3D Printers for Hobbyists

    3D Printer

    Purchasing Options

    ​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.

    Scratch Build

    ​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.

    Scratch Built Pros

    • Full control over build quality and cost - you can substitute higher quality parts such as stainless steel in place of carbon steel; or go the other way around to save cost.
    • You learn how every part of the printer works as you build it.
    • Opportunity to make design changes, modifications and upgrades during and after the build.
    • Plans can usually be modified for larger build volume.

    Scratch Built Cons

    • Locating all the parts you need can take a lot of time. This is up front time spend before you can even start building
    • Some mechanical skill is needed. More specialized skills, like soldering, may also be necessary.
    • No factory support if questions arise - there are good online forums where help is available though.

    Kits

    Kit 3D Printer

    ​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.

    Kit Built Pros

    • You assemble the printer so you know how it works.
    • You are assured that all the part fit together without modification - or at least they should.
    • Easy to make modifications and upgrades later as new parts or options become available.
    • You can substitute higher quality parts but at extra expense.
    • A good supplier will provide support during and after the build.
    • Can be cheaper than sourcing all the parts yourself. The kit maker should be passing on quantity discounts that save you money.

    Kit Built Cons

    • You usually have no control over the parts included with the kit
    • Some mechanical skill is required
    • There might be little or no support from the kit supplier. Make sure you research the company before you buy.
    • There still might be some parts you will need to source yourself.

    Assembled Kits

    ​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.

    Assembled Kit Pros

    • No skill required since the printer is already built
    • Same ability to make upgrades and modifications later as you would get with the kit.
    • Saves time getting up and running.

    Assembled Kit Cons

    • It is hard to know how skilled the builder is.
    • Usually no warranty and maybe no support.
    • You don't have the knowledge of the inner workings you would get from building your own.

    Factory Built Printers

    Factory Built 3D Printer

    Commercialy available printers are making their way into the home market. They are being sold online and in stores like Staples right now.

    Factory Built Pros

    • No construction needed although there might be some minor assembly required.
    • Warranties and support are normal.
    • May have higher resale value if you decide 3D printing isn't for you.

    Factory Built Cons

    • You don't gain the knowledge to maintain your printer like you do if you build it.
    • Harder to modify as technologies change in the future.
    • Might require specific raw material packaging like filament cartridges that cost more than standard material.

    Features to Look For

    Triple Extruder

    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.

    • Build volume. This is the area that can actually be used for printing 3D objects. It determines the size of the largest object you can print.
    • Material that the printer can use. See the next section for more about materials.
    • Bed style - heated or not heated. A non-heated bed will limit the materials you can use. Also pay attention to the maximum plate temperature.
    • Extruder type and temperature capability. It is possible to switch extruders but it wont get you higher temps if the printer can't power them.
    • Filament size. Many newer printers seem to be limited to 1.75mm filament. Some older designs only use 3mm. Being able to switch extruders can adapt many to both sizes.
    • Easy firmware updating. Open source machines are easiest. Propriety firmware might be difficult.
    • Part quality. Are steel parts stainless or carbon steel? What is the amperage rating of the motors? 1.7-2.5 is better than lower rated motors.
    • Manufacturer or supplier support. Is there a warranty?
    • Support groups for this printer. Many printer models have groups and forum for users.
    • Software availability. Ideally the printer can use most software programs currently available and new ones that come out. Some are limited to proprietary software. Learn more about 3D printing software in my article on the subject.
    • Open source hardware. Is the hardware itself open source? If so you should be able to make any modifications to the design that you want to.
    • Control board. Are the electronic control circuits commonly available or proprietary?
    • Operating system. The printer will have to work with your computer.
    • Reputation of the seller. Look for impartial reviews online.
    • A very nice feature is stand alone operation. This means being able to print when the machine is not connected to a computer. A memory card slot and a display panel are important for this fuction.

    This certainly isn't everything you should look for in a 3D printer but it is a good start.

    Materials

    ​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.

    PolyLactic Acid - PLA

    PLA

    ​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.

    Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene - ABS

    ​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.

    Polyamide or Nylon

    ​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​

    ​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.

    Paste Materials

    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.

    Food Products

    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.

    And Much More

    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.

    Electronics

    Control

    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:

    • RAMPS
    • RAMBo
    • Sanquinlolu
    • Minitronics
    • RUMBA
    • Elefu-RA
    • Megatronics

    RepRap Variations

    Prusa i3

    ​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.

    Mendel​

    ​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.

    Prusa Mendel

    ​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.

    Mendel90

    ​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.

    Wallace

    ​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.

    ​Prusa i3

    ​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.

    Haxley

    The Huxley is a smaller version of the Mendel that has taken off lately to become a very popular model.

    Other Printer Versions

    Ultimaker2

    ​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.

    Final Thoughts

    ​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.

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