It looks like 2012 could be the year the 3D printer breaks out. As prices creep down towards $1,000 per unit, 3D printers are now within the reach of small design companies, and it may not be long before they’re in all our homes too. But is it time to buy? Here are three things to consider before becoming an early adopter of 3D printing technology.
Many low-cost 3D printers require a little technical know-how to get them working. The Thing-O-Matic MakerBot ($1,099) – which looks a little like a fairground toy – is shipped as a jumble of parts. It has four separate motors, various pulleys, drive belts and electronic components. A competitor kit for the RapMan 3D printer took one team three months to assemble, although they say a week is a more realistic build time. The Up! Printer requires no assembly, but costs almost three times more than the MakerBot.
If you’re into manufacturing and design, chances are you’ll have the patience and know-how to put this thing together. If you don’t… why are you buying a 3D printer?
2. Running Costs
Many 3D printers use ABS plastic – a type of common household plastic that’s non-porous and easily recycled. The MakerBot printer uses extruded ABS filament as ‘ink’. It comes on a spool like cable, and you can buy it in a variety of colours. A 1kg spool measuring around 2mm costs around $60, and there are many colours to choose from. But remember: that’s one colour. To make models in different colours, you’ll need a spool for each.
For a 3D printer to be worthwhile, you either need to economise on the colours or save up a good amount of cash for extra spools. Either that or consider a printer that uses paper or, um, food.
If you’re a designer or architect with a 3D printer, you’re going to make prototypes. Lots of your prototypes are going to end up in the recycling bin. But plastic is still difficult to recycle compared to paper. The Mcor Matrix 3D printer uses normal copier paper and water-based adhesive, allowing designers to print multiple iterations of the same project.
Although these ‘paperjet’ printers aren’t new, plastic has been a more popular choice for 3D printing because the machines are so much cheaper, but the cost of the consumables is what sets them apart. The Matrix uses a lot of paper (10 sheets for every millimetre) but the big advantage is in the range of colours it can print. Not only that, but all your misprints can be crushed and recycled along with ordinary paper. One machine can be rented for a year for £10,000. Maybe it’s a good idea to wait until prices for greener 3D printers drop further.