So you want to buy a 3d Printer!?
You have some extra cash stacked away and the visa will handle it for sure. You have already justified it based on you having not bought anything for yourself in ages. Yes, you have been dreaming about 3d Printers since you first heard about them… Yes, you have gone out to the shed and paced out the area you need. No problem, just a bit of cleaning up. There’s even a bench that you can setup on.
At night you fall asleep dreaming up designs for your production system to churn out. Your wife keeps wondering why you have those vacant looks on your face. It’s your other love. She’s that awesome, future shaping 3d Printer! But, the choices. There are so many 3d Printers to choose from. Sure, you have a budget, but there is nothing worse than buying a complete ‘dog’ and not being able to produce those ideas that keep popping into your head!
So what to look for? What do you need to consider when choosing a 3d Printer for the home?
In this article we are going to outline 11 things to consider when you choose your 3d Printer. Of course your budget is important. But, better to wait, than get something that is going to totally disappoint and frustrate you. There is an incredible array of 3d Printers coming onto the market. In the space of a couple of years the choice has gone from a handful to 20-30 options. You can buy kits, complete, multi colour and for prices from sub 1000 to 3000 depending on what you feel you need.
Things are also moving so fast you need to consider when you get in. Sometimes by moving too early the useful life of your printer before it is obsolete can be very short. There are always the people that are ready to jump in when the technology is raw, expensive and pioneering. They pay a huge premium and the tech is often completely obsolete in a very short space of time. But, for their money, they ‘touched the cutting edge’. Sure they bled a little, but what a feeling.
But now 3d Printers are becoming a real option for the home hobby designer and maker. It is no longer the ‘bleeding edge’.
3d Printers are producing better quality, with shorter turnarounds and with much, much less tech knowhow. So now seems much more worth the financial risk. You are much more likely to get a few years printing out of your 3d Printer prior to considering it a ‘boat anchor’. So how to make a good decision? What are the things you should consider when choosing your 3d Printer? Let’s lay them out and see if we can make some sense of them. Firstly you need to start with your goal or end result in mind. There is no sense in buying something to print a full size replica of Darth Veda’s head only to find that when you unpack your printer and fire it up you will only be printing a pygmy version. And a dodgy one at that!
Guiding Principle, “Work Backwards”
Work backwards from what you want to produce. There is nothing worse than getting super excited about 3d Printing and in the heat of the moment racing out and buying a 3d Printer. Only to find later that it will limit you in what you want to produce or worse yet not be able to produced anything like what you want.
So, how to avoid this? Decide what sort of models or projects you want to produce. Once you know the sort of products you would like to create. Then work out the properties and qualities of those models. Do you want:
- Ready to use parts
- Hard, stiff parts that are immediately usable
- Models for casting moulds
- Smooth finish without the need of re-finishing
- Super large parts of X dimensions
- Multi colour
Once you have the details written down, you can use those to question 3d Printer sellers. You might need to consider a multi tier output approach.
Consider All Output Options
So you came up with a wish-list a mile long. You want colour, top notch resolution, usable parts in metal and plastic. Along with the ability to produce part of 3 foot wing of your flying, jet propelled robot project… You find that you will be up for more than 125K.
Don’t stress, you may be able to produce 75% of your needs, but the last 25% is going to take some serious heavy hitting 3d Printing gear. So what do you do?
Make sure that you contact the major 3d Printer manufacturers and get some advice. Don’t just go to one of course. But you will find most of these guys don’t want an unhappy customer. They know that you will be back buying more 3d Printers into the future, so they want to help you succeed. They also want case studies of success. So use their input and advice. Then of course cross check.
Read The Forums
Make sure to do your research. Check out the 3d Printing forums. If you are getting hooked on a 3d Printer and diving your hand deeper into your pocked. Hold off a bit and check the forums. Sometimes when you see the distressed users trying to get their first decent print off you will take that hand straight out of your pocket. I have often read the challenges that people are working through to get their 3d Printer going and thought “OMG” what a lemon. People will often show examples of output too. So you can see if that matches up with what you want to produce or if your imagination was running away with you on what your planned 3d printer would be able to do.
In short, read and search for all the info you can find before you buy. User experiences and requests for help are going to be like gold.
Outsourcing The Serious Stuff
Remember that 3d Printing technology is advancing fast. So, the 3d Printer you invest in today may feel like a boat anchor holding you back in a year. So think ahead and look for something that you feel would be viable into the future.
Many of the bigger 3d Printing providers are supplying a print on demand model. This allows you to access some of their equipment that is used for ‘jobbing’ work. 3d Systems for example are providing this service in many locations. Often along with this service you will get some serious pro level advice on what you are trying to do also. This means you will likely avoid some costly design and production mistakes.
If you are serious about the design, develop and build process. Then don’t get locked into what you see in front of you. Think outside the box and consider all production options. This will allow you to get the best of both worlds. Being self sufficient and innovative, whilst simultaneously being able to produce just about anything you can imagine.
How far can you go with this strategy? All the way. I was at a seminar recently and found that for around $200 dollars I could get access to a 3d Nano Factory. Yes, you ready it correctly. I could rock up with a design idea for a cellular analogue and go to a state of the art facility to produce my design at nano scale. That’s right, you are not likely to have one of those in the garage!
1/ Print Size (Depth, Width & Height)
So I know this is difficult when you are dreaming, but how big is the object of your desire? Measure it out in depth, width and height. Sure some objects can be produced in multiple pieces quite effectively. But some of your parts will need to be produced in one piece. Now don’t dream, check your 3d Printer specs!
2/ Print Method, Quality, Speed And Resolution
What is the finish quality you need? Can it be ‘post’ finished? Or does it need to come off the platen with a usable finish. The quality of the finished result can vary significantly from printer to printer and may also be determined by factors such as the print speed and the head/filament thickness used. So, if you really need a top notch smooth finish off the printer, then you may need to look very carefully at your choice.
Let’s say you have a plan to sell personalised golf tees on the internet. Then you better look very carefully and go check out some samples. This is because a lot of hobby 3d Printers produce quite a rough finish. Many of the printed results I have seen are just not acceptable as a high resolution smooth commercial result. So as a subset of print quality. See if you can get a sample or a really high resolution picture of a printed sample along with some specs on the following:
Make sure to look at more than just the hot plastic extruder type 3d Printers. The reason for this is that 3d Printer prices are coming down. At the writing of this article some really cool kits are available that allow you to 3d Print in many other mediums. Such as SLA (Stereo Lithography)
This would allow you to potentially produced a silicone / epoxy model that has very high resolution from the laser triggering of the light sensitive liquid the laser is fired into. The profusion of 3d Printers is in part being driven by Kick Starter type investment.
This is helping small companies to get investment funding from interested users. An example is the Peachy Printer. Whilst the Peachy Printer is still under development, you can see that the kit is indeed super cheap and is providing access to a SLA 3d Printer that would have otherwise been well out of reach of the average user.
What was the print speed that was used to print the sample. Print speed obviously can affect quality. Often the ‘weigh off’ for faster print speed is lower quality.
Resolution is generally determined by the number of vertical steps the 3d Printing machine will take. Generally the more steps to put down a layers, the higher the resolution. Clearly this will affect the final quality of the object. The balancing factor with higher resolution and a lower print speed is that you will take longer to get your objects off. So if you are producing a prototype then this may not be as big a deal. But if your customer ordered 50 personalised golf tees, it could become a show stopper!
Drill Down And Look For What Upgrades Are Available
Heated Build Platform (Supplied or not)
For example on of the important factors on many hot plastic extruders, is if a heated platform is needed. This sits under the heading of quality and usability. Problems can be encountered on some 3d Printers as the hot plastic hits the cold bed. This means that the plastic that is deposited onto the cold first run plastic can cause quality problems and blocking of the print heads.
Heated plastic also distorts as it cools. If it is allowed to cool too quickly, then it will not create a faithful reproduction and be distorted. For some productions this is not a big deal. But if you need to produce at very precise tolerances or at the maximum size your machine can produced then it is probably a must. Many 3d Printers don’t come with a heated platform. But you can get one for an extra investment as an accessory. It’s far better to know if you need one up front or not, rather than have to add one later. Heated Bed Info
Generally, if the machine offers an upgrade like a heated bed. You may find that you are doing all sorts of backflips to avoid problems if you don’t get one.
3/ Print Heads (For multi colour printing)
So to our third item in our 11 things to consider when you choose your 3d Printer. Generally you need more than one print head to produce more than one colour in your design. The print head and filament being swapped out as the colour needs to change. Remember that some printers are not able to use more than one print head, thus making it difficult if not impossible to print more than one colour. Ease of print head swap out is also a factor.
Making sure it is not too hard to swap out a print head is also an important factor. (As 3d Printers evolve, this will clearly become more automated and flexible.)
With some machines it is very hard to upgrade the the print heads. Make sure to check that you are able to easily swap out and upgrade heads as they become available. Replacing parts such as print heads should be easy. Being a fast developing technology means that there may also be upgrades of things like print heads or extruders you may want to take advantage of. So make sure that this is considered in your machine design. The ideal is that you can get many years of use out of your 3d Printer with some basic upgrades. Keeping it in touch with the next models.
4/ 3d Printing Supplies
Another one of the top 11 things to consider when you choose your 3d Printer is supplies. What is the cost of the filament and are you locked in to the equipment supplier? There can be quite a bit of variation on the cost of the filament from the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer).
So make sure to check what the prices are. Also check what is included with your machine when you purchase it. Often machines are supplied with no filament at all. So remember this will be an added start up cost. Also consider if you are going to be locked in to a difficult high cost supply chain.
Remember the paper printing model. “Sell em a printer cheap and rip into them for the printer cartridges!” This is going to be true for 3d Printers also. So make sure that you can get supply readily and that the prices are competitive. Check your warranty also. you may find if you use aftermarket filament you are not covered by your warranty.
Filament Types and Colours
Check what sort of filament types the printer you are reviewing can take. Make sure the material is suitable for the purpose you want. Remember if you want to use your part as an actual serviceable part in a robotics project for example. You need to check out if the material will stand up to the rigours your robot will put it through.
Does your project require special colours? If so, can the printer be stocked with the right colours to make your project work? Many printers break warranty if you are going to put aftermarket coloured filament in them. So be careful. It is best to stick with the manufacturers supplies until you really know what you are doing and you know what the machine should produced as a ‘stock standard’ output. If you immediately load up with odd ball supplies, don’t expect to be complaining to the manufacturer about the finish quality of your 3d Prints. Don’t worry they are on the look out for people just like you and will ask you tough questions.
This can cost a bomb. So make sure you know where and how you are going to get your supplies. What is the shipping time, price and specifications. If you are locked into a proprietary system you may regret it later. Think of all the problems you had on that old inkjet printer… Make sure you have sussed this out and have options. If it is a proprietary system how can you be sure there will be security of supply and pricing?
Can you re-use the left over materials. This is becoming a possibility in some systems. Where you are able to re-use plastics and liquids or powders. See what is possible and ask the question.
5/ Ease Of Buying Parts & Materials
This one is very important. You don’t want to be caught with a machine that is out of action and unrepairable. Or one that will be sitting idle for months while you wait for that replacement part.
Depending on where you live this could be a factor too. Although shipping parts internationally is not really a big deal these days. Try to do some independent research on what the experience is for people that have purchased a 3d Printer like the one you want. If you hear horror stories such as “sorry that machine is now considered obsolete and we are no longer supplying parts…” Then run a mile. This can be nightmare. Also watch out for the number of people complaining about waiting on parts or supplies. Nothing is worse than sitting there in your shed crying over your broken printer with nothing but a beer or a wine to console you.
Another factor with parts and materials is the cost. Once again do your home work. What does it cost for a replacement print head, spool of filament and of course god forbid a stepper motor. Some companies will really gouge spare parts pricing. Their model is to really make you pay if you need any extra parts. Remember, when you are buying, you often don’t think about this sort of stuff. But think back to the pain you have felt on other spur of the moment purchases you have bought over the years. I know I have been burned many times whenever I have just jumped in without checking things like parts and supplies.
6/ Kit Form Or Prebuilt?
Our sixth point in “11 Things To Consider When You Choose Your 3d Printer”, is for the heavy duty hobbiest. Are you handy with the tools? Sometimes you can get a good unit that saves some money and gives you perhaps more bang for your buck by going kit form. Perhaps you really want to know the ‘ins and outs’ of the machine and get really hands on? Then kit may be the way to go. But, remember if you are at all in doubt, go for a prebuilt model. There is nothing worse than finding you have a pile of bits and pieces and are out of your depth. Some of the early kits used wooden frames. Which may affect rigidity. Of course the accuracy of a 3d Printer is all about how rigid the frame is.
So remember that this is also a factor in making sure that your machine reproduces faithfully for you. The cost of prebuilt machines is coming down all the time. But do anticipate a bit more for shipping in a prebuilt model as they are of course very bulky.
One further thing is to make sure that the product ends up to your door in good condition. Being a bulky item means that damage can easily be encountered during shipping.
7/ Ease Of Use (Equipment / Software) Software / Bundled Software
Perhaps the biggest factor in producing what you want easily and reliably is the software that will drive your machine. This can be a show stopper or a party killer. You need to consider the software that comes with your printer carefully.
- Is it easy to use?
- Will it cost you for upgrades?
- What are your goals?
- Are you going to be designing your own builds?
- Are you going to be mainly downloading files or getting them from someone else?
All these things need to be considered. There are some great open source file sharing sites. Many 3d Printers also have great forums and sharing facilities for users. Make sure to check out demos of design and printing for the Printer you have your heart set on. Then check out a competitor. Then check out user reviews of your printers ease of use.
Great software can make a big difference to how long you are going to be spending tinkering in the shed. When it comes to design, you can pay a lot of money for proprietary 3d design or CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. Many suppliers will give you links to open source CAD software that can get the job done. But some are also coming bundled with their own proprietary design software. This can be a big factor in choosing.
Great design software can mean the difference between 2 hours to complete a top notch design and 10. So do some homework here. See if it is an integral part of the cost benefit for your printer. Is it a feature or an after thought by the OEM? If you already have top notch software you are happy with, then of course this is not so much of a consideration.
The warranties on the various machines is quite different. So scrutinise this aspect. Some are 90 days. Some are 6 months and some are a full year. Of course also check what the warranty covers. No one wants their 3d Printer to break down. But remember these things are new technology, so it can be a very costly experience.
9/ Support, Forum, Learning Centre And Manuals
Once you have got some favourite models and makers, start to see if you can get into their forums or search online for service and support issues.
The last thing you want is to have a technical issue and have no support and help in fixing them. Online communities and learning centres can be worth their weight in gold. Sometimes the user groups know more about the gear than the manufacturer over time. So check it out. Do they have a strong active forum and a great learning centre? If so you will soon get a good feel for the printer, it’s features and use if you check out an active community.
Check if your 3d Printer comes with manuals. If they are downloadable you may be able to get your hands on them prior to buying. I have done this many times with equipment I have bought. It has also helped me to decide not to buy a machine too after I learned frightening aspects of the machine that were outlined in the manuals! If there is a learning centre, spend your time and check out the ‘how to’ guides. If they have videos all the better. If you can get access to them prior to purchase, get in and dig around. You will really learn so much more than the sales pitch.
10/ Supported Operating Systems and Connectivity (Stay connected or not, cable method)
How do you plan to work with your 3d Printer? If you are going to have a computer hooked up to it full time, it may not be much of an issue. Just make sure that the appropriate cable is supplied! And of course that it works with your computers operating system. This has caught me out many times. I would love a dollar for all the times the particular software or hardware I wanted to use did not work with my mac for example.
Check in detail, design software, 3d Printer hardware, scanners and anything else that might be in the mix. Check exact operating system versions too. How much storage do you need? Remember if you are doing scans of 3d objects files may be reasonable large so also consider if your computer will have enough space on the drive and has the right amount of ram to run the software involved.
If you plan to use your laptop and want to remove it from the printer for use on other work, then wireless connection may be an advantage. Check all this out carefully. Make sure you understand how the whole system will hang together. Don’t just think about the 3d Printer itself. You need to think of it as a total 3d Manufacturing system. This will help you avoid major frustration and lack of output.
11/ Accessories, Shipping And Added Costs
Here we are on the last of our ’11 things to consider when you choose your 3d Printer’. Finally let’s think about accessories. Some 3d Printers will have the heated bed as an accessory. This is important and potentially costly.
Of course also check that things like the printer cable or wireless are not added accessories. If they are make sure to factor the true cost of your printer when comparing. Many have it as a standard feature. Make sure you check this carefully.
Also check for print head options and replacement extruders etc. Check out the shipping costs too. Remember that a fully assembled 3d Printer is a pretty bulky object so make sure to see what it costs to insure and ship it. You may find you are seeing quite a bit of added cost here. Also variations from one 3d Printer to another.
I hope you enjoyed this post on 11 Things To Consider When You Choose Your 3d Printer. I hope it prompted you to think of some questions to ask and some further research to do. This will give you the best chance to buy a 3d Printer that will do you well for years to come.
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