Current State of Consumer 3D Printing

Earlier this week I purchased a consumer 3D printer. It was a big investment and in a later post I’ll take some time to review why I believe it will be worthwhile. In the meantime, I want to do a quick run-down of the products that are emerging in this space while the research is still fresh in my mind.

For those who are not familiar, a lot has happened in the last few years in the world of 3D printing. Previously 3D printing was strictly a commercial endeavor due to the high cost of hardware (upwards of $60,000). In the last five years hackers have started cobbling together do-it-yourself 3D printer kits; extremely primitive versions of their commercial counter-parts. These kits effectively work like computer controlled glue guns. Open source software deconstructs 3D digital models into horizontal slices and this information is sent to the printer. The printer uses an extruder to heat up a plastic filament. The extruder is guided by servos in 3 axes allowing the filament to be deposited layer by layer gradually reconstructing the object. What is so revolutionary about these kits is their low cost. At around $1500, a tiny fraction of the commercial versions, the technology is now within reach of individuals. Over the past year this tiny cottage industry has begun to mature into actual companies with fledgling products. Below is a run down of who the players are:

 

RepRap

RepRap Mendel

Image: RepRap.org

The RepRap is the printer that got this whole revolution under-way. The project began at the University of Bath back in 2005. The ambition was to create a 3D printer that could print itself. This ambition is a long way from being fulfilled but the project is a huge leap in the right direction. The RepRap isn’t a product per se but a set of open source designs. The process of building a RepRap is extremely long and laborious. It can take several weeks to acquire its many parts and many months thereafter to fully assemble and calibrate the printer. This intensive process represents the cost of being on the bleeding edge, the upswing is that a vibrant community has emerged around the RepRap. This community is constantly improving upon the core RepRap designs and several derivative products have emerged including several of the printers below.

 

MakerBot


MakerBot’s latest design is the one I ended up purchasing. MakerBot has been on the scene for awhile now, their original product was derived from the RepRap project. Last year the company received $10 million in venture capital funding so there’s at least a few people who believe 3D printing will be blowing up in a big way. At this year’s CES they started offering their 3rd generation printer, The Replicator. MakerBot’s previous product (The Thing-o-Matic) is a relatively proven design. It still requires regular maintenance, which is a do-it-yourself endeavor, but when working, its output is fairly consistent. Previously most of their printers have been sold as kits requiring end-user assembly. The latest offering comes fully assembled and crucially, has dual extruders. I believe the dual-extruder setup is a key feature and its the reason why I decided to go with this design, I’ll detail why in a follow-up post.

Maybe as importantly as the printer itself, MakerBot also owns Thingiverse. Currently Thingiverse is the biggest online community for actually sharing 3D-printable objects. In the long term this might be their biggest asset. As 3D printing becomes mainstream, and real consumers get involved, it will be a tiny minority who fire up their favorite CAD program to draft a new spatula for the kitchen. Instead consumers will gravitate towards these communities where thousands of objects designed by others already exist.

 

Ultimaker

The Ultimaker is a product offered out of The Netherlands. It looks similar to the MakerBot and I was very tempted to purchase it instead. The videos of the Ultimaker show a printer that is substantially faster with a much finer resolution then others in this list.

The Ultimaker has a fairly active forum too. Its users regularly share help and advice as well as their projects. If you are located in Europe, I would suggest that this is definitely the printer to look at. I ended up choosing otherwise because after the currency conversion and shipping cost the total price was similar to the dual extruder MakerBot, which I prefered.


 

printrbot

The printrbot emerged through a Kickstarter campaign in November of last year. They managed to raise over $800,000 – 30 times more then their stated goal. This printer is very attractive due to its clean simplicity. Its a fraction of the size of other printers in this list, more easily expandable and its projected costs is about half of what other kits are going for. All that said this project has yet to see  the light of day. There is a working prototype and evidently the team is working furiously to fulfill orders for the pledges made on Kickstarter. If they are actually able to offer the product, at the projected cost, this printer would certainly be the best starter kit for a newcomer.

 

Cubify

Cubify Cube

Image: Cubify.com

Cubify launched about a week ago, debuting their product at CES. It has been difficult to obtain much information about such a new product, but their platform warrants a close look. Cubify is owned by 3D Systems, an established company in the commercial 3D printing space. The Cube is their flagship offering in this new market segment. They are also attempting to build their own community for sharing designs and eventually apps, presumably to compete with Thingiverse. Their product looks extremely polished from an industrial design standpoint, of course this doesn’t say anything about the quality of their prints. In the few videos I could find showing the Cube printer in action, its performance looked on par with other RepRap variants. Given that this product is offered by an established company with a wealth of experience in commercial 3D printing its certainly worth keeping an eye out for reviews of the Cube when they start delivering units.

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2 years, 187 days ago   8 Comments

Comments


  1. Bi-Ying Miao says:

    What do you think would be the future of 3d printing???




  2. Shawn says:

    I am interested to hear about your experience with the Makerbot replicator.
    I have had a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic for about 5 months now, before this I built a Cupcake, a Reprap Mendel Prusa, and a Huxley. I have discovered that most of what I use it for is building electronics cases, fixing things, and making fun toys off Thingiverse.
    Watching this develop will be quite interesting, another startup called Formlabs out of Cambridge just received half a million dollars to develop their own printer. I suspect that Makerbot will stay in the lead for the foreseeable future since they have the community and the momentum.




  3. Law2001 says:

    I am interested in 3D printing, but at ~$ 50.00/kg for plastic materials, it is difficult for me to be interested in these products. It would be an expensive hobby. I’m thinking more about replacement parts and new useful products. I’m also interested in metals for sterling engines, specialized antennas, etc.




  4. Dan Neely says:

    @law2001 The cause of the high plastic cost is that all the consumer printers use filament instead of beads which are much cheaper. The problem is that a reliable feed system that works with the latter is much more complex; IIRC the problem is a part with a complicated 3d figure that can’t be made cheaply. I know there were people working on trying to make a design simple enough to add to Rep-Rap type printers a year or two ago; but apparently success has eluded them so far.




  5. Dan Riches says:

    Personally a printer capable of printing copper, or at least direct printing of an etch resist chemical for pcb production at standard printer prices is a much more worthwhile project. 3D printing can wait until I can reliably and cheaply make gadgets that will require a case or other fabricated plastic parts!




  6. Dan Neely says:

    @Dan Riches Without also being able to assemble if not actually print surface mount components; what you’re asking for is probably of even less general purpose utility. Current plastic(or metal) only 3d printers are capable of producing some types of fully finished items; an empty PCB printer would only be able to make a single component of an item.




  7. Hans Gerwitz says:

    Another worth watching: http://blog.makible.com/




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