory.
After about thirteen hours, the Printrbot Plus was put together, but there was still plenty to do to get it to print. The printer bed had to be leveled, each of the three axes had to be homed to keep it from driving the print head into the bed, and the software had to be downloaded and installed. It was another few hours of work at least, but finally it was ready go. The printer came with a sample length of beige PLA to use for getting the printer setup. To repay Harper for her help, the first thing I printed were some gold doubloons from the cartoon “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” They were immediately painted and covered with glitter.
Since then, the Printrbot Plus has been mostly sitting idle with islands of heavy use. I used it to make some parts for ill-fated inventions and R/C car parts, but I often struggle to find uses for it. I make the odd orchid or bonsai pot, which is pretty fun, but I often ask myself the same question I had before I bought it. “What am I going to use it for?”
3D printing is an amazing product development tool that accelerates prototyping timelines and helps bring products to market quickly and with better design. However, having a Printrbot Plus at home may not be as helpful as it seems. There are plenty of service bureaus that can be used to get parts 3D printed quickly and inexpensively, and this may be a better fit for many inventors. Here are some reasons to have a 3D printer at home, and some reasons for leaving your printing needs to a professional service.
The Case For 3D Printing at Home
One of the most compelling reasons to have a 3D printer in your arsenal of tools is speed. Product development is a race, and the faster you can iterate and converge upon a design, the better the chance of capturing a market or getting a licensing deal. Print time is largely dependent on the size of the part being printed and the volume of material being used. Every printer is a little bit different, but a part that will fit in your hand usually takes about 3-6 hours. This makes it possible to design a part in the morning, print it in the afternoon, and test it before dinner. 3D printing services are fast, but still have lead times from a couple of days to 2 weeks or more. Each day lost is an iteration or two that you fall behind.
Another benefit of having a printer in the house is that the cost per print is really low. After the initial capital expense of buying the printer, the material cost is really cheap. Most PLA and ABS filament spools are about $30 per kg. If your printer requires the use of proprietary material cartridges, like the 3D Systems Cube 3, it is slightly more expensive. For purposes of illustration, I ran this bonsai tree pot on my Printrbot Plus. It is 3 inches on its longest side. I also had it quoted through a couple of 3D printing services. The cost savings per part is significant.
|Service||Cost for One Piece|
|Quickparts.com (White ABS)||$200|
|Shapeways.com (White Plastic)||$31.16|
My final argument for having a 3D printer at home is whimsy. I enjoy gardening and I cultivate plants in the windowsills in addition to the small greenhouse at the end of my driveway. I had a small jade tree in a ceramic pot on the windowsill. One day it fell off the windowsill and smashed into a million pieces. Bonsai pots can be pricey and hard to find. Instead of buying one, I downloaded a 3D model, modified the dimensions, and printed one before the end of the day. There is no way I would bother having one made by a service, and who knows what I may want to print in the future.
The Case for 3D Printing with a Service
There are a multitude of 3D printing services on the web. The most common for makers and shadetree inventors is Shapeways, as they are inexpensive and the material choices are easy to understand. There are others such as Protolabs, Quickparts, and Stratysys Direct that cater more toward the professional, but are viable options for inventors, too. Many UPS stores and Staples locations have 3D printing services in house, and some public libraries have machines available to use, too. Each service has its strong and weak points, but they all have similar upsides.
One of the best reasons to use a 3D printing service is the range of materials. Commercial grade printers are usually limited to PLA and ABS plastic filament. Printing services, such as Shapeways, offer a multitude of materials. Plastics in all different colors, metals like aluminum, stainless steel, silver, gold, and ceramic, are just some of the options. The best part is that you do not need to change your CAD file to print the same design in multiple materials. Of course, making the 3″ bonsai pot will cost over $60,000 to 3D print in Platinum, but at least you do not have to buy the machine and the material to run it.
Another great reason to use a service is when you need large parts or a large quantity of parts. Most commercial grade 3D printers have build volumes that are 12″ in any direction, and many are less than 8″. This is fine for most inventors’ needs, but some innovations have parts that are much bigger than that. Depending on the process and material, it is possible to get prints over 2-feet long and wide from printing services. The larger machines at these facilities also make it more economical and often faster to run large quantities of small parts. Commercial 3D printers have to trace the entire path of each part, so, double the parts takes double the time. However, the build time of industrial machines that use lasers to solidify the material is primarily height dependent. There is only a marginal increase in the build time for multiple parts. The result is significant quantity discounts and faster turnarounds than you can make on your own.
3D printing is an essential tool in product development, and it is great that the technology has scaled down to affordable units. It has allowed non-engineers and home based inventors to be able to print their designs without having to leave their house. However, they are not for everyone. There is a learning curve to get up to speed with the technology, and the materials and build volumes are limited. For the occasional 3D printer, it may be more economical to use a service for their 3D printing needs.