As with any technology you bring into your life, a 3D printer is a huge investment. Thus, picking one requires a healthy amount of consideration before commitment. If you’re new to the whole concept of 3D printing, it can be confusing to look through specs and not really know what you’re looking for. Nevertheless, hope shouldn’t be lost. Tom and Tracy Hazzard discuss what you should be looking for when you’re picking a 3D printer to use. You have to be smart about your choice because 3D printers don’t come cheap. Make sure you educate yourself on the essentials so you can make an informed choice.
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Essentials When Picking a 3D Printer – Consider the WHAT
It can be quite the tough decision when picking a 3D printer, and David Kavick is a listener who has been listening to us for quite a while who asked us a question about how we keep saying how we are quite picky with our 3D printers, even returning some because they didn’t meet our needs, but that we haven’t gone into how that decision was made. With the 1000+ printers out there, he thinks it would be nice for us to share what our criteria is for selecting a printer and which ones we think the everyday-Joe should consider.
Well we will start off and address the elephant in the room, or the MakerBot in the room from the ad you’ll hear in the podcast episode. They are our first ad and first sponsor! We talked about this in the beginning of the year and it’s finally here and MakerBot is sponsoring this episode and several more over the next month, and that’s going to help us keep bringing you great content and continue doing this show. It’s a necessity in business that we have some kind of income so we continue having this sort of content.
You’ll see clearly that won’t allow it to cloud the good, free, core content that we give you. You’re not required to go visit MakerBot, however, you might want to because we have designed a 3D printed collapsible coffee sleeve which can fit easily in your purse or pocket that you can request a free print of that they will send to you. No charge, just your information so they can send it to you. It would be wonderful if you want to support WTFFF?! to go there and get your own coffee sleeve. Try it out and give us your feedback. We’d love to see your pictures using it out and about at your local coffee shop. MakerBot has taken it out and about as well so you might see some of their pictures too.
We obviously have a MakerBot, and once you get your coffee sleeve you can see the quality of what we expect our printers to be able to do, but the picking a 3D printer question is interesting because it’s really personal. For us it always starts with the WHAT. Which is why we named this podcast WTFFF?! because it starts with the what of what we want to print. The tie, the coffee sleeves, the angels, the things we 3D print have a very specific feel/style/geometry, whatever you want to call it, that leads us to a very certain type of printer.
What I tend to say to people who ask us this when we are out at tradeshows or other events, is that a lot of our prints tend to be delicate, not that they are fragile, but that they are intricate and there are a lot of thin small sections. The coffee sleeve is a great example, there are a lot of moving parts. Something like 32 different pieces that are printed together so they interlock but they all move. It has the same principle of the tie, where all the parts interact and move. They are all printed in the same way, it’s just a different style and geometry, and of course a different function.
The thing that we have found is that any printer that’s a single extrusion machine, is that there are a lot more similarities to them than there are differences. A lot of single extrusion machines can print the types of things we design. The trick and difficulty in this when it comes to the machines we have purchased, returned, or sold to others, that are dual or multi-extrusion machines – those are the ones that we have returned – because we have not found one that meets our needs yet. We desire more than one color in a single print. Don’t get me wrong, we know we can outsource and go for a multicolor porcelain, ceramic, or metal print with any of our products, but that’s not our particular goal. We want to make something that comes off the machine and is ready to go and in plastic. We know we want it in plastic and in really nice colors that aren’t there yet, but that’s our desire is to have it in plastic. That’s where the what comes in.
Essentials When Picking a 3D Printer – Consider the WHEN
When it’s your first printer, there is a different set of criteria than when it’s your second printer. We have, admittedly, made some assumptions that the second printer would meet our needs for that next level and it didn’t. We have made that choice a couple times over. We’ve experienced a couple dual extrusion printers, ones that have a single nozzle that’s feeding more than one filament into it are a good step in the right direction but they still have issues when it comes to printing our delicate stuff. We haven’t really found the perfect machine yet or we would have bought it and still be using it.
We really feel strongly that if you are buying your first machine, there are a lot of new things to learn how to do and there are a whole lot of new concepts that have to be built in. For us, we didn’t have to learn how to design on top of that, we already knew how to design and knew what we wanted. We ended up realizing that we did have to re-learn how to design for 3D printing differently. Our feeling is that it’s more important to invest our time there than it is on making the machine run, so we were happy to have stumbled into one where we didn’t have to and was not as high maintenance as some in terms of learning how to handle all the different settings and it crunches through some of the difficult prints and corrects it for you.
The slicing software was really user friendly and easy to use with the MakerBot machine that we bought first than it was with any of the other machines that we have tested and bought and used. I actually have a great appreciation for all the open sourced softwares out there like Cura and Simplify 3D because they are capable of a lot more in terms of functionality and treating different regions of a print differently. In the case of many of our prints where there are separate and interlocking parts, you can treat each of those pieces separately and have different setting of speed or infill or anything you need to do to make it print as best as it can.
That’s why we say if you can get a printer that lets you work on your what first, so that you can really dial it in. Especially if you don’t know what you want to make, that’s where I suggest going for a very low maintenance or low cost machine. One that’s not as complicated because that way you can find the time to find out what your real criteria is. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start 3D printing, we are all for getting started 3D printing, but get started with the machine that is going to give you the most success the fastest.
Which leads me to the next step of the WHEN, how much time do you have? It does take a lot of time to learn how to take full advantage of these things and even more time if you’re not proficient in CAD software. If you can’t build what you want to print, then you are either going to only download files that already exist or you’re going to have to learn how to use CAD software. Think about all the different variables, if you don’t get the print result you want it could be complications in the settings of the slicing software, complications in the geometry you’ve created in the CAD software, it could be the material and the operation of the machine. There are so many variables out there than when you are just getting started, if you can eliminate some of those you’ll be better off.
If you have a desire to do more than just download files that other people have created, that if you want to create your own or modify what’s available, I think that concentrating on the CAD software and focusing on what you’re going to make first and simplifying settings issues with a software that doesn’t give you as many option and does many of those things for you and is more predictable for the results you’re going to get – I would recommend that. It speeds things up and allows you to spend more time on the things you want to learn how to do instead of on operating a machine.
It’s also a possibility that if you really don’t have a lot of time and you are working on learning the design, then don’t buy a machine and use a makerspace or a 3D Hub. Go try out a machine somewhere. Wait until you are really ready to dial in that criteria for yourself and then buy a machine, that’s a possibility too. However, we are big experimenters and we feel like we learn so much by doing, and failing, and not getting good prints, that it taught us how to be better designers. So we are proponents of buying a machine initially.
I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that one gets into 3D printing and design for 3D printing by just using makerspaces and service bureaus. If it’s a financial necessity, then by all means, it’s a great resource and an inexpensive way to get involved and try it out. The real benefit is in having a desktop 3D printer on your desk, even if you don’t intend to make end use products with it but only just samples that will then be sent off to a service bureau, but having it there to immediately test what you want to print, or even just a part of it and get that immediate feedback – that’s invaluable.
Unless you really know exactly what you want, I don’t think you need to buy and oversized printer. I don’t think the build plate is your biggest problem in the initial days, you can always have one printed off on a bigger build plate somewhere else if you needed it and print the parts you need. If money is the problem, then go for a smaller sized printer. The minis are great, but we are having a little bit of difficulty in getting through our reviews of our “Battle of the Minis” – they aren’t as user friendly as we thought they would be. Some are and some are not, and there’s been some Mac vs PC issues, and it’s all going a little slower than we would have hoped. We are Mac people in general where and one printer we hooked it up to the Mac and it didn’t even know it was there, nothing happened until I borrowed a PC from someone and it worked immediately.
Anyway, that’s a good option and you don’t need to overbuy on the size of the build plate. We do a lot that fills the size of our build plate, but that was only after we got our feet wet and really knew what we were doing. If you are on budget, don’t worry about the build plate size, and just worry about getting your capabilities and getting through your learning curve at first.
Essentials When Picking a 3D Printer – Consider WHO
The last thing I consider with getting a new 3D printer, is WHO it’s for. If you’re buying for someone else, like your children or a teenager, there are a lot of safety features that are for children that are apparent on some machines and not on others. If you or the child you are buying it for is very interested in engineering and building things, then maybe a printer that you build yourself is the ideal method and it will save you money. I’m not a big proponent of doing that and taking your time when it’s your business, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the kind of person who would enjoy and has time for that. So who you are makes a difference for what kind of machine you’re buying as well.
I rarely find a printer that I think is really really good or really really bad. It’s not really that type of thing. It’s what is the right fit of a printer for you and your needs, or your kids needs, or your schools needs. There are a lot of different companies addressing some of those different issues, and there are other companies that are addressing issues that are really only on the business level and selling desktop 3D printers to engineering firms and people in the aerospace industry and all that. Those are a lot more complicated, and we have tried some of those. They definitely use the open source software and have great capabilities, but I’m glad that wasn’t my first printer because we would have probably rejected it and never would have made WTFFF?! I think that we got lucky that for whatever reason, based on the reviews I read and that Makerbot had an extended warranty which was something that not a lot of companies had, that we went with the Makerbot because for our path it really became a great gateway to 3D printing.
Essentials When Picking a 3D Printer – Consider WHERE
Another last thing I would consider actually is where you are going to put it. Is it going in your office, is it going in your kitchen, is it going in your home? That seems like a small thing, but when you are listening to it every day all day, that’s when you really need a place that you can test it out ahead of time, where you’ve actually gone in to use one and read the reviews and all that.
Other Criteria to Consider When Picking a 3D Printer
We do have some strict criteria that we are willing to accept from a company that we buy from. This isn’t just for 3D printers, but it’s kind of our overall policy from over the years of buying a lot of products and being a product based design firm. It is still a big issue when considering which 3D print company that you work with, we’ve talked about it before with you can’t get exceptional customer service without exceptions which takes a deeper dive into customer service issues.
When you are making a big investment with a 3D printer, and there are some that cost thousands of dollars and some that cost hundreds of dollars, but especially with those in the thousand dollar and up range you want to have some comfort level and some support when you are running into issues. We are here to help you and support you in your journey as well, but we are not tech support especially when you think about every printer that is out there. We know a lot of things and can help point you in the right direction. There was a company that I really wanted to work with because I knew they were going to support me even though I knew I had to pay more in support.
Another area that we look at is that just because a company might have good tech support or good customer service support in the country in which they sell already, doesn’t mean it will be convenient for you. We found that out the hard way when we were trying to buy a printer from the Netherlands and that was very difficult for us.
I was also recently looking at the hashtag #MakerMilestones to check out the competition that we are judging, but there was someone just completely ranting about the customer service of a particular company and how they weren’t getting anyone to answer them back and I realized that after reading a few of them it’s because they are trying to get an answer in a different country. There must not be a product support in that particular country so it’s getting lost in the shuffle. My answer to that is to not try and get customer support through Instagram and try a different method because that does not seem the most viable way to get customer support – totally wrong department.
Sometimes you really have to investigate that and we check the chat logs. Most 3D print companies have a discussion forum of some kind, and even if you can’t get immediate attention from someone at the company but most of the time you’ll find someone in that forum or community who has experienced that issue you are dealing with and can help you and put you in the right direction. I always try to find a way anyway to get somebody at the company, maybe and email or a Skype address, and try to get them live on a Skype call and use the video to show them what I’m experiencing.
It’s tough with some of these companies when you are talking about active ownership, you have to be persistent. The last thing we want to address about David’s question is that we haven’t gone into is the decision about those printers that we return. I want to make the distinction about how we’ve talked quite a bit about the starter machine, which was a great place to start and we still use our MakerBot every single day – it’s wonderful, but I still hunger for making prints in two different colors or two different materials, and even more than two at some point here.
We keep searching for a dual extruder machine that will meet our needs, and here’s our problem that we’ve run into and why we have returned some of them: they weren’t really of interest to us if they weren’t going to actually work to make two color parts for us. If it was only going to really work well as a single extrusion machine, I’ve already got that and I don’t need another one and I certainly do not need to pay more money for a second one. The big issue is, is most machines that have more than one extruder have them at the same level all the time, and if those two nozzles are not exactly level you will run into problems. They also ooze a little bit because they rely on retraction to pull a little material back, but that does not always work as well as the manufacturer would hope it would.
I think it also goes further than that because with those machines that we bought were still 3D printing some of their parts at that time, they weren’t really tooled for and they hadn’t fully invested in a fully tooled machine. So you’re talking about a tolerance level that wasn’t quite as solid as it could be and processes in their company that weren’t really as big as we wanted them to be. Talking about customer service and robust forums, we really decided that we wanted a much higher tolerance driven machine that was much better at it than some of these ones that are basically off the shelf parts that were open source and bodies that were 3D printed to build the next printer. The tolerance levels weren’t there, the measurements weren’t there, they didn’t have the systems for production in place. To me, since we spend so much time in product development, we know that’s a sign of a company that hasn’t invested in it. They were kind of early stage, and while I would love to support that, it’s not the kind of next level machine, that’s the difference there for us.
It can be very frustrating to me as a product designer and developer when I see a company that is making something and 3D printing it, and maybe realistically shouldn’t be the amount of money that they are charging for that 3D printer. I can be disappointing but I understand. There is just a different set of criteria for your second machine and you want it to be very highly tolerant and highly specialized and reliably print day in and day out.
You have to recognize that when someone starts out with a starter printer, it’s not different than a starter car, it’s like you are accepting a minimum level and it has A/C but maybe I have to manually roll up the windows, but there are certain things you are willing to accept at that level. By the time you move on and you’re much more proficient, you expect a much more proficient machine and well and you have a different level of expectation.
The other thing that frustrated me with a lot of these dual extrusion machines is that not only was the hardware not really doing what it needed to be doing to make a good quality print, like the unused nozzle not lifting up completely out of the way or the flow of plastic being able to shut off like with a valve, but more importantly, is also the software. All of these were using open sourced software like Cura and Simplify 3D which have functions for dual extrusion 3D printing but there are limitations and I was finding that the machines actually had more capabilities than the software was letting it use and it hadn’t caught up.
Until somebody comes up with a multi extrusion machine and they have completely dialed in all that software and the hardware I don’t know that I am going to buy another one. I’ll keep testing them and reviewing them and I want one badly. There are a couple of hopeful signs out there, but they’ve had delays and it just hasn’t happened. When we end up buying one we will let you know. It doesn’t mean the dual extrusion printers out there are bad, they work for some people and they need those machines to print support material that dissolvable along with another material. That’s a lot easier to do than it is to do two colors in one print. It’s a bit of a different situation. I hope that answers the question about why we return some of those printers and why we are still primarily using a single extrusion machine. Hopefully looking for better dual extrusion machines.
Essentials When Picking a 3D Printer: Dual extruder fail right about the 7 second mark it knocks part of the print off.
Recap of the Essentials When Picking a 3D Printer
Just a quick recap is that we go for the WHAT of what we are making. We go for the WHEN we are buying it in terms of what stage we are at and how much time we want to spend on something if we really want to assemble it and become a technician of the machine Then also WHO you are if you are very technical and age is also a factor. WHERE you are going to put it whether it be in your office or classroom or home environment, and it’s important to think about some of those things because different printers work better in different environments than others.
Then from a standpoint of what we expect from a 3D printer company is a high level of customer service, especially the more start up a company is which is really difficult for a lot to grasp because they think they don’t have enough man power even though it’s that loyalty a start-up has to build within their customers. A robust forum can make up for it, a very happy active forum is a plus. Community too. We check reviews out there and look for the real reviews. We don’t look at it like it’s going to be run only a certain number of hours, like we when got our first MakerBot and they said it would only last 400 hours I almost blew a gasket that we spent that much and it would only last that long in use. That was more for the extruder life and so many of those issues have been solved with the new smart extruder+.
They say get the best printer for your budget, but I say get the most reliable printer for your budget. This is not something to be fussing with, yes the printer is fun and exciting but the WHAT is more exciting. I still do not want to be a full time technician and always be tinkering with the machine, but I do enjoy playing with the machine.
- Get a free Hazz Design coffee sleeve from Makerbot
- MakerBot 5th Generation Specs
- #MakerMilestones Contest and Giveaway
- Cura software
- Simplify 3D software
- 3D Hubs
- MakerBot Smart Extruder Review
- STEAM Maker Workshop
- You Don’t Get Exceptional Customer Service Without Exceptions
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