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Buying a 3D printer

What kind of 3D printer should you buy? With such a new technology this is a tough question for most people to answer and usually leads to them either giving up altogether or buying something they don't need or won't like.

This isn't me, but I love this guy's video. It really nails the issues relating to buying and owning a 3D printer. Watch it right to the end.

10 Cold, hard truths about owning a 3D printer

Now, if you're still interested....

First let's talk a bit about how they work. The simplest and most common type of printer on the market now is the FDM - Fused Deposition Modeling type. In a nutshell, these work by depositing layer upon layer of plastic, slowly building the object from the bottom up. Most commonly, these printers use a plastic filament spool - much like the plastic in a weed whip - and extrude it through a hot end - much like a hot glue gun. This 'glue gun' is mounted on a gantry system that moves back and forth and traces out each layer of the object on a 'print bed'. After each layer is completed, the print bed moves down a notch and the next layer is traced. On and on, till your object is complete. Here's a little video of one in action:

There are literally hundreds of 3D printers on the market now and the task of choosing one can seem mind boggling to the uninitiated. Of course, the choice of a printer depends on what you want to do with it. So, let's talk about that. If you're an engineering firm, you probably have a pretty good idea of what to get. I'm going to devote this post to helping a hobbyist select the right printer.

As soon as you start looking for a 3D printer, you'll find a few 'name brands' and hundreds of 'hacker' and 'knock off' printers. I would suggest (actually implore) that you get a name brand printer. Here's a case: a friend decided to get into the 3D printing hobby. He bought a cheap 'knock off' printer from China. Basically, he ended up dropping the hobby out of frustration because he couldn't get it to work reliably and couldn't get parts or support for it. Case closed.

Next, you'll find printers with one extruder or two extruders. What does this mean? Each extruder can extrude one type of plastic (there's many types - topic of another post) or one colour of plastic (endless variety - even glow in the dark!) So, with a two (or dual) extruder model, you can do things in 2 colours. Sounds neat right? Well, dual extrusion is a terribly difficult thing to master, and the software programs available simply don't make it very easy to design objects that use multiple colours. And, in reality, most of the time you're not going to need 2 colour things. If you want something in 2 colours, usually you can just design each piece of it separately and put them together later either by gluing or fitting them (see the hot tub chemical float on my previous post). But, here's a neat business card holder made with dual extrusion:

That said, dual extruder models are very useful for another reason. Loading and unloading the printer to change colour or type of plastic is a pain. So, with a dual extruder, you can have 2 different types of plastic already loaded and use whichever one you want without having to change it out each time. Also, the extruders suffer from clogging and other problems once in a while. Having only one extruder means that you have to disassemble and fix the problem right away, while with a dual extruder, just use the other extruder for the part you need RIGHT now, until you get time to fix it. Honestly, this is a huge advantage.

So, what are some name brand printers? Well, Flashforge is my favourite. I have 2 of them. The one I like the best is the Flashforge Creator Pro - a dual extruding model based on the Makerbot Replicator 2X (which is no longer in production - I have one of these too). The Creator Pro was a winner in many 3D printer reviews:

The advantage of this printer (left) is also its price. At under $900 US it is an amazing value and will do everything that most any hobbyist (or even professionals) will need, including 2 colour prints.

3D Systems also makes some nice hobbyist printers. They've worked hard with their latest Cube printer to simplify the entire process with automatic loading filament, end of spool detection, automatic print bed leveling, and on and on. You can even print from your phone, although I'm not sure how useful that really is.

Lastly, you will need a computer to run all this stuff on. While I'm a big Mac fan, you will find with 3D printing, that quite a bit of the software is only for Windows PC's, and for that reason, I have a small laptop Windows computer that I dedicate to my 3D printing. At today's prices, you can pick up a usable laptop for $300. For the most part, you will want to connect your printer to your computer with a USB cable. Although many of the printers are wireless, the last thing you want is for something to happen to your wireless connection right in the middle of a 6 hour print. Take it from an electrical engineer - use a wire (we love wires)!

So, don't be shy, get out there and get into this technology. Without a doubt, I think that 3D printers are going to be looked upon as one of the most important technologies of this decade, along with drones and virtual reality.

Next......How to design a 3D print object...

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