First things first – what is a 3D printer?
To someone hearing about 3D printing for the first time, it can sound like something out of a science fiction movie.
3D printers use material, typically plastic filament, to print, layer by layer, 3D objects. 3D models (STL files, etc) are the blueprint or guidelines for each printed object that the printer will use. How exactly these models are “printed” is actually quite simple. 3D models are really just geometry, like that used in architecture or video game design. These models get loaded into your printer’s software, where it is then “sliced” into very thin cross sections for the printer to “build” the layers. This process is similar to physical 3D puzzles, where each piece is stacked on top of the previous building layer. Though with a 3D printer, each printed layer can be as thin as 0.1mm, giving prints a smooth and accurate finish.
Printing out your own products at home may seem like something in the far future, but in fact 3D printers have been used commercially for the best part of 30 years! If you’re interested in knowing more about the backstory of 3D printing, have a look at our interactive history of 3D printing timeline.
The key difference between a home and a commercial 3D printer.
The fundamental difference between home and commercial 3D printers is in the methods they employ to manufacture their prints.
Home 3D printers generally (although not always) adopt the fused deposition modeling (FDM) method of printing. This is can be thought of as the “glue gun” method, where a plastic filament is heated up to an almost liquid or aqueous state. Once heated, the molten plastic is extruded by a “hot end” and a very thin layer of material is printed. Once extruded, the plastic quickly cools, hardens, and the process begins again with the next layer. While this process makes 3D printing affordable, it does have some limitations. Your models can only have multiple colors in a single print if you have multiple extruders. One way around this is to pause your print part way through and change to another color before resuming the printing process.
Commercial 3D printers often employ more sophisticated (and expensive) methods for printing. While these printers can offer higher resolution (thinner layers) and full color printing, they are much larger machines – both physically and in terms of the investment needed to buy one. Still, they are a window into what will be making its way into homes as the technology develops and, perhaps more importantly, becomes more affordable.
If you’d like to learn more about the various ways 3D prints are created, check out this article on 3D printing techniques.
What things can a 3D printer make?
If ever there was a “how long is a piece of string?” type question, this is it!
3D printers are being used to build a huge range of products and tools, from protective cases and stands for cell phones to 3D printed androids, and a world of things in between. 3D printers are capable of fabricating almost anything you can imagine, provided you can build it in 3D. By “build it in 3D”, I mean using 3D modeling software to construct a “3D plan” of the geometry needed for your model. Absolutely everything that gets printed in 3D does so using 3D geometry. From models built from scratch in 3D modeling software like Auto CAD, Maya and even Google SketchUp to 3D scans and captures, every model must be made into geometry in order for your printer to “read” your models plan.
Making your own models in 3D software might seem intimidating at first, but not everything you print has to be built from scratch. Websites like Thingiverse have a huge and ever growing database of free 3D models for you to download and print. For more examples of just what 3D printers can make for you, browse our collection of 20 awesome things to 3D print.
How much does it cost to print your own models?
What exactly your 3D prints will cost you doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer and will depend on a number of contributing factors.
- Filament type (ABS, PLA, etc)
- Model size & shape
- Model density
The two main filament types used for home 3D printing are ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (Polylatic Acid). Both are highly versatile plastics with some differences in their core properties. You can find a more detailed explanation in this article, Choosing a filament: ABS vs PLA. Basically, PLA is cheaper than ABS and costs around $30-$40 for a 2.2 kg spool.
Model size & shape.
This might seem like an obvious one on face value but when judging the size of a model you need to factor in more than just how tall and wide your model is. How complex of a design is the model? Complicated, overhanging shapes will, in many cases, require additional “support material” to reinforce the weight of the model during the printing process. While some printers allow for supports to be printed in a different, less robust filament, most printers will use more of the same filament used by the main model, therefore increasing the amount of plastic material used.
The density of your model refers to how “solid” your model is. Many 3D printers offer software with multiple settings for the solidity of your model. In choosing this setting, you should consider what your model is going to be used for. Typically you will have an option for a “solid” print where the final model is 100% solid plastic throughout, as well as a number of different “hollow” options for filling models with a “honeycomb” structure to give the model strength while using minimum material.
Each of the above factors can have a great effect on the cost of a print, but 3D printing in general will ultimately be a highly cost-effective way to make almost anything.
Why make things at home when you can just buy them at the store?
While home 3D printers can (and do) make thousands (if not millions) of different products easily, that’s not what makes 3D printing so amazing. You can often pick up some plastic spoons or cups quicker and easier than printing them at home, but where 3D printers really prove valuable is through their ability to customize products.
We have all been in a store or shopping online and found that nearly perfect thing. It’s 90% of what we were looking for, it just has this one feature that’s not what we want or need. Like the shape of the legs on a table or the corners of a photo frame that just don’t look right. With 3D printers, you can take the model of a product, alter the design, and then print your own customized version. Major cell phone manufacturer Nokia have already released their first cell phone that offers customizable cases, allowing the customer to modify and 3D print a unique case for their Nokia phone.
With this method of product design, distribution and home manufacturing, companies can reduce their costs, waste output, and carbon foot print dramatically. We expect to see more companies following in Nokia’s footsteps in the near future.
For a better idea of the many objects you could customize and print, have a look through these useful things to 3D print at home.
Who needs a 3D printer?
Let’s be honest, nobody “needs” a 3D printer any more than anyone needs an Xbox or most purchases, come to think of it. The more helpful question is who will enjoy using a 3D printer the most? I’m a naturally curious person. I’m a tinkerer and I love to make things, to try and understand how things work and how they are made. 3D printing has enabled us to make everyday products people can print at home, but in reality they are still most appealing to people who enjoy creating things. For example, someone who enjoys model making, diy, or designs and makes their own jewelry would greatly benefit from a 3D printer and would no doubt enjoy the doors it opens for them and their businesses. But for those wanting to print out an iPhone with the ease of using a microwave, we’re still quite a ways away.
Thinking of taking the plunge and getting your own 3D printer? Our useful table will help you compare the leading 3D printers and work out which is the best printer, best suited to your needs and budget.