Do I Have To Buy A 3D Printer?

At this point, we’ve talked about what 3D printing is, why you should care about 3D printing, and we’ve even started getting into making models.

But we haven’t yet talked about how to, you know, actually print stuff.

Today I want to talk about the two main options:

  1. Buy a consumer 3D printer,  OR
  2. Outsource to a 3D printing service

So how do you know which one is right for you?  Forge ahead, dear readers:

Option 1- Consumer 3D Printers

PROS: Immediate gratification, convenience, chance to really get up close and personal with 3D printing, good cocktail party conversation

CONS: Lots of futzing, big up-front investment, size limitations, printing limitations, limited materials

Maybe you’ve seen them. The desktop-ready, compact little miracle machines, ready to make your wildest dreams come true via a veritable rainbow of filament.

There’s a huge range of makes and models of 3D printers available, ranging from a few hundred dollars (like the Micro 3D) to several thousand bucks (like the MakerBot Replicator). The majority of them will use filament and extrusion printing, and craft and material magpies like myself will tempted by the rainbow of colors and options available for filaments. You’ll commonly see PLA (a biodegradable plastic made from corn) or ABS (a very common plastic used in consumer goods- from legos to luggage), although you’ll also see fancy options, like flexible plastics, dissolvable materials, and PLAs mixed with wood or metal particles.

I think home 3D printing is awesome for quick prototyping and for working out design ideas. It’s fun to watch a print take shape in front of your very eyes-although grab a bag of popcorn- it frequently takes hours and it isn’t quite as riveting as a day-long marathon of SVU (I could watch Mariska and Ice-T forever). But really, home 3D printing is best suited for people who find as much joy in the act of 3D printing itself as they might in the final result.  

This took about a few hours. Settle in.

Why do I say this? If you really want to see how the sausage is made, by all means, get yourself a home 3D printer. But, I beseech you, emotionally and mentally prepare yourself. 3D printers are projects. As of yet, there are no consumer printers that are fool-proof, take-it-out-of-the-box-and-press-“On”-type of products.

Basically, we’re living in the 3D equivalent of a pre-iMac world*. There is a good chance that, at some point, your printer will clog during the middle of the night. Maybe your in-process print will be knocked over while you’re at work and you’ll come home to find a veritable Charlotte’s web of filament on your printer bed (Message: “Go F*** Yourself”). Maybe you’ll spend 12 hours on a complicated print, only to break it while trying to remove the support material (true story x 1,000). Maybe you’ll spend as much time adjusting alignment and temperature and speed as you do designing your model.

If you are the type of woman who can shake off these problems, who loves getting into the nitty-gritty of mechanical issues, who is ready to spend hours combing through tech forums** then go for it, girlfriend. I envy you (I mean it). I’m less Rosie the Riveter and more Mrs. Patmore with a broken oven- I’m more likely to just give up, make some sandwiches and send everyone outside to eat on the lawn. I am not someone who finds joy in fixing broken things. Even my husband, who is an industrial designer and MECHANICAL ENGINEER, spends more time fixing the 3D printer than actually printing on the 3D printer.

A side note- at-home 3D printing is rapidly developing, with new designers and engineers coming up with better, cheaper, and more user-friendly solutions every day. Purchasing a printer now is like when my dad bought an Apple II in the 80s for like a million dollars- I’m sure he amazed all his friends and relatives with its fifteen minute boot time and amazing ability to display about 9 colors, but now we have tiny magic boxes that talk to us and allow us to humble brag about our lunches in real time. #blessed.

In the future, our kids will be waving around their iPrintrs and manifesting, like, carbon fiber and sweaters and diamonds out of thin air and we’re going to be all, “Remember filament?” And they’ll laugh and laugh.

*AKA Hell

**AKA Hell Part 2


OPTION 2: Outsource That Ish

PROS: Not having to do it yourself, huge range of materials, low up-front investment

CONS: Long lead-times, can be $$$ if you don’t have self-control, less transparent

It’s not like I’m not willing to put time into stuff. I’m happy to spend hours refining a design and building a model. I’m even happier to upload it to a website and have someone else make it for me.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 6.48.16 PM
The material options currently listed on Shapeways’ site.

That’s where consumer 3D printing services, like Shapeways, iMaterialise, and Sculpteo, come in (this is by no means a full list- there are a ton of places to get your stuff printed. Apparently, in a desperate bid to stay relevant, Staples also offers 3D printing services). These services all allow you to upload a model, choose from a vast array of materials- from nylon to porcelain to solid PLATINUM- and then deliver it to your door, like, 5 to 20 days later.

It’s as easy as any other online shopping, and you get the same “every day is Christmas” feeling when you get a package in the mail filled with your 3D prints. Does it sometimes suck to have to wait for stuff? Sure. But all these companies are also starting to introduce rush services, and, after all you’re getting something custom-made. You can wait a few days, right?

Full disclosure: I’m partial to Shapeways- they have competitive prices, an integrated marketplace (so you can sell your shiz to other printing nerds), and they let me pick up my stuff from their Long Island City office. I also REALLY love that I can print the same model from the same place in both white plastic and solid gold (for all your solid gold needs). And they’re not too stingy with the coups (I love a deal).

If you’re looking for something a little more local and/or a little more personal, though, 3D Hubs could be a good way to go. It’s basically an Airbnb for 3D printing- you upload your design, choose a material, and search for printers in your area that can execute. Prices/availability/turnaround will vary, as will the size and operation style of each contracter. Some of the print locations might just be a 3D printer in someone’s living room; others may be full-scale manufacturing operations. Lots will be somewhere in between.

The nice thing about this model is that you can have the option of building a relationship with your contractor. Nothing’s more frustrating than waiting for a print from one of the “big guys,” then getting a very brief message saying your print can’t be completed for x reason, leaving you to scramble and try to figure out what went wrong. With the smaller hubs, you have the opportunity to start a dialogue and collaborate with your hub master (I don’t think they call themselves that, but maybe they should). You get to have a foot in both worlds- you get to outsource the fiddling and futzing, but you can also have a higher level of control and transparency about the process.

Of course, your main determinant in choosing a contractor will be the materials you want. If you want to print in plastic, you’ll have a huge number of services from which to choose. If you want something to be made in solid platinum, your options will be more limited. As always, read reviews, compare prices, and be savvy about it.


What it all means:

So… I don’t know if you guys can tell…. but I’m going to recommend you go with option #2 to start. The idea of a 3D printer IN YOUR HOUSE is seductive and very sci-fi- but you can always start with outsourcing, then buy a printer for fun once you have a swimming pool full of money from the sales of all your amazing creations.

But in the interest of fair and balanced coverage, here’s a handful of popular consumer 3D printers to check out:

And here, again, are the links to the 3D printing services I mentioned above:



Designer, magpie, maximalist.


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