How can you get a 3D printer?

Makerbot Replicator 2


If you’ve decided to get yourself a 3D printer there are a few ways to go about it. With most electronics your only real option is to buy one, but 3D printing is a bit different. It’s a fairly new technology and has a very strong hobbyist element and that means there are several paths to ownership. The question is, which one’s right for you? That’s going to depend on several factors, including:

  • What do you want it for? If you need the printer purely as a tool, to manufacture parts for another project, you probably want a solution that’s going to take as little time and fuss as possible.
  • How are your technical skills? If you like building things and tweaking them until they work perfectly, putting a 3D printer together should be within your capabilities.
  • How much do you want to pay? Some ways of getting a 3D printer are a lot cheaper than others – even when the end result is a basically identical printer. What the more expensive methods give you is speed and convenience.

Confused yet? It can seem complicated when you start investigating the subject. The right solution for an enthusiast might not work so well for an engineer who wants to make prototype parts, and getting it wrong can be expensive and frustrating. To help you out here’s a handy guide to your options, with the main pros and cons of each.

  • Buy one. A quick search on Amazon will come up with plenty 3D printers. This is the simplest choice by a long way. You’ll get a printer that should be ready to go out of the box – just install the necessary software, hook it up, load it with material and start printing. The down side is that this is the most expensive option.
  • Buy a kit. Alternatively you can buy a kit containing everything you need to put a printer together. The amount of assembly needed can vary, from minimal – a handful of complete sub-assemblies – to starting with a box of loose parts. Most of them are fairly trouble-free though, and you can save quite a bit compared to a fully assembled model.
  • Build your own. If you’re as much interested in 3D printing itself as in the objects you can print, why not try creating your own printer? There’s no shortage of open-source designs online, including the popular RepRap. A lot of the more specialised parts can be found online too, either as a partial kit or individual items. This is more complicated than buying a full kit, but saves even more money. If you’re ambitious you can also fine-tune the design to suit what you’re looking for – and create a unique printer.
  • Replication. If you already know someone who has a printer you can persuade them to print a lot of the parts you need to build your own. You’ll still need to buy or make some but a RepRap can create most of its own plastic components, and the number increases with each generation.

We’ll look at each of these methods in more detail in future posts, but now you have a rough idea what your options are. Hopefully it’s enough to get you started.

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