Thursday, December 26, 2013

2014: The year of 3D printing?

I've had a chance to read Make's 2014 Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing, and if you have even a casual interest in the subject, you should buy a copy. Compared with last year's version, the 2014 edition has many more printers, a wider range of technologies (fused filament and optical resin printers, delta printers, and printers combined with CNC mills,) digitizers (to create 3D models for printing,) extruders (for making your own filament from plastic pellets,) and a wider range of plastics. Looking at the cover of Make's guide, you'd think that consumer 3D printers are "ready for prime time"--that is. until you look at the actual printers and read the reviews. Then, you see products that look like they were built with Tinkertoys and parts from an Erector set. Most printer beds need to be manually leveled to insure that parts print correctly. Some printers only use one kind of plastic, or need to be carefully cleaned when switching from one plastic to another. Some come with little or no documentation. Make doesn't discuss if they had any experiences with getting malfunctioning printers serviced, other than being assisted in fixing the problems themselves.

Make does point out some printers that it describes as having "just hit print" simplicity, but even those printers had problems: Poor print quality compared to competitors' models at a similar price, filament jams and overheating, and software problems. There's nothing on the market that compares to conventional laser printers for ease of installation and use. Even the simplest 3D printer requires significant skill and manual intervention to use. Nevertheless, at the end of 2013, it's easy to see that 3D printer manufacturers are improving their products by leaps and bounds. Prices are dropping--for example, the Printrbot Simple, a fully-assembled, fully-functional 3D printer that's a great entry into the world of 3D printing, costs only $399. Some 3D printers can turn out significantly bigger parts than they could last year. The "simple to use" models are indeed far simpler than the models from a year ago. Resin printers offer the potential of significantly higher-quality printing. Software is improving--in some cases, faster than the printers themselves.

Unless you're prepared to do a lot of the work yourself, I'd hesitate to buy any of the models available for sale today. However, there's enormous potential for the 3D printers in Make's 2015 guide to be faster, smarter, able to handle more materials and, most importantly, much easier to use than this year's models.

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