I have been eyeing 3D printers for some time. As someone who is more adept at making digital products it’s always amazing to see bits becoming tangible and being squeezed out, one plastic layer at a time, as physical objects. It also helps me bridge that gap in my skill set where I can programmatically create physical objects rather than have to use my somewhat clumsy hands. And so having a 3D printer in my home digital making cave has been an enduring dream.
The home 3D printer market has been growing steadily in the past few years. With the Makerbot printer sizing up to twice its original cost (£1,799.00 in Europe, including VAT) quite a few cheaper alternatives have moved in to fill the gap left behind. Offerings like the UP!, Solidoodle, Ultimaker are nice pre-assembled out-of-the-box solutions, but man-power costs and at some point their prices start to approach those of the Makerbot. What I wanted was a cheap, self-assembly option that had the resolution and build size approaching those of the higher end printers. The other two things I looked for was product maturity and user community. In doing a thorough search I found several experimental printers that promised a lot but didn’t have any infrastructure for customer service, refunds, build instructions, etc.
After a lot of mulling, I settled on the Printrbot LC. It’s kickstarter campaign raised $830k (while asking for $25k) and creator Broom Drumm was on the hook to turn his idea into a fully-fledged business. They’re working very hard at the consumer experience side by creating online guides, videos and a vibrant user community.
My Printrbot arrived two weeks later in a dishearteningly disassembled state – wooden laser-cut boards, bolts, switches, zip ties, circuit board! This was probably one of the most user-friendly kits around, but it still made me take a few steps back and realise I might need to dig up some screwdrivers.
The bulk of the machine came together fairly quickly. I didn’t help myself by going straight to the build videos on Youtube rather than using the step-by-step online guide. Word to the wise: Brook’s assembly videos involve quite a bit of backtracking, which is hilarious to watch, but not when you’ve taken 40 minutes to assemble the thing he’s now taking apart.
I love a good challenge and I’m pretty proud of having put this sucker together. But there was also quite a bit of swearing and hammering of parts that didn’t quite fit. Assembling a 3D printer is not for the faint-of-heart. I would recommend having a solid block of days free, or being comfortable with assembling it over a couple of weeks.
Some might question the cost-effectiveness of spending so much time in getting it working, but I would consider the build as an integral part of the whole process. There is no substitute for my having an understanding of every detail of its workings, especially when it comes to thinking about upgrading and troubleshooting the printer. It’s amazing how this is considered the fore-front of technology and feels very much like an early steam engine that I need to clang with a wrench (figuratively) to get going.
My first print, appropriately, the Dr Who Tardis.
The first bit of fun I’ve had is with the Cartoon Customiser on Thingiverse. Here you can create custom cartoon heads in 3D and export them to be printed.
So where is the personal fabrication revolution headed in my house? Not entirely sure. It might all be about cartoon figurines or Yoda heads. I’m still trying to navigate my way around 3D software and understand how I can create new, innovative… bits and atoms.