What he intended to do with my 3D printer, I can’t remember. I vaguely remember wanting to print big things, but I wasn’t sure what they might be. More abstractly, he hoped that the printer could combine several hobbies and interests into one: computer programming, additive and subtractive manufacturing, computer-aided design, tinkering, and an unyielding desire to create something, anything.
Expecting too much from my printer was my first mistake. I stumbled upon dozens of other pitfalls after the printer arrived, until the day I placed it on a shelf in my garage and solemnly declared at my family’s breakfast table that I was done (for now ) with the 3D printer. The room practically erupted in applause.
That’s because my hobby turned into an obsession, something I could have avoided if I had understood the limitations of both my skill set and the printer’s capabilities. Meanwhile, since March 2020, additive manufacturing has been one of the few industries that has grown despite the pandemic. The machines have proven their business value during disrupted supply chains and have offered rapid prototyping capabilities to home renaissance workers looking to help the healthcare industry.
And with 3D printers (some available to consumers, others intended for industrial operations) now creating everything from concrete houses to organic biotech material, their popularity is not waning.
Here are some tips before you start your own foray into 3D printing.
Know why you’re buying
3D printers vary in size, price, accuracy, and because of these variables, cost. Are you thinking of printing toys for your kids or is it a way to introduce your kids to STEM? Do you have small DIY projects at home for which 3D printed parts could save you money? Or are you just looking for a desktop hobby that lets you print doodads and bric-a-brac like a toothpaste tube squeezer or a bookshelf holder?
Inexpensive desktop printers range from $100 to $400, with more accurate and larger printers costing over $1,000. Professional and hobbyist printers, some of which can print ceramics, metals, sand and other materials beyond plastics, can cost up to $10,000. Anything beyond that would be considered industrial and could easily cost upwards of $250,000.
For the purposes of this guide, I’m assuming you’re looking for desktop printers. With the recent explosion in printer availability, anything under $500 is sufficient for household jobs. This range will meet similar standards of accuracy and speed, and will retain upgrade options.
Selecting a type of printer
3D printers have been around since 1983. The one 3D printing method back then has evolved into nine different types of printers today. However, for the first-time buyer, fused deposition modeling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) are the easiest to learn and require the least knowledge to get started.
FDM works like this: Thermoplastics (are forced through a nozzle heated to more than 200 degrees. The plastics, known as filaments, come in a variety of types: polylactic acid (PLA), polyamide (PA) , acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), or some with wood and carbon bonded to the plastic. The most common nozzles are 0.4 mm in diameter (the smaller, the higher the resolution) and run over a build plate or heated platform. about the thickness of a post-it note. The build plate, sometimes also heated, helps the plastic stick and cool as the layers build up and harden. The nozzle moves on tracks or gantries (some have two axes, some more), assisted. sometimes by actuators, servomotors, rack and pinion structures or slideways. Usually the final impression must be cleaned of the excess plastic with a knife or a wire brush, but that’s it or it is not always necessary.