I still don't have one.
This week, Machine Design ran a series of articles on the topic of entry level 3D printers; all three by author Cabe Atwell. I had never really noticed this guy as an author, but looking at his author's page at MD, I see I've read some of his stuff before, and also that he's a principal at a company called Gunhead that has two divisions: one that makes CNC lathes on the ubiquitous "7 by" platform while the other makes paintball products. Which makes me think we'd probably get along fine.
The first one that caught my eye was "Are 3D Printers Overrated?" In the first couple of paragraphs, he mentions something I've only heard as hushed whispers among the hoopla over the technology. The bitter truth is that you can buy a 2D printer (better known as an inkjet or laser printer) set it up and get great results instantly. 3D printing is still a much, much less established technology.
You’re probably groaning by now, but hear me out. Yes, prices for the maker/desktop/DIY category of machines have dropped, the quality of their output has increased, and promotional materials abound with printers creating beautiful and delicate objets d’art.He then goes on to list eight trouble spots that the home level printers have to address before they can really be thought of as useful appliances.
What isn’t shown is the effort, the sweat, the tinkering, the trial and error, and the screaming to the gods themselves to please, please let it work this time.
- Warping. Caused by excessive sensitivity to temperature changes. Enclosing a printer works better than going with an open frame. On a similar note; printers must have their beds aligned carefully; leveled so that print head is at right angles to the part, and the gap between the print head and object has to be set.
- Porosity. Even when printed with 100% fill, parts leak too much for many applications.
- Prints that won't stick to the print bed. As Atwell puts it: "Reapplying treatments or specialty surfaces is too much like inking the letters on a manual printing press. There is no equivalent operation necessary before you print out your great aunt’s Bundt cake recipe on your inkjet."
- Prints that won't come off the print bed. They stick too well.
- Prints don't get out of the way. Partly an extension of the last issue, partly due to there not being something like the "out tray" that holds the prints coming out of a 2D printer. 3D Prints don't get ejected and left for pickup. This makes the 3D printer require more babysitting than a paper printer.
- 3D Printers are way too slow. For a variety of reasons, it takes hours to a day or even more to see if the print came out right.
- 3D Printers are way too manual. Think of a laser printer: you buy it, and you buy a stack of paper. You stick the paper in the printer, follow the setup instructions, and it prints. As he puts it, 3D printers are, "more like MP3 players that get songs loaded onto them via Morse code. Oh, and the Morse code tapper thing costs extra."
- And finally, the BIG one... (say it with me) Software. "A decent selection of software is available, and we’ve all seen the impressive results. The problem is that the software, if it’s user accessible, requires a lot of tuning. Adjusting variables and trying to correlate cause with effect can be maddening."
The next piece of the three almost seems to contradict this one. Almost. This one is entitled, "Ten 3D Printers that are Near Click and Print Capable Right From the Box". In the first piece, he mentions two printers that are close to his ideal, the Tiertime UP-BOX and Afinia H series of printers, both of which are rather expensive. In this piece he lists another ten, from a couple of relatively cheap consumer-grade printers, starting with the Tevo Tarantula I3 at $237 and the QIDI Technology X-ONE at $449. The first thing you'll notice about the Tevo Tarantula is that it's not enclosed. See his first item "Warping". There is a Prusa USA i3 printer at $699 which is also not enclosed, but the selection runs the gamut to an Ultimaker3 at $4295 and only three out of the 10 are not enclosed. For those, he says, "build an enclosure".
If you're seriously looking for a 3D printer, you might well find one in these 10 that will work for you. The prices above seem to run the range; you'll also want to consider that they might not print in all the same materials. That Tevo Tarantula prints in ABS, PLA, PETG, wood and PVS filaments, while a $699 (enclosed) XYZPrinting daVinci Pro 1.0 will only print in ABS and PLA (although those are the most popular filaments).
Essential Equipment for your Filament Based Printer" covers just that: 11 essential accessories that (chances are) you don't even know you need for your printer. From BuildTak, a mat that goes on your printer's bed to help you avoid the problem of prints that fall off too soon, to a spatula-like print removal tool, to more mundane things like Rubbermaid sealing containers, and Super Glue. Don't forget a set of feeler gages.
Two of the main reasons I don't have one yet are the phase he describes above ("the effort, the sweat, the tinkering, the trial and error, and the screaming to the gods themselves to please, please let it work this time") and the long wait times to get something simple printed out. It's cool stuff, but we're not really ready for a "3D printer in every house" world. We're not ready to download files of plastic things we need from Thingiverse instead of buying them from Wally World, although that world is coming. A fast working 3D printer that address the user friendliness issues that Cabe Atwell raises would be a good approximation of a Star Trek replicator. Need a replacement part for something that broke? Maybe you tell the replicator what you need and it goes to Thingiverse (or something like it), looks up a design, and prints it for you. To borrow a phrase from Sci Fi author William Gibson, “The future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed.”