One of the decisions you will have to make when you begin shopping for a 3D printer is what level of unit completion you want to buy. You can choose to source all the pats and build your own from plans, buy a kit of parts, buy a kit machine that someone else has already assembled or buy a factory built printer. Each option has it pros and cons.
If you choose to build a 3D printer from scratch, you will have complete control over the parts that go into it. You can choose the highest quality or you can go for a lower cost but adequate quality. There are plenty of plans available for user built printers so this is a viable option.
A kit gives you many of the same benifits (and drawbacks) as scratch building but you don't have to hunt down most the parts. Kit quality varies widely though so do some research and read reviews before you buy one.
There are a couple ways to get a kit machine that has been assembled by someone else. Some people buy and assemble kits just for resale. That will get you a new printer. In other cases, people build kits, use them for a short time and then decide 3D printing isn't for them. You can find these lightly used printers for sale on eBay and in 3D printing forums.
Commercialy available printers are making their way into the home market. They are being sold online and in stores like Staples right now.
There are some key factors to consider when choosing your new 3D printer. Carefully consider how you plan to use your machine and decide which factors are critical and which you can compromise on.
Here are a few key features to consider.
This certainly isn't everything you should look for in a 3D printer but it is a good start.
The number of materials that can be used in 3D printers is steadily growing. Each material has it uses and it's own requirements. I can only list the ones most commonly used in hobby level printers here. Some printers will only work with one or two materials while others can use several.
PLA is one of, if not the most common materials used in home 3D printers. It is a plant based material so is more Eco-friendly than most. It can be recycled and will break down in industrial composting. Besides, it smells sweet when being melted in the printer!
PLA does have a low glass transition temperature (Tg) of around 60 degrees C so it should not be used when the object being built will be subjected to high temperature. On the other hand, that low Tg means it can be used without a heated build plate and with lower extruder temps (160-210 degrees C). When printing small objects with PLA a cooling fan may be needed to keep the part from slumping.
PLA comes in a wide range of colors and translucency.
ABS is another very popular material for use in hobby level printers. It is not as environmentally friendly as PLA since it is petrochemical based but it does have useful properties that PLA doesn't.
It has a higher glass transition temperature than PLA so it is useful for objects that might be subjected to higher temperatures in use. That also means ABS requires a higher extruder temperature and a heated build plate though. 240 degrees C for the extruder and 100 degrees C for the plate should be considered the minimum.
ABS is made by blending varying parts of three different chemicals so there are opportunities for variations in it's properties. Some blends may be more brittle than others. It can be colored or made clear so a wide selection is available to the home user.
Nylon is a versatile material that some hobbyist level printers can use. It is very strong and flexible making it well suited to moving parts. It is easy to color with normal fabric dyes. It does absorb moisture easily so should be stored in it's original packaging when possible. It may have to be dried in an oven before use.
The extruder temperature should be 235-270 degrees C and a 60-80 degree C plate temperature. Many hobby printers don't come with hot ends that can handle nylon but, most can be retrofitted with extruders that can. No fans should be used with nylon as it can warp. Even room drafts can be an issue.
Don't let these cautions scare you away. If your printer can handle it, nylon is an excellent material.
LayWood is made from recycled wood fiber and polymer binders. It feeds through the extruder of a 3D printer like plastic but has many of the same properties as wood. It can be sanded and painted. Variations in extruder temperature effect the color of the deposited material so shading is possible. It can even be made to look like wood grain.
Extruder temps of 170-250 degress C are best for LayWood.
Many materials like cement, ceramics, resin, clay and more can be used in paste form when the printer is equipped with a syringe like nozzle to dispense the paste.
Many paste materials will require further processing after the printing is complete. For example, ceramic may require baking in a kiln.
Using 3D printers to dispense food products in interesting ways is a rapidly growing area a of experimentation. Chocolate and sugar are the most common so far but pasta and meat products are under development.
Extruding the materials with a precision printer allows for some amazing food designs.
These are a few of the most common materials used in home 3D printers. There are many variations like conductive ABS for electronic circuits, steel PLA for jewelry, figurines and other metal objects, soft PLA for rubber like objects and many more.
New materials are being introduced at a growing pace. It is fun to experiment with then ones that work with your printer.
You shouldn't be too concerned about the electronics used in your 3D printer. While there are several choices, they are almost all proven and stable designs. Whether the one you choose uses a RAMPS or a RUMBA wont matter much. They all do the job of controlling the printer. Common names you will see are:
The RepRap (REPlicating RAPid prototyper) model for 3d printers is the basis of a high percentage of plan built, kit and even commercially manufactured consumer level 3D printers on the market today. While the original has evolved and branched out over the years, it is still a solid family of designs to look at when choosing a home 3D printer.
The concept of low cost 3D printers that could print many of their own parts was first proposed in 2004 by Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in the UK. Actual work on the project began in 2005 and, in early 2008, "Darwin" printed over half of it's own working parts.
Because RepRap was (and still is) open source, Hobbyists and researchers were quickly able to improve the original design and evolve it into the family of RepRap inspired machines we have now.
Several of these "family members" are excellent choices for your own home 3D printers.
The Mendel variation of REpRap was designed by Ed Sells, also of the University of Bath. It is a Cartesian coordinate printer with a moving bed and extruder. It set a new standard for accessible 3D printing and variation are still going strong today.
The Mendel design was simplified by Jodef Prusa. The Prusa Mendel proved to be highly popular. It is one of the most widely used RepRaps today and version 2 of the printer makes an excellent first machine.
The Mendel190 variant used laser cut and acrylic sheets as main structural elements. It was designed by Cris Palmer who was an original RepRap team member. His blog at http://hydraraptor.blogspot.com is a fount of knowledge about all this RepRap.
The Wallace and it's laser cut frame sibling the PrintrBot anr well made but low cost ways to get into 3D printing. The Wallace uses printed parts and so is a true RepRap. The PrintrBot uses mass-produced frames so can't be called a RepRap but, it is a great low cost choice.
The Prusa i3 combines elements od several design including the Medel190, Wallace and others. It uses a rigid wood, plastic or aluminum frame and threaded rods for the moving bed. It is a popular choice among hobbyists.
The Huxley is a smaller version of the Mendel that has taken off lately to become a very popular model.
Other design that are not true RepRaps are also popular in the hobbyist market. Most of them are RepRap inspired but use mass-produced parts to keep cost down.
The PrintrBot was mentioned above. Others include the MendelMax V2, the Ultimaker, Tantillus.
Delta coordinate printers are beginning to make their way into the hobbyist world. The RostockMax and 3Dr are two good examples.
If you are looking for a factory built printer, the field is wide open. A search on Amazon will bring up an almost overwhelming selection to choose from.
Choosing a 3d Printer, especially a first printer, can seem like a taunting task. Do your research, know your requirements and make the best choice you can. If you choose to build from scratch or a kit, you will gain the knowledge to upgrade and modify you printer to meet your changing need.
Just remember, 3D printing for the home is still in it's infancy, your first printer probably wont be your last.