Why did I buy a 3d printer at all?
I had several motivations in purchasing a 3d printer, but the strongest is probably just the pure geeky joy of being able to print random things out of plastic. Have you looked around on thingiverse? There are a million amazing projects that range from this box that it’s hard to imagine existing if it weren’t for 3d printers to neat toys for kids to sundials to that car part that broke off years ago but I never ordered a replacement for. So lots of fun clever little plastic things that you take have the joy of downloading and printing, but you’re not really going to be changing lives with your 3d printer.
On a somewhat more “practical” note, I should mention that I have a 10-year-old daughter who is really into robots. One of the things I’m most excited to print is a set of mecanum wheels for her lego ev3 kit. And just generally being able to create and print lego and robot parts was a huge part of my decision to buy a 3d printer.
The case against
But still, it was something I struggled with for a long time before I decided to get one. Why? Well, one useful thing to keep in mind is that although 3d printers are called “printers”, the name implies a level of simple usage where you hit CTRL+P and out pops an object. It’s really more of a mini-forge than a “printer” – you’ll need to calibrate and re-calibrate the machine to keep it printing. The results won’t always be what you expect – I often have a very successful print followed by a complete failure. Why did it fail? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ This also isn’t a very cheap hobby. Many printers cost > $2,000 and the materials and parts are not especially cheap, either. And really, I’m not printing anything I can’t live without. For the most part here, what I’m printing is pretty much crap: clever for sure, but the sort of thing you get at a trade show and throw away a few months later. The main part for the marble toy I linked to above is going to take about 27 hours to print, so you’ll need a place to keep the printer where it will remain undisturbed through long prints.
Why buy the Prusa i3 mk2s?
I did a lot of research before buying a 3d printer. For a long time I had my eye on the Lulzbot Taz 6 which runs $2,400, but is, I’m sure, quite a fine printer. But at $2,400, I found lots of reasons not to buy it, and kept putting it off. Sometime in early 2017 I read an article which mentioned an estimate of the number of 3d printers sold in 2016, along with the number of Prusa i3 clones that were a part of that. I can’t find the original article, but let’s just say the percentage was high enough to make it clear that the Prusa was the king of reprap printers. What’s a “reprap” you ask? Well, reprap is an attempt to build a self-replicating manufacturing machine. Open Source hardware and software combined in a 3d printer that can print another 3d printer. In fact, the new Prusa factory largely consists of printers printing printers:
Sure, there is a solid metal frame and plenty of milled metal parts and electronics, but Prusa releases plans for all of their parts, so you could absolutely build this printer without buying it from Prusa. But why bother when you can get the original, which won Make magazine’s top spot and is a damned fine printer. If you order a pre-assembled printer (more on that later), Joseph Prusa will even sign it for you. Just be prepared to wait: I had to wait 8 weeks for my printer kit to arrive from the Czech republic.
At $700 ($900 pre-assembled), the Prusa i3 MK2S truly seems to be the 3d printer right now. And Joseph Prusa is continually tinkering with the design and providing updates. Most recently, he’s added a multi-material upgrade to the MK2S to allow it to print 4 materials integrated into a single design without unloading and loading filament. Given the complications of getting a single material working well, I’m glad that I decided to wait for that capability.
One quick note: If you decide to go with the Prusa, as long as you’re ordering the printer to be shipped from the Czech republic, you can save yourself later stress by ordering a few spare PEI sheets. There are other options out there, but just go ahead and press the easy button on this one and save them for when you need them.
Why buy it in kit form?
Well, you can save $200 by buying the kit, but honestly that wasn’t a factor for me. Instead, I (again, long since lost the original article, sorry) read an article pointing out how finicky 3d printers are, and suggesting that it is far better to spend the time assembling the printer from scratch to learn as much as possible about how it fits together. Because you will be futzing about and trying to adjust alignments every now and again.
For me, the build was a ton of fun: it was like building a giant lego kit for making other lego kits: what could be bad about that? It did probably take me about 10 hours to fully assemble the kit, which is a bit frustrating when you really want to print something with your new toy. A good bit of that time could have been cut shorter if I hadn’t largely done it in two intense overnight sessions. But with twin 5-year-olds in the house, uninterrupted time late at night worked best for me.
Anyhow, it’s all together, and I’m printing away and learning tons. I’ll post a bit more about useful things I’ve learned and some handy “buy this” accessory tips.