Getting Started in 3D Printing

As someone who enjoys working on projects and tinkering with everything from computer systems to welders, I’ve always had a passive interest in 3d printing technology; yet I never seriously considered getting a one for myself. 3d printers work in much the same way a normal printer does, except instead of ejecting ink out of the nozzle it extrudes molten plastic. By layering these thin layers of plastic (typically 50-500 microns) over and over again it can build up entire objects in a matter of minutes to hours. It’s a simple technology which seems to have only recently gained the critical mass needed to bring prices down.

Even though 3d printers are quite cool, at least for a nerd like me, I still couldn’t envision what uses I would have for such a tool since most of my needs were already fulfilled by tools and technology I had laying around (e.g. wood, glue, metal and acrylic to name a few). Perhaps to goes back to the old adage that you should only buy tools that you have a need for. If a project you’re working on requires a forstner bit, then it may finally be time to invest in a set; otherwise it’s not worth the expense. At least I’ve always attempted to live by this philosophy.

Recently most of my projects have moved from home renovation to those shaped by the needs of my research–building tools and racks and such for experiments. This has primarily meant a lot of fabrication work, typically across several versions; and therefore a lot of one-off parts and connectors. For example. figuring out a way to mount a small motor to a PVC frame (getting it rigid and at the right angle was not a trivial task). Naturally this invited the idea that a 3D printer might come in handy. Yet as with all great hobbies, I found that 3d printing can get expensive quickly.

Expensive, unless you stumble upon a gently used printer for 100 dollars on the local craigslist! Yep, you read that right, chance was smiling down on me when–on a whim–I thought to check the Tallahassee Craigslist for a printer. Lo and behold, a 3D printer that when new would cost 350 dollars was listed for about 200 bucks (with about a 100 dollars worth of PLA filament).

Now that I’ve had my M3D printer for about a month now, I have to say how happy I’ve been with it. There is certainly some give and take with the printer, figuring out how to persuade it to dish out accurate prints reliably, but overall I think this is just a side effect of a fairly new technology (especially at such a low price point). If you are considering buying a printer then it is probably a good time to invest in a cheap machine since in a couple years there are going to be some amazing products coming to market. With the M3D under my belt, so to speak, I am confident that when those pricer models reach maturity that I will be confident in investing in a truly amazing tool.

Which machines do I see on the horizon? Well I predict that in the next couple years there will be a solid lineup of all-in-one machines that can do 3d printer alongside with CNC milling (e.g. carving metal and wooden parts), laser engraving and 3d scanning. Currently there are a few models with such a range of capabilities, but who wouldn’t want one? There’s a lot of market potential here.

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