In today’s episode, Tom and Tracy Hazzard talk about cheap 3D printers. They mention one specifically, the Play from Lewihe, that is for $75. They go into the reasons and situations when buying a cheap 3D printer may be for you, or when it won’t even be worth the cheap price for your specific situation and the kind of user you are.
Cheap 3D Printers
Today, we’re going to talk cheap 3D printers. We were really impressed to find and to learn that there are some really cheap 3D printers out there, if that’s your biggest limiting factor, is cost. They’re kits though, we have to be really careful, that most of the ones with the cheap prices and the one you’re particularly talking about, the Lewihe. It stands for length, width, height, the first two letters of each. I have to say, I think it’s so huge mistake because it makes it sound like it’s a cheap Asian cheaper, which it’s actually not. If you are familiar with a lot of Asian company names and product names, it sounds like one. But it’s not bad looking for what is a $75 printer. It’s a kit printer. I was so shocked.
They’re out of Spain, this company. They do have dealers and things. I went to try to find if there was a dealer in the US and really on their website, it’s a place where you can register to try to become a dealer. They’re not really telling you where there are dealers in your area. We may have to do a little digging to find out where you can get one. I don’t actually, at the time we’re recording this, know for sure if they are distributed in the US. You could buy a $75 3D printer in Spain and pay $75 to airship it to the US I suppose. It might be more than that. If there’s one distributed near you, $75. To me, that really democratizes the availability of 3D printing.
I think we have to be really careful because sometimes cheap 3D printers are just that, they’re cheap. At the end of the day, you spend more time and effort trying to get the thing assembled out of the kit. It doesn’t assemble properly, then there’s always problems running it. You never actually effectively get to the 3D printing part of it. In my mind, I think that has to be relative to your skill level and not just your pocket book. That’s what makes it cheap for you. Because if at the end of the day you’re not printing, then you’ve wasted $75.
Skill level and I think, interest level. Look, it’s a different kind of customer I think. Me, if this kit had been around when I was a teenager, because I was a computer geek in the 80s, growing up. My mom was a computer science engineer. I grew up in a household where we had the earliest computers. My mom used to program a ton of computers to run on 32K of memory. She worked for the company that did the Hubble Telescope. Earlier on in her career, she worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, she worked for Data General, some companies in the tech ring around Boston in Massachusetts that were in early development of computers in the 70s. Clearly, she would’ve built her own computer.
She did, but then as computers came to be, we always had some new computer at home she was working on and had the earliest version. I learned on PCs, even though Macs existed in the late 70s, mid 70s, into the 80s. We were a PC household. I wouldn’t get into Macs until later, after we got to college and stuff, then I got immersed in Mac. Which I prefer Mac now, I really do. But PCs and DOS and the whole thing, even before DOS. There was this computer PC that she was doing and the original graphic user interface operating system was a platform called GEM. It was GEM Write for your word processing. They had all these different programs. I’m a computer geek in this regard.
My point was, if I had had a kit like this available to me, I probably would’ve been someone who would’ve gone the $75 route and put the kit together, built it, learned the hard way on a whole lot of things before I got to actual creating of 3D printed parts. Of course, you have to remember in the 80s when I started getting into CAD with AutoCAD in 1984, I would work part time after high school in an architectural firm. They trained me in AutoCAD, but that was on a 2D program at this point. The CAD wasn’t even ready really at that time so you wouldn’t have been able to do it.
I think that the idea that if this your thing and you’re going to be able to put stuff together, this is a really reasonably priced kit. But I think we just want to really be careful here and not going for the cheapest printer possible out there if it doesn’t fit the model of your capabilities and what you want to accomplish with it. That’s where we’ve always gone with it. A cheap printer is a cheap printer at the end of the day because, in this case, you’re going to spend a bit of time assembling it. It may not assemble and be very level and there could be a whole bunch of issues that cascade into printing problems, which constantly keep you from printing effectively. You have to be careful with that and/or highly capable of fixing that.
We have interviewed other companies that really focus on kit and hackable 3D printers. Deezmaker out of Pasadena, we interviewed at one point a long time ago. They’re into the kits and they have a makerspace. They have meetups all about hacking and improving your own 3D printer. I think that when you get a printer at this price level, around 75 USD, I think it’s technically 69 Euros or something it sells for it out of Spain. That is going to be a printer that I certainly would not be afraid to try to modify, to hack, to learn more and do some things on your own. Interestingly enough, the same company also has a much higher end 3D printer, a 6000 Euro.
I think that’s bad marketing right there. I just really want to point that out that that’s just too big and extreme between the two that it really makes you wonder. It downgrades your higher end product and it really doesn’t help your lower end product. It just makes it look like, “Wow, it must have zero features. It must be so stripped down.” That’s how that looks to you and it makes you wonder whether it’s even worth the $75.
They’ve named this printer Play. For $75, I think they’re implying, “You buy this if you just want to play.” If you’re serious, they have their what’s called, Sneaker XL, which is their 6000 Euro one. I think there are completely different customers that would be buying this two printers and it makes no sense to put them on the same web page or even have them under the same brand name. This is a good example where you need a Cadillac and Chevy. You have two different brands running them because they are two different markets.
What is going to happen here from a business standpoint is that it’s hurting both markets. You’re getting mixed messages going into this. This is something that just on a business side, we look at this kind of stuff all the time, and product positioning and advising our customers, you can do a good, better, best model of product, but they better all be the same customer and they’re close enough in pricing that you’re upgrading. It’s like you’re getting an upgrade. But here, it’s clearly a professional audience and a newbie play audience. A very entry level and they’re not necessarily the same thing for quite some time because you’re not going to go from a newbie to a professional in six months.
A better strategy for the low end of the market, because that’s really what we’re talking about today, is cheap 3D printers. In the low end of the market, you would want to have an entry level product and you want to then sell that and then have somebody have a great user experience and then walk them up, upgrade them either by selling them a kit to upgrade their printer or upgrade them to a new printer and be able to sell that same customer something else down the road. You’re talking about the lifetime value of a customer once you get them to buy something from you. You want to be able to sell them something else. Here, it’s like, forget it. Nobody who buys the Play is going to buy the Sneaker XL. It’s just too big a leap and it makes you question the value.
To be honest with you, I look at them and I think the Play actually looks like a better design than the professional. Honestly, they don’t look different. This is a whole design issue. The inside doesn’t look different. Everybody knows, we’re designers and we think through a designer’s mind’s eye lens here. First of all, the scale of the photos on the website make the Play look as big as the Sneaker XL. They just could’ve done a better job of having something else in context in the photo or some other way. They do, they have the filament spool, but they only have it on one, which is the Play and it’s about as big as the role of filament from the open area inside. But you have no context except for what looks like a bike helmet, which should be much bigger. Now, you’ve got this bike helmet on the bed, so the bed probably is fairly big here, especially tall.
Of course, you can read the stats. Not on this homepage where they just show you the name and the prices of the printers, but you can go in and see the stats and see how big this printer is. But the design of the two printers, they’re the same colors, the shells are made of looks like the same material. The Sneaker XL, the expensive one, it’s not impressive visually in any way that would make you think, “That’s in a whole other class. I get that, that’s justified.” It may look like it helps them sell a whole lot more of this Play kits. Or it could hurt the Play kit. It makes it like, “How stripped down is that thing if there’s that extreme in price?”
Anyway, I just really want to go back again to the criteria by which you might decide how cheap a 3D printer you should buy. Let’s think about it that way because I think that that’s really the point here. If you have not a lot of hacking tech skills, lots of fix it skills, because things will go wrong when you try to assemble a kit. There are things that won’t fit properly, won’t level properly. If you don’t have a lot of skills to be able to troubleshoot that or a support system like Deezmaker or something like that, you don’t have a support system too to help you troubleshoot what’s going wrong with it. We’ve heard a lot of horror stories from people who have put together kits that never worked. You don’t want to waste your money there.
The second thing I think is that if you don’t have any CAD skills and you’re learning CAD, spend some money on a slightly upgraded program there instead of a free one. Just go a little upgrade on there and make sure you’ve learned that first before you dive in and spend some money on a 3D printer. That’s just my opinion there. You could use a lot of service bureaus, you could spend some money with 3D Hubs and/or a friend or go to a makerspace and use a 3D printer without buying one and wasting your time there on the printer itself until you have some more CAD skills. That’s also another thing.
The third thing for me personally is that if in fact what you really want is just, if you’re spending a lot more time designing and a lot more time doing it and the printing is just, like you want to have a printer right next to you so you can print out lots of iterations and things like that, go for the most reliable, cost effective one. Because reliability of not spending a lot of time messing with the machine is really worth the value. That’s what we found.
I’d like to add one more thing that’s unique to this kit situation. If you don’t already have skills in terms of any computer code, because most all of these little kit printers, you will need to not only assemble it physically, but you’ll have to do a small amount of programming or configuration at the very least. Most of these, you would use a program like Arduino to go and send commands to the printer in a very manual way. Because oftentimes these kits don’t have their own software. For a $75, they really can’t afford to have their own desktop software.
You’re going to be using Repetier, you’re going to be using Cura, you’re going to be using some other program to slice and send prints to the printer, but you may also need to deal with communication issues over USB and other things like that and deal with firmware issues. You’re getting into light coding when you’re doing that. Again, if I’m a teenager or if I’m a parent of a teenager and I want my teen to learn about coding and have a healthy respect for it as they go on in their life, and maybe they’ll never do it again because it’s not their thing, but to at least have that understanding could be a very good lesson and a good thing to do.
But again, you need a support system in your local area to help you through that, whether it’s the local STEM group, a makerspace, a company like Deezmaker, anything like that that you might be using. Because in this case, this company is in Spain. You’re not going to get a lot of support in the US. We don’t even see support. There’s a little support link, I think it’s just an email link. There isn’t a whole ton of things. You can submit a support ticket really, that’s it. There’s no FAQ here or there’s no videos that I can find on their site. You need more help and you probably need local help in your local time. Just be thinking about that.
They do have a blog, but beware, you’re going to need to use the Google translator because they’ve got everything in Spanish for the most part. You’re not going to get a ton of support from these people. I think that’s true of any kit. You’re selling something at such a low price, you can’t expect the company to offer full service when they’re selling you parts instead of like a whole product. That’s also a good time to do a little throw to 3D Print Life Support. Life Support, that’s what that supposed to be, is that tech support for 3D printing and it’s a cooperative exchange of people who have services to offer and people who are looking for them. That’s a great place to go for that.
Not only that, there has been an update on 3D Print Life Support. I got an email from Buzz recently where he was telling me, where they were charging an annual fee. It was very modest, but they were charging an annual fee for you, as a tech, to be registered on their site for others to find you if they want support. Now, they’ve made that free. They’re trying to expand the platform and anybody who has skills and they want to put themselves out there and offer to help others, you can actually register on that site for free now. I wholeheartedly support their program that’s why we mention it here. They’re not paying us to do that. We just think that’s it’s really a great idea because all the support you have out there. That’s why I encourage you, especially if you bought a cheap 3D printer, is that you’re really getting that support somewhere, finding it some place. You’re going to need support.
A great effort, it’s a different kind of customer. It is very interesting where this took us today. I think it’s worth talking about because there certainly are cheap 3D printers, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get one. While that’s a wonderful thing, but understand what you’re buying or what you’re getting into and set yourself up for success instead of failure. We want people to explore. That’s our goal here, is we want you guys to get out there and play. If this works for you, then go for it and do it. But we also want you to actually get to doing the fun work, the designing work, the thought process work, getting something at the end of the day that’s worthwhile and not frustrating you in the process. That’s the reason why we started this podcast. We want you to scale the learning curves as fast as possible and as successfully as possible.
I’ve burned a lot of time with some of the printers that we’ve purchased and used or reviewed, just trying to get them to work. For our purposes for this podcast, that has a value regardless. But for the typical user, whether you’re a home user or a small business user or a large business user, I think that the inefficiency of being a tech can get in your way. For some people, they want to do that, by all means, there’s lots of different kind of users out there. But I think for most people who just want to really make stuff, then it can get in the way.
We’re on social media @3DStartPoint. Thanks everyone for listening to our episode about cheap 3D printers and whether or not their best for you. This has been Tracy and Tom on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
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