Congratulations! You have decided that you want to build your own 3D printer. So now what? There are so many types of printers out there; which one should you choose to make?
There are many factors in choosing what kind of printer to build; the most important are money, the materials and tools you have on hand, and your own preferences. The world of building 3D printers has a very do-it-yourself atmosphere, but not everyone has the ability to cut aluminum or use a laser cutter or even print parts (which is common for those building their first printer) That is why kits exist.
Why Buy a Kit?
Kits are a great way to get all the materials you need to build a printer in one go. Many kits also come with the tools you need to assemble all the parts.
Kits also offer the most customizable printers on the market. You can’t replace a part on a Makerbot without risking voiding the warranty or breaking the printer all together; where as a kit-built printer can be reengineered over and over again. Want to add a webcam? Just print a clip and clip it to the frame! Does someone else’s printer (kit or commercially built) have a feature you wish your printer had? Just go ahead and add it!
Kit printers also give the satisfaction of creating a tool to create more. They are also a great learning opportunity because you will make mistakes building the printer and you will discover better ways of making and running it. In the end you will have a great tool, some extra parts, and the experience of making something that is just plain cool.
What Makes a 3D Printer?
In this article we will be covering full kits that include everything you need to build a complete printer. However, partial kits are on the market that offer just the hardware (threaded rod, extruded bars, screws, nuts, bearings, etc.) and leave you to find electrical components if you wish. These partial kits are cheaper and electrical components can be found for cheap, but be careful and do your research to ensure you have everything you need and that you are not cutting your legs out from under you by buying electronics that are too cheap and will break.
So what should you look for in a kit? This is where you should decide what you want your printer to do. How big will the print volume be? How accurate do you want the layer height to be? What plastics do you plan to print with, and what kind of hot end will they need? Do you need a heated bed? Do you want a user interface on the printer? How often do you see yourself adding to the printer in the future? Knowing what you want your printer to do is the first step to knowing what kind of printer you want to build.
Now how does a printer work? It is good to know how something is supposed to work before you build it, that way you can spot problems easier and know how to fix them without too much research. If you have a friend who has a printer try asking if they will teach you how it works, or try a local makerspace. Basically, a 3D file is loaded into a slicing program on a computer that generates machine code (g-code) that is sent to the printer’s control board. This control board generally controls four sets of motors, the X-Y-Z axis motors in Cartesian printers and the extruder motor. Delta printers also have three axis motors, although these are not necessarily X-Y-Z. The control board also monitors the temperature of the hot end and heated bed. Power is given by the power supply, usually the kind found in a desktop computer, and different mechanical components driven by the motors move the extruder and/or the bed in three directions so that the plastic fed through the extruder builds the shape desired.
What 3D Printer Kits to look at?
Here are some kits that are good first build printers:
Printrbot Simple (Wooden)
The Printrbot Simple is a simple little printer that is a great first time printer for those on a budget. It is small, accurate, and well documented. The complete Printrbot Simple has a build volume of 4 x 4 x 4 in (100 x 100 x 100 mm) and a minimum layer height of .1 mm (100 microns). The frame is made of laser cut ¼-inch birch wood and it uses 1.75mm PLA.
The Printrbot does have beefier models that have metal frames, larger build areas, and a heated bed. However, the older wooden kit is often enough for printing hobbyists who want to make small models, or do not mind gluing prints together to assemble larger parts. A heated bed upgrade is available for those who would like the capability.
The wooden frame makes the Printrbot Simple more difficult to upgrade than other kit printers, as new wood parts need to be laser cut to add say, an extra cooling fan or the heated bed. Its biggest advantages are its light weight (only 9.6 lbs) and small size (maximum dimensions are 10 x 11.5 x 15 in). Everything you need to run the printer along with the printer itself can actually be stored in a standard 13in milk crate.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Printrbot kit on Amazon.com
The Prusa i3 is the most popular 3D printer model on the market. It is a sturdy desktop printer that comes in many, many varieties.
The Prusa i3 generally has a print volume around 200 x 200 x 170 mm. The bed sits on a moving axis that has a large, square frame set perpendicular to it. This square frame is often made from aluminum or acrylic and provides much of the strength of the printer’s other two axis. A prusa i3 may or may not have a heated bed, LED display, or even an onboard power supply.
One i3 kit to consider is the HICTOP model. It features an acrylic frame and larger print volume of 270 x 200 x 170 mm as well as a heated bed.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Prusa i3 kit on Amazon.com
The Ultimaker is one of the big names in 3D printing. It uses a wood frame but is a fast and extremely accurate printer when assembled properly. It is the printer that the popular Cura program was designed for.
The Ultimaker+ is much like the original Ultimaker but with the heated bed accessory already included, as well as a sturdier bed assembly, better electronics, and other small improvements. The Ultimaker 2 is also available for a lot more money, however this is not a kit build and cannot be a part of this article.
There isn’t much heavy metal or plastic that can wear or melt in the Ultimaker+, helping it reach fantastic print speeds of 300 mm/s. The laser precision of its parts helps give it a .02 mm (20 micron) minimum layer height. If you want a highly accurate, low maintenance printer that you want to assemble yourself, the Ultimaker+ is definitely one to look at.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Ultimaker+ kit on Amazon.com
Things to Look Out For
Since we cannot cover every kit on the market, here are a few tips for things to look out for when deciding what kit to buy:
Cheap electronics can sneak into just about anything, especially cheap printer kits. If you want to avoid electrical problems in your build look out for ‘red boards’, as many (But not all!) red board electronics are typically knockoffs and were poorly manufactured.
PLA printed parts:
PLA is one of the most widely used materials for printing on printers, and it does work well as a material for building other printers; however make sure that the parts you use around your hot end are not PLA. The extruder is designed to melt plastic and you want to make sure that excess heat will not warp the nearby parts and cause problems. Use ABS parts for a printer that will print PLA and consider metal parts when you want to try hotter materials like nylon.
Threaded rod frames:
Many early printers used threaded rod as a frame material. While it does allow for more customization down the road than say, a laser cut acrylic or wood frame; it is a huge headache to assemble and keep the frame square. Generally the only threaded rod you want on your printer should be for the Z-axis. An alternative to threaded rod that is just as adaptable are extruded aluminum bars known as 80-20. These bars come in standard square sizes and have T-slots running down each side that a perfect for mounting parts to.
Do your research on the best 3d Printer kits
Look up assembly instructions and know what you will have to do before you buy a kit. Look into how long it typically takes others to build a particular model of printer. See if there are any problems with a model that others have reported, such as missing parts or parts that will not fit. Be ready for problems, and do not be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know what you are doing. Building a printer is a fun and somewhat frustrating experience; but in the end you will have a fantastic fabricating tool for all of your future projects.
To top it all off, if you feel like a challenge, check out our getting started guide on how to build a 3D Printer!