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3D Printing 101: Buying Your First Desktop 3D Printer

3d-printing-101-buying-your-first-desktop-3d-printer3D printing was invented nearly thirty years ago.  But recently this industry has been taking giant leaps into a brave new world.  Before, 3D printers were almost exclusively used to build prototypes and models for mega corporations, who could afford their once exorbitant price tags.  But now, the age of the affordable personal desktop 3D printer has arrived.    

While their larger, more powerful cousins still dominate the industry; desktop 3D printers have been, in recent years and months, taking it by storm.  That isn’t to say 3D printers which fill up entire rooms aren’t still helping companies create models or prototypes (for the architectural and automobile industries, for example), (see our next issue for a more complete overview of these types of printers) it just means that a new and exciting way to create 3D objects has generated a lot of buzz in the 3D printing industry.   

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves and discuss the array of shiny new desktop 3D printers that the main players in the industry have begun to aggressively roll out this spring, let us first not neglect to mention Reprap. 

Reprap is an open source project using a wiki interface for its website that allows users an easy, very (very!) cheap way to build their own desktop printers.  Because many of the Reprap printers are made of plastic parts, they are able to self-replicate, meaning that you can print most of the parts for a new printer on another printer.

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This sort of community sharing model has worked well for many of its users.  (As an example, read the article on Adam Luker and his Reprap printer in our first introductory issue, to get a sense of what these machines are and what sorts of capabilities they have.)  In order to build these printers, however, you do have to have at least a basic understanding of the technical and engineering aspects of these machines, which is not for everyone.  But if it’s the cheapest machine you’re looking for, then this is the 3D printer for you!

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The Botmill “Glider” (Reprap Mendel, repackaged)

Botmill, a company that has recently been bought by 3D systems, puts together Reprap printer components and designs for you.  They repackage the Reprap Mendel as the “glider” and sell it for about twice the price it was when the parts were not assembled.  Though this is still quite a bit cheaper than other desktop 3D printing options, reviews of this company from the wider community are mixed.  The Botmill website claims that they offer day after delivery, but most of their customers had to wait at least a week for the printer to arrive.  And often these printers were missing vital parts.  We can only hope that the 3D systems buyout means better customer service in the future. 

Though these printers, and others like them, such as Makergear and Solidoodle (coming in at a mere $499!) are much much cheaper than their flashier competitors, they have an immense learning curve.  

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Solidoodle

This learning curve doesn’t have much to do with the assembly required, however.  Indeed, only the Reprap models require this assembly, as the others have all been assembled for you.  No, the problem arises from the CAD software these printers use.  CAD software is used with 3D printers in order to help the user interface with a computer and design exactly what they’d like the printer to print.  Unfortunately, these cheaper printers, at least for now, use software such as Skeinforge and Prongerface.  Of course, with practice and time, you can learn to use these programs effectively.  However, if you have limited technical and engineering knowledge you may find yourself at a bit of a deep end at the beginning. 

If you don’t mind this initial confusion, or if you are invigorated by the challenge, then by all means start building those printers!  However, if you are like the rest of us and would prefer a more user friendly interface when designing 3D objects to print on your desktop printer, you may want to further investigate higher priced, but friendlier printers, which can be found in our profiles section this issue.

Images courtesy of Reprap, Botmill, and Solidoodle

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