Getting into 3D printing and choosing a printer


3D Printing isn't as new as you might think. Some attempts have been made to create 3D prints as far back as the 1980s. In the 2000s, it started to appear as a fixture in R&D and manufacturing facilities has a rapid prototyping tool. Around 2014, consumer printers starting to appear on the market. At first, these were either difficult DIY projects which required extensive know how and time to set up. Today, however, with $300USD and a little technical know-how, you can have a viable 3D printer on your desk within a few hours.

Before you start searching for a printer to buy, you might want to take a moment to think. What do you hope to get out of 3D printing? How are your tech skills? Are you handy with a screwdriver? It's more than just buying the "right" printer and pressing "print". Knowing what you hope to get out of it before you buy can put you in the mindset to enjoy the process, make better choices, and lay a foundation for future creations.

Did you expect me to immediately shout "Yes"? Yeah, no. I'm not going to do that. There are several good reasons to not get into 3D printing. Even though I had been interested in it for the better part of 6 years, it wasn't until this year I actually got myself a printer.

Let's break down why it might not be a good reason to get a printer:

You don't have time for another hobby

I put this one first because really, you can't treat a 3D printer as a tool. It's much better when you can treat it more like a hobby in of itself. Even after the initial assembly, there's still a lot of time you need to spend learning how to correct for failures, fix issues, and enhance your printer to get the most out of it.

A 3D printer is a fiddly device, and it can fail for seemingly no reason. If you're only interested in it as a means to produce things, you'll be forever disappointed and frustrated with it. Instead, I found it's best to treat the entire thing as a learning experience. You're building a skill, and incidentally, you'll print of some nifty things (as well as a bunch of spaghettified mess) in the process of learning.

Sticker shock

3D printing has a cost curve that kinda looks like the letter 'J'. There's an initial investment of the printer itself which can put you off. It can be easily as much as a mid-range smartphone. That can be a heavy investment for some, and the resulting benefit may just not be worth that cost for you. If you only need to print off one or two things, you may want to contact a 3D printing service instead. They'll print what you need without having to buy the printer itself.

The operating cost of the printer isn't all that high once up and running. My Ender 3 consumes around 200W of power to run, about as much as two incandescent light bulbs. The electrical cost for a multi-hour print isn't that high. The stock material to create the print is also suitably inexpensive. A $22 roll of PLA can print an amazing amount of things before you need to load another roll.

Like any hobby, it's easy to go overboard and get all sorts of enhancements and extensions to your printer. That's where the other part of the 'J' comes from; it can a tremendous money-sink if you let it. My expectations aren't all that high with printing -- mostly because I'm treating it as a learning experience -- so that limits how much I'd spend.

Space and safety

A lot of YouTube videos show a 3D printer just casually sitting on a desk somewhere. One imagines downloading a model, loading it up on the printer, and just watching the magic.

No. Nononono.

One thing that is often overlooked in those videos is that 3D printing requires some amount of dedicated space. Filament based printers use motors to force a thin strand of plastic (the filament) through a heated nozzle called a hotend. This makes it possible for small plastic particles called microplastics to hang in the air where you can breathe them in. Furthermore, some kinds of filament release harmful fumes and require thorough ventilation. For these reasons, many have a dedicated room for their 3D printer which is not occupied unless if starting, checking on, or retrieving a print. Some printers mitigate this need by having an enclosure. More expensive models will incorporate the enclosure into the printer frame itself, and include an air filter to catch any fumes or microplastics.

And then there's a big one: Fire. A 3D printer operates at high temperatures of 180C or higher. If plastic becomes jammed, wires are faulty, or the power supply has issues, a fire can result. Some printers, particularly early low cost models, were particularly vulnerable to starting a house fire. If you're not allowed to have candles indoors, it's probably best to not have a printer in your apartment.

Screen overload

One reason I resisted getting a printer even after all the above concerns were dealt with was simply that I felt I was getting too much "screen time". I work in the tech industry and have been telecommuting since 2009. Half of my weekdays are taken up staring into a glowing rectangle. Then, when I log off for the day, I have a smaller, glowing rectangle I stare into while having videos on a much larger glowing rectangle. When so much of our work, entertainment, and socializing is mediated by computers, taking on a hobby which is highly computer driven...was not attractive.

Again, it's best to approach 3D printing as a hobby and a learning experience. Ask yourself what you hope to get out of adopting this pursuit and if it aligns with your intellectual and emotional needs. It need not be an all-encompassing match (no hobby is) but it can keep things in perspective.

Once you have considered all of the above, the next thing to do is to choose a printer. Many will try to approach this a balancing exercise between the initial investment cost and the number of features the printer provides. I found this mindset less useful, as many printers allow you to modify and enhance them post-purchase. It's less like buying a Macbook, and more like building a PC from parts.

Consider flexibility and ease of modification

Some printers are sold as expensive novelties. They do one kind of printing, do it adequately, and do not work well outside of that application. There's no easy way to tell this at first blush, but many of these printers have plasticy, closed frames which hide as much of the technical components as possible. They may tout their touchscreen UI or the fact you only need to pull it out of the box and plug it in.

If those warning signs aren't enough, you may want to do more research. Enter the printer name plus "mods" or "upgrades" into your search engine of choice. If you only get results from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that's a good indicator that the printer is a novelty and not a workhorse.

Technical know-how vs. cost

Once you've winnowed out the printers which are novelties, you have to consider how much technical know-how you possess. The cheapest printers are little more than bags of parts you need to assemble yourself. This can be a time consuming, frustrating, and demoralizing experience if you don't already have the skills necessary to complete the task. It's not impossible, but it will try your patience and dedication. You really don't want your first experience at a new hobby to be an awful one.

If you have less technical know how, there are printers out there which compensate by having more features. Fully assembled frames, auto-bed leveling, major parts already fully assembled, and so on. You should watch a few videos online about how to assemble the printer you have your eyes on and compare that with your current skills and know-how. Assembling any 3D printer is a challenge if you haven't done it before, so always frame it as an opportunity to learn.

Enough features, not all the features

Now we can consider features. This can be difficult without getting buried in marketing material. What we want is an acceptable trade off of features vs all the other factors we've considered already. You can get lost pretty quickly trying to compare features even if you divide them into "no need", "would be nice" and "must have".

Instead, I found it better to focus on the kinds of printing I'd like to do. Mostly, I'm looking for solid prints, generally light duty items where accuracy is preferred, and of all one material. I have less need to print items which are flexible, transparent, or strongly impact resistant. After some research I ended up with a minimum set of features that could take me pretty far without modifying the printer:

  • A single extruder capable of working with the two most common 3D printed plastics, PLA and ABS.
  • Heated bed to better adhesion and accuracy.
  • Standalone operation, so no external computer is required.
  • Works with a memory card, not a custom app.

Having the printer standalone was a particular point with me. Some novelty printers require an app so as to lock you into printing only certain kinds of items available at their store. A plain memory card interface without requiring any external machine ensured some amount of future proofing as the file format used by most 3D printers, G-Code (no relation to Google), has been around since the 1970s. At first, I also wanted auto bed-leveling. Ensuring the print bed was level sounded so intimidating, but that feature priced me right out of the $300 space. It also turns out that manually leveling a print bed was a straightforward procedure, so I didn't need it.

All the above aside, what really convinced me to choose the Ender 3 Pro as my printer was how one person described it: "The AK47 of 3D Printers". The rifle mentioned in that quote has a reputation for ease of self-service, being rugged, and can be modded in multiple ways. Examining the ways the Ender 3 Pro could be upgraded convinced me that it was worth the investment. Furthermore, after watching some assembly videos I discovered that the majority of the machine was shipped as a single piece. This greatly reduced the technical acumen necessary to get the machine running. Ender even included all the tools necessary out of the box.

Since I was concerned about microplastic exposure, my plan was to keep it in the garage. Unfortunately, Minnesota winters do not fool around and the temperature differentials would cause a number of different problems, to say nothing about wear on the printer itself. Instead, I also bought an enclosure for the printer and kept it in an unused room in my basement. This reduced any microplastics the printer would emit in operation, as well as how much dust the machine could accumulate. The enclosure seemed somewhat overpriced to me compared to building a DIY version, but it was ultimately worth it.

For filament, I went with a roll of white PLA. PLA is perhaps the most forgiving of filaments to work with, and you can make a large number of items with it. It isn't the most durable, flexible, or UV resistant. However, it doesn't give off noxious fumes when forming it (unlike ABS), so it's a perfect beginner's material.

The most important piece of advice ever given to me about getting into 3D printing was to treat it all as a new hobby. This isn't just setting up a tool and putting it to work. Things are less stressful, difficult, and more interesting if you see it all as an opportunity to learn something new. Watching video after video online helped me to understand the capabilities and pitfalls, but I learned so much more when I build one myself.

While I'm fond of my Ender, it's not the only choice available or even the right one for you. Look at your options, read some reviews, search for mods and upgrades. There is no ultimate or perfect printer. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. In follow-up posts, I'll walk through the process of building the Ender 3 Pro, downloading and printing items found online, and finally, doing a little modeling yourself.

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