State of Home 3D Printing (Fall 2012)


It's hard to believe, but I've had my 3D printer for nine months. In that time I've printed hundreds of things, a couple dozen of which are my own designs. I've consumed something like 15-20 kilograms of plastic filament (yet still have an inventory of 20 kg in 15 different colors). I've replaced the platform heater on my printer about ten times, the extruder nozzle once, printed a half-dozen other replacement printer parts, and tweaked my printer in four or five ways.

So this seems like a good time to take a few steps back and make some observations about the state of home 3D printing as it stands near the end of 2012.

Home 3D Printing is Still a Hobbyist's Market

The first thing that's very clear is that home 3D printing is very much a hobbyist's market. The actual usefulness of a 3D printer in the home is still very limited, though they definitely have a role in education, architecture, engineering, and other professional settings. Arguably the most immediate economic impact of inexpensive 3D printing is to bring the technology within the reach of professionals who have a real need, but couldn't afford to spend five or six figures for a commercial-grade machine.

The vast majority of home 3D printers on the market today are very much hobbyist-grade. These are not plug-and-play: even the easiest printers require adjustment and maintenance from time to time, and most of them are very temperamental. With some of the kit printers, I've heard it can take longer to get the printer tuned and adjusted than to assemble it in the first place.

Makerbot made a lot of noise at the beginning of the year claiming that its Replicator was designed for the average consumer. Makerbot has a great history of making kits, but I don't think the company really understood what "consumer grade" means. Many reports I've seen are that the Replicator still needs fussing to get consistently good prints, and has some design and engineering defects. Makerbot recently announced the Replicator 2 which addresses some of the most obvious flaws of the Replicator (for example, the wood frame is now steel, which is important in a machine which has to be adjusted to within a tenth of a millimeter), but the Replicator 2 isn't shipping yet. I'm skeptical when Makerbot claims a product is "easy for anyone to use," so we will have to see.

My printer, the Up!, is now being OEMed in the United States by Afinia. I had a chance to meet the Afinia team and tour their facilities a few weeks ago, and I was impressed that they are putting some real design and engineering work into improving the product. The Up! is a good printer and produces very nice looking prints with only modest adjustment, but it also has its flaws. Some of the cables are underdesigned for the amount of heat, stress, and motion they have to handle (hence the ten heater cables I've gone through), and some of the adjustments have to be repeated too often. For the most part, these are solvable problems--they just haven't all been solved yet. Fortunately, the Up/Afinia is a very "hackable" printer, making it easy for other hobbyists to tinker with it and improve the design.

The printer which comes closest to being a true consumer-grade product is the Cube, a low-end product by 3D Systems. From what I've heard, the Cube requires a minimum of fuss (though it does require a little bit of adjustment, and the use of a proprietary "magic glue" platform adhesion material) and produces acceptable output. However, 3D Systems chose to lock the Cube into a proprietary filament cartridge, forcing users to buy consumables at wildly inflated prices. That may be okay for occasional use, but heavy users like me will wind up spending crazy amounts of money on plastic.

(How expensive is the Cube filament? Right now I buy filament in bulk and spend around $20/kg including shipping. Retail pricing ranges from $35/kg to $60/kg depending on the source. 3D Systems charges $50 for a filament cartridge and won't say how much it holds, but it seems to have between 200 and 500 grams. That's $100 to $250/kg, or between 5x and 10x what I pay now. Since I go through about 2kg/month, the Cube would cost me between $160 and $460 extra per month in filament.)

3D Systems is going after a mass-market audience with the Cube, but I think they are at least five years too soon to market. We are still at the point where the only people interested in buying a home 3D printer are hobbyists and hobbyist/professionals--and those people want a machine they can take apart and tinker with. Worse, if the Cube is discontinued and 3D Systems stops supporting it, there is no other place to get filament. This scenario would quickly turn a Cube into a brick.

My Personal Toy Factory

I usually get one of two reactions when I tell people I have a home 3D printer: either "Cool! Where can I get one?" or "What's that good for?"

The hobbyist printer manufacturers have sometimes bent themselves into knots trying to answer the second question: You can make replacement knobs for drawers! Personalized bottle openers!

Get real. Nobody is going to spend upwards of a thousand dollars on a machine just in case they need to replace a ten cent plastic knob someday. And until the manufacturers start posting 3D files for replacement parts you'll have to design your own, which is way more work.

In fact, the most popular "useful" things on Thingiverse are....replacement parts for 3D printers.

But there is one thing a home 3D printer is really good at: making toys. The ABS plastic is cheap, nontoxic and durable, there are thousands of toy designs on Thingiverse for all ages and interests, and you can design your own if you want. I've made toys for my kids, toys for my friends, toys for my kids' friends, birthday presents, you name it. For my nephew's birthday I designed and printed an entire gear toy system just for him (then uploaded it to Thingiverse for the rest of the world to enjoy).

For some reason, "making toys" seems like a trivial application for a high-tech piece of fabrication equipment. But I say: let's embrace it. The toy industry is a $21 billion dollar industry in the United States. There's nothing small or trivial about that.

The great thing about having a Personal Toy Factory is that it lets me get away from the mass-produced cheap plastic junk. It's still made out of cheap plastic, but the toys are now made specifically for the child. There are thousands of ready-made designs to choose from, and I can customize or design my own. If my nephew decides he wants to be a "Space Sheriff," then I can make him a badge with a starship on it and a six-shooter ray gun. Good luck finding that at Toys R Us.

Given that the average American household spends something like $200/year on toys, it's actually not so farfetched that an upper-income family with kids would spend a couple thousand dollars on a machine to custom-build toys for their kids. It's easy to rationalize as useful for school projects--my kids have all used 3D printed stuff for their classes--and the gee-whiz factor would close the sale.

Home 3D Printing is More Art than Science

One of the first discoveries for a new 3D printer owner is that the technology doesn't quite live up to the hype. Many people come in to 3D printing thinking that they can print Anything--that was certainly my thought at first.

And you can print Anything, as long as Anything:

  • Isn't too big: most home printers have a fairly limited print volume, and big prints can take a very long time (over a day in some cases).
  • Isn't too small: small parts and fine details might not print at all.
  • Doesn't have to be too strong: 3D printed parts can be quite strong if they are carefully designed and printed, but they can also be very delicate since the bond between layers is relatively weak.
  • Doesn't have intricate overhangs or interior voids: support material can be a difficult or impossible to remove without damaging the print.

Hobbyists also struggle with making sure prints stay attached to the print bed while printing (yet come off easily when done), and keeping prints from warping or splitting due to internal stresses. Commercial printers have solved these problems using techniques like carefully temperature-controlled chambers and disposable print platforms, but (for now) those techniques are proprietary and too expensive for the home market.

So there is definitely an art to getting good 3D prints from a home printer. You can't just throw any old 3D object at it and expect good results, and many hobbyists are still experimenting with new techniques.

There's also a lot of artistry in designing multi-piece things that fit well and have a "finished" look without too much cleanup work. Since 3D printed models tend to warp a bit, you can't just glue two parts together on a flat side without a visible seam. Joints need to be incorporated into the design, with allowances for gaps and other imperfections in the printing process.

More Fun Than....

I've gotten a crazy amount of enjoyment and satisfaction out of my printer. For me personally, it requires just about the right combination of tinkering and design to give me a perfect cocktail of artistry, technique, and instant gratification.

When someone asks me if he (it's usually a he) should get a 3D printer, my response is usually a little more guarded. This isn't for everyone yet, and it isn't even for most people. But if you are the kind of person who both enjoys working with mechanical stuff and also creative design, you will probably get a lot out of a 3D printer.