Building a 3d printer with our sons - which one?
November 29, 2014 1:35 AM   Subscribe

We're looking into building a desktop 3d printer with our just-teen sons. What's a suitable 3d printer building process/kit, with good instruction chapters, for a sub-$1K investment, in a OSX/iOS, not-extreme-tinkering household? (Any recommendations from this recent list of entry-level 3d printers, some of which have kits?)

We were tempted by this recent Hachette initiative, which will publish pieces and instructions in installments. Looking further into it, however, it doesn't look like a good/wise deal: it works out to €850 ($1000+), but we'd only complete the printer by end of next year - and there's actually no guarantee they'll publish the full set. It just seems there'd be options out there letting us 1. spend less 2. enjoy the process and 3. end up with a non-defunct printer.

Added (but optional) difficulty level: we're in Europe, and ideally the instructions would be in Italian or German.
posted by progosk to Technology (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you get this one you can use it to build more.
posted by flabdablet at 8:49 AM on November 29, 2014

Best answer: I don't have any specific recommendations in your price range, but I have a lot of experience with 3d printing -- I prototype parts for several different needs as part of my job as staff at a university research lab. What follows are some things I recommend you consider if you haven't already:

What do you want to get out of this experience? Do you want to share the experience of building a thing with your kids, and are less concerned about the capabilities of the final product? Do you want to print things to meet some need you have, but want to save money by building from a kit? Do you want to share the experience, and also solve some concrete engineering need? I ask because, for example, the printrbot from your link is probably dirt cheap, but also probably pretty crap to use since it uses (dimensionally unstable) lasercut plywood and yarn instead of aluminum extrusion or other, more precise parts. If you're more interested in the journey than the destination, however, it might be a perfectly valid approach!

Does anyone in your household know, or want to learn, CAD? You need, at minimum, familiarity with Google Sketchup or a similar tool to make designs for a 3d printer. For OS X, Autodesk Inventor Fusion is free on the app store (it's a more-technical cousin to Sketchup, or a stripped down version of Inventor Professional, which is what I use for CAD at work). I ask this question because a lot of people have reported that they had more fun building their printer than using it -- unless you have problems that rough plastic parts can solve, and a desire to design said plastic parts, hello paperweight!

Another concern: what materials do you want to print with? The entry-level goto is PLA, which is a biodegradable plastic. It prints at lower temperatures, but is not very durable, and can re-melt if stored in closed areas like a car. Most of the parts I prototype for work get printed in ABS -- it's slightly less environmentally friendly but MUCH more durable. It does require a heated bed for the printer. Some kits have this available as an add-on; I'd give those kits preference because it would be really unpleasant to learn later that you really want to print a thing that requires ABS properties, but you need to build a new printer or significantly modify your current one to get that capability.

Also: what volume do you want to print? Cheaper printers are going to have smaller working volumes. That can be OK, but if you have specific needs in mind for your parts, make sure that you're purchasing a machine with a working volume that can support the size objects you want to print. Again, it's no good to have a printer that's within your budget but too small to be useful.

All that said, sub-$1k is going to be hard, if you want something that'll also be useful and is also a kit that comes with enough instructions that a non-technical person could put it together and get it running well. If I were going to try for a $1k price point, I'd go for one of the many Reprap kits, but that may be too tinkering-heavy for your stated skill level. The reprap way involves a lot of reading forum posts and pulling together information without a solid manual, because reprap is a very wide family of potential solutions. The good news is that Germans love to take hobby electronics very seriously, so I bet there is an amazing amount of german-languge info out there.

If I were going to buy a ready-to-build kit, I'd probably go for a Lulzbot KitTAZ. The main printer I use at work is a Lulzbot AO-101, the TAZ's little cousin, and I've had very good experiences with their hardware and their tech support, compared to other kit vendors. Unfortunately the KitTAZ is $500 out of your price range.

Hopefully some of these random saturday-morning thoughts are useful for your decision-making!
posted by Alterscape at 8:51 AM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Or, on failure to preview, what flabdablet said. That actually looks like a really nice little reprap kit.
posted by Alterscape at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2014

Best answer: My husband built a RepRap from a kit like the one linked a few years ago. It has worked and printed well for years. He just used it to build a larger rig. He does love to tinker, though, and is willing and in fact interesting in finding solutions for issues and problems with the printer.

Alterscape's comments about CAD software are relevant. Mr. jeoc does a lot of work in a CAD program to design parts. He's an engineer, and has a lot of CAD and part design skills. But he also downloads things to print from Thingiverse.
posted by jeoc at 9:03 AM on November 29, 2014

Best answer: Do you want to print or do you want to build? Let that inform your choices.
We've run on some form of reprap/huxly/whatever, your typical 500 quid put together from a kit jobbie. You will spend a lot of time experimenting, blocking your nozzle, having uneven cooling, adjusting your bed, wrapping it in cling-film to try and tent it for cooling, and on and on.

My recommendation would always be Ultimaker, but it's the very top end of your budget and not a kit.
posted by Iteki at 12:25 PM on November 29, 2014

Also, that list you linked to; most of them don't exist yet, they are in the prefunding phase on indiegogo etc. I strongly suggest checking how "open" the various kits or machines you look at are, some are so closed they even use a cassette-style feed that means you can't use regular filament.
posted by Iteki at 12:35 PM on November 29, 2014

I actually helped build the PrintrBot Simple at work, and it's not too challenging, but the instructions are in English (they might have included other languages, I don't remember).
posted by KernalM at 7:38 PM on November 29, 2014

Response by poster: I'll definitely take the Huxley Duo into consideration, thanks flabdablet/Alterscape/jeoc. Though tempted by the idea of just buying a good starting machine, I really like the reprap concept..
KernalM, how did that PrintrBot turn out - useful, or unreliable?
posted by progosk at 11:27 PM on November 29, 2014

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