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3D Printer: Buy or Build, or just keep thinking about it

Building a 3D Printer needs community support

Getting a 3D printer requires an investment of time and money. It also helps to understand your objectives. Once you get bitten by the 3D printer bug, it becomes more a matter of how than what. You know you are going to end up with your own 3D printer. It becomes an obsession. Here’s how I handled my obsession. How did you handle yours?

The first thing someone who wants to buy a 3D printer in 2015 needs to realize is that he or she is very early on the innovation adoption curve. I began by trying to find other people to ask for advice and for their experiences. Good luck with that. I live in a city of more than a million people and could not easily find a 3D printer owner. Despite all the media hype, Kickstarter projects and Internet chatter, there are very few consumer grade 3D printers in use. The best estimate I have seen for mid 2015 is probably about 100,000 machines. And maybe half of these are in schools. So that is somewhere around one 3D printer per 500 households in Canada, United States and Europe. But given the S-shaped innovation adoption curve, this number likely to skyrocket by next year.

Unable to find a mentor, I turned to reading books and web sites. It became clear that buying a good quality off-the-shelf 3D printer retail would cost around $2,000. At the other extreme, buying the parts to build my own would probably cost $500. This factored in shipping and the weak Canadian dollar.

Since one of my main objectives was to learn all about how a 3D printer works, I ruled out buying a new retail model. I was not prepared to gamble $2,000 on something I knew so little about. On the other hand, and mainly because I knew so little, designing and building my own printer did not make sense, either. I might end up with a box of parts and nothing that would actually work.

Then, I discovered the 3D printer KITS starting to ship from China. Most of these use open source designs (RepRap) or are some sort of clones of proprietary machines. The open source designs made the most sense because they are well documented on the Internet. They also have large communities of makers who share information. The RepRap documentation includes technical specifications and bill of materials. The BOM is valuable because if you have to replace a broken part, you know exactly what you need.

By the way, RepRap is an open source community geared to designing and building self-replicating machines. The idea is that once you have a RepRap 3D printer, you can use it to print the plastic parts needed for another printer, etc. Regardless of the self-replication aspect, RepRap is probably the main community effort stimulating adoption of 3D printers worldwide.

3D Printer Kits from China

There are many web sites selling Chinese 3D printer kits. These include ebay, AliExpress and 3D Printers Online Store, which is where I ended up. Many of these kits have similar specifications. For my first 3D printer, I wanted a well documented open source design with decent but not high end specifications. Most important, I wanted to be able to see independent reviews and videos from people who had actually built and were actually using these kits.

After all my research, I settled on the Sunhokey Prusa i3. Back in April, it was selling for US$325 with free shipping. With the exchange rate, this was about $100 cheaper than I could buy the parts individually. I notice this morning it is selling for even less. (I will describe building and using this 3D printer in later articles.) This printer is the third generation of popular design from Josef Průša in Prague. It cost around $800-$1,000 before the Chinese entered the market. Their implementations tend to use acrylic rather than metal frames, but otherwise the components are similar.

A few months later, do I regret my purchase? No. Have I had problems that I needed to solve? Yes. Did I receive great vendor support? No. Have I met my learning objectives? Yes. More to come soon…

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