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:
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.
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.
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.