3D Printing – Part 2: We Can Build It. We Have the Technology.

By Steven Bennett, Technology Specialist

Part 1 last week focused on how a consumer level 3D printer works. Yes, there are other methods I alluded to last time, but never really covered. Well, here’s the opportunity. And before you stop reading here because you surely remember “In the next part we’ll go over the differences between Open Source printers and manufactured out-of-the-box machines,” I promise this ties in! It’s actually a very important part of the purchasing process!

Airplane. Leslie Nielson. Don't call him Shirley.
I couldn’t resist.

Okay, so what other kinds of commonly available printers are there??

I’m glad you asked. In the lineup we have three:

  • SLA (stereolithography, a form of Vat Photopolymerisation)- Prints upside down. Lowers the print bed into a platter of resin, then raises it back up slowly while SHOOTING A LASER THROUGH THE RESIN, hardening it into the shape you’ve loaded in. Seriously. These things are awesome. They also cost anywhere from $3,000-$5,000 for desktop models. You don’t want to consider the larger alternatives unless you’re seriously looking to invest in prototyping. This type of printer is growing in popularity, and is has a lot of potential advancement in the coming years.

  • SLS (Selective Laser Sintering, a form of Powder Bed Fusion)- This method takes a container full of powder (such as plastic, metal, ceramic, or even glass) with a base that gradually lowers AS IT ALSO SHOOTS A LASER INTO THE POWDER, fusing it layer by layer. Consumer level SLS printers can be purchased for roughly the same prices as SLA printers, ranging $3,000-$5,000. However, many hobbyists have been working to create their own, lower cost alternatives.

  • And of course we have F3 (Fused Filament Fabrication – also known as FDF: Fused Deposition Fabrication). This is the one I refer to as the computerized hot glue gun. It takes a material and extrudes it onto the print bed layer by layer (and sadly, there are no lasers). FFF Printers are the most common in consumer level printers, and can range anywhere in price from under $500 to over $4,000, and that isn’t taking into account the existence of build it yourself kits that some companies have available.

(Please keep in mind that all of these videos were simply time-lapse footage. None of the printers that are currently available can print anywhere near this fast. But soon.)

Kits: Like Tinkertoys, but more expensive and if you lose a piece you’re going to cry.

Let’s talk kits. My first 3D printer was a kit. A 2013 Printrbot Simple kit, to be precise. Looks just like this:

2013 Printrbot Simple, a base level 3D Printer made primarily of laser-cut plywood.
2013 Printrbot Simple

It cost a grand total of $325, and it took me nine and a half hours to build. I was very meticulous. You pretty much have to be in order for it to work properly. Everything needs to be tightened just the right amount, and they’ll give you a few extra screws and bolts, as well as the Bill of Materials which lists off every part that should be used to assemble the finished printer. You can always use that to find out exactly what the name is of that tiny, itty-bitty screw you only have one of when you’re supposed to have two.

Not that I know what that’s like.

To be clear, not all kits are created equal. Not all kits are even created by companies. There’s an entire sub-genre of 3D Printers created by hobbyists and all considered Open Source. That means they’re always being modified and improved and can be by anyone as long as credit is given to the original creator. The most prominent of the Open Source 3D printers are the RepRap printers. And there are so many variations that your head might start spinning.

On the other end of that spectrum, you can buy the same kind of printer that we purchased in Distributed Education off of Amazon for $499. And once it gets to you, basically all you have to do it take it out of the box, take out a few pieces of plastic (meant to hold everything in place during transport), and plug it in. When you hook your computer up to it, the controlling program is downloaded and you’re ready to start printing. And that’s one of literally dozens of different available pre-assembled printers. Even the company I purchased mine through, Printrbot, has pre-assembled versions that are ready to go once you get them.

You may be thinking “Why would anyone even buy a kit, then?” 

Well, for some it helps them understand exactly how it works, and by proxy, what part might be acting up if it starts printing oddly. Plus, in many cases the hobbyist community has already begun modifying and improving kit designs within weeks of the kit’s availability, so there’s a wealth of information out there for people who want to get started in both 3D Printing and “modding.” Remember that Printrbot Simple I built? Here’s what someone else did with it:

JohnSL's 3DR Simple Delta, made with all of the electronics of a Printrbot Simple he just wasn't using anymore.
JohnSL’s 3DR Simple Delta, made with all of the electronics of a Printrbot Simple that he just wasn’t using anymore.

But in all honesty, it all comes down to what you want.

So how do I know what to buy?

Well, the answer to three questions will help you immensely:

  1. How much money are you wanting to spend?
    • If it’s under $2,000, then you’ve knocked out SLS and SLA printers (unless you want to try and build your own from a hobbyist’s forum), and you’ve also knocked out the most expensive of the pre-assembled FFF Printers.
    • If you’ve got the money to burn, then the sky’s the limit! Pick your type and read up on the reviews before you make your choice!
  2. Are you wanting to start small and eventually either modify this printer or buy a new, better one? Or do you want this printer to be your go-to? (You’ll probably still buy a second one. I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that now.)
    •  If you’re going to be learning the ropes on this printer, and modifying it into something far from what it originally was, I’d recommend getting a kit, or building a RepRap model.
    • If this is your go to, then buy pre-assembled. They’re pretested so they’re going to work from day one, whereas a kit may take some… finesse.
  3. Do you really want to sit down and put together this machine?
    • It’s an experience. But it’s not an experience that everyone wants to have.

Closing Thoughts

Keep in mind that I bought my kit in 2013. The model of printer I bought can’t be bought anymore. This technology is being refined and improved so quickly that a lot of the companies that make printers are making a new version every year. Even the big names like MakerBot are constantly updating their selection. If you want to make it a major investment, look for the following:

  • A company that’s been around for at least 3 years,
  • A varying range of printers in size and price,
  • Good reviews on their products and the company as a whole.

There are numerous other factors to consider when you really get down to the “which printer do I want to buy” question. And beyond the things we talked about here, it’s really in your court. Read reviews and do your research on the various models. Don’t be afraid to email the companies and ask them questions (I used to tweet @Printrbot and have chats with them!), and definitely read some makers’ forums. Also, feel free to email me if you have any questions about anything I’ve written about so far. My email is steven.bennett@vosltate.edu.

We’ll continue this next time with a thrilling conclusion on where 3D Printing has been innovative, and where it looks to be headed over the coming years!