Tuesday, January 10, 2017

3D printing 101 - Which 3D Printer should you buy

So you've decided that owning a 3D printer is for you. Excellent! Good choice. But don't just go out and buy the first one that catches your eye. Do what your mama told you and look around a bit first. A little bit of research can go a long way to making a good decision.

Of course I can't just answer this question for you because the technology is moving too fast for a single answer to be meaningful for any length of time and there is no one 3D printer that is right for everyone. While I have a lot of experience with professional, prosumer, and home 3d printers, my recommendations will be out of date the moment I commit them to paper. Are you an individual with a limited budget but plenty of time and drive to get over problems you might run into? Are you doing the purchasing for a large corporation who doesn't care about price and just wants reliable prints? Is high detail more important than having your choice of materials? Or are you somewhere in between these? What you want out of a 3D printer, and what you have to put into it, will determine what you choose, but the process for choosing will be similar for everyone.

Instead of telling you which printer you should buy, this chapter will attempt to tell you how to answer the question of how you can find out for yourself which 3D printer is right for you. Before choosing what 3D printer to buy you should:

  1. Research
  2. Choose
  3. Research more
  4. Buy

Research Broadly

The first research pass is a broad view of the 3D printers that are available. Find out about as many different printers as you can. Even go ahead and research the ones that you know you're not going to go with. Don't let technology, price, or application stop you from checking them out, you may find something in researching those options that you really like. Don't stop at 2 or 3, make a list of 10 or more printers and compare them all quickly.

There are websites like 3DHubs.com where 3D printer owners not only make their 3D printers available for others, but they also rank and review their 3D printers. These are great sources of survey information about 3D printers. Make Magazine also frequently compares many 3D printers and can be a good source of what's available right now.

To avoid going into too much depth with my research I like to use a sort of subjective 3-axis graph system when comparing printers with "price" on one axis, "ease of use" on another and "capability" on the last. 

Price includes not just how much the printer costs, but how much the material costs to put into it, and how much it's going to cost to maintain over time, and it also factors in how much of your time it's likely to consume to do it's job. At the very tip is "free", which of course no 3D printer will achieve, and it follows a sort of sliding scale toward the middle, so 50% is "about what you'd expect to pay".

For a 3D printer to achieve 100% on Capability it would pretty much have to be the replicator from Star Trek that can instantly produce a cup of steeped beverage with the cup in one pass, or a battery operated toy complete with batteries included. This axis factors in materials you can choose from, print resolution, printing volume, and speed.

Ease of use includes the on-board menus it has, how difficult it is to maintain or repair, and if it's even repairable and reliable. This crosses over a little with price as the cost of parts factors into it, but this is more about the process of doing and availability of parts than how much those parts cost. Again, being 100% on this scale is only available in a sci-fi future, with voice-activated machines, with mind scanning confirmation to be sure it's exactly right, but scales quickly downwards from there.

For example, the MP Select Mini, a $200 3D printer with a small build space but heated bed and actually better than expected user interface gets a graph a little like this one. It's ease of use is a little higher than the standard printer built on open source technology, and the price is great, but it's small size and the fact that it only really does PLA out of the box causes it a hit in the capability. The MP Select, however, is mod-able to fix that option, but that would come at a hit to the price score.

On the other hand a professional machine like the Fortus line by Stratasys are prohibitively expensive to own and run for all but the deepest of pockets, but they're much easier to use and produce great prints with a variety of materials, so rate fairly high on capability. Plus, buying a Stratasys means you get personal attention from their support personnel, including on site visits if anything goes wrong, driving their ease of use score way up.

Does a triangle with bigger area mean that's a better printer? Not at all. This is all about what's important to you. If an astronomical price means there's no way you'd buy that printer then ease of use and capability don't matter. However, if you don't have the time or inclination to fix a machine when it breaks, then you might be willing to pay a little more. This is a subjective comparison that will not make the decision for you.

What about kit printers? While generally on the cheaper side, the do-it-yourself aspect keeps the ease of use score low, and the lack of features tends to hit the capability pretty hard. You can sometimes pay a little more for a few better features, which can change those scores. But if a learning experience is important to you, if you want to learn the how of a 3D printer more than using it to print things than that's what's important in your decision.

What about kickstarters? Those are a bit odd. While the most enticing ones promise small prices and offer huge capability with practically no effort on your part, whether or not they'll deliver on that and when, is not clear until it's delivered on. They're like Schrodinger's 3D Printer, potentially the best and worst thing 3D printer at the same time. What they'll resolve to won't be known until you open the box. But a kickstarter isn't an investment, it's a pledge and if you believe in the people making the project then go ahead and back them. Again, this is about the tools to make a decision you'll be happy with, not about making the decision for you.

Pick one

Now that you've surveyed the landscape, make a decision. Maybe it'll be the one that first caught your eye, or maybe you'll have realized there're other choices you can make. Whatever the result of your initial scan is, you now have enough of an idea of what you want to make an initial decision. But it's not time to buy yet.

Research the one you've picked a little more

It's time to dig into the reviews about the printer you've chosen. Contact company reps and ask them about the printer. Many companies are even willing to send you example prints, sometimes of a model you've chosen, at little or no cost. Or use a printing service like 3DHubs, search by that printer, and make sure the print is done on that printer, so you can have some better hands-on experience. A supportive company is always a good sign. Does the company have a successful history of delivering on their projects?

Find the user groups, and find others who are using your printer. Read their experiences, find out if these are the experiences you want to have, and if you can put up with these people. After all, if you buy this printer these are going to be your people. Many 3D printer owners are excited to tell you about their experience, good or bad.

If after digging in a bit you decide that this was the wrong printer there's nothing wrong with backing out. But don't give up. You have a wide list of other printers, so pick one of them and try again until you find one you can be comfortable with.

No printer is going to be perfect. But if you're ready to buy, now's the time. You won't find a perfect one, but you can find the best one that's available right now.

The important part is to spend some time on the process so you can be happy with your decision.

Buy with confidence

Once you've done your due diligence, found people who are using the printer or talked to a company rep who's convinced you this is the right decision, then the next step should be obvious. Buy with confidence.

If you follow these steps of Research, Choose, Research More, and Buy, you know that the printer you've picked will be the right printer for you. Also, you've had time to visualize how you'll use a 3D printer and you'll be ready when it arrives to make the best use of it. You're now poised well to be successful with 3D printing.

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