With the growing popularity of 3D printing, and prices dropping for hobby caliber machines, you may be asking yourself, “should I buy a 3D printer?”.

Let’s weight the reasons to buy, and why having a 3D printer may not be right for you.


Reasons to buy

There are some typical reasons to buy:

  • Save money printing replacements for items/parts that break around the house.
  • 3D Print customized gifts
  • Make money offering printing services on 3D Hubs or selling on Etsy


The reality of the above list

  • It’s true that you can 3D print replacement parts, but you will need to be able to design the part in CAD 3D Modeling Software (or hope that someone else has already designed it and shared it on Thinigerse.com).
  • It’s also true that you can print customized 3D printed gifts. We have an article on 3D printed lithophanes, which are an overall great gift. Again, there is a learning curve and producing such a gift will take some know-how.
  • As of 2018, 3D hubs has changed their business model now only allowing businesses to participate in their 3D printing service marketplace. This removes one of the most popular avenues to sell 3D printing service from hobbyists. There is still some good potential to make money using a 3D printer, but this would likely revolve around creating a product that you can 3D print and sell, rather than simply offering 3D print services.



3D Printer Pre-Requisite

While you don’t have to have all of the necessary tools and skills to start using a 3D printer, it is important to realize that to make full use of a 3D printer, here is what you will need:

  • 3D Modeling (CAD)

This is the design of 3D objects that can be 3D printed. This is not required to 3D print, but without this skill, you’re limited to printed models that have been created by others. This is not unlike buying a paper inkjet printer so you can only print pictures that you download from the web.

If you’re not willing to learn CAD, go to thingiverse.com and browse the printable files; this is pretty much all you’ll be able to make with a 3D printer if you have no design ability yourself.


  • Basic Technical repairs

There is little doubt that at some point a component on your 3D printer will fail, or you will want to replace something either due to wear or simply wanting to upgrade.


  • Space and ventilation

Owning and regularly using a 3D printer can take up a good amount of room. More so than the footprint of the printer, you will also need storage for filament spools, and you will want to operate the printer in a well ventilated room, or at least a room where you won’t be spending any time. There have been recent studies showing that even 3D printing PLA can produce unhealthy particulates into the air. 3D printing can take hours or even days for larger prints. This is not something you would want to have running in your bedroom or small apartment without at least some additional ventilation. If you’re able to confine the 3D printer to it’s own room, even better. It will likely be a long time before we know what will be the long term effect of 3D printer fume exposure. But it does seem pretty certain that even if you can’t smell anything, you may be ingesting tiny particles that could cause some adverse effects over time.


The real benefits of owning a 3D printer

  • Idea realization

If you have a product you want to create, or even if you have an idea of how to improve an existing product, 3D printing is an easy way to turn an idea into a physical object. Traditional manufacturing tools require expensive machines, and knowing how to use them. While 3D printing is a short-cut to producing your design without much labor or additional machines.


  • Education

3D Printing is a great tool for getting young people interested in engineering, problem solving, and also an entry into thinking about manufacturing and how things are made.


  • Speed

Having your own printer means you can customize the settings for best quality or speed as needed. There is no waiting for a service to print and ship what you need, you can have parts in hours. This becomes even more helpful when you are developing a new part or product, especially if you are printing components to fit together. It’s unlikely that your design is going to fit together on the first try, Being able to print another version for little cost and time is a huge advantage.


  • It’s a fun hobby

Though some patience is required, the activity of running a 3D printer can be pretty fun and rewarding. So even if you’re just downloading files to print from the internet, it can still be a good pastime.


Alternatives to owning a 3D printer

  • 3D Printing Services 

Sites like 3Dhubs.com allow users to upload their designs and get pricing to have them printed, with options for material, color, and print technology used.

What many people don’t realize about 3D printing is that it is not uncommon to have to make multiple attempts to get a quality print depending. Letting an experienced 3D print service produce your parts means you’ll get your parts with no hassle. And especially for simple FDM print technology (like most home 3D printers), the price to get parts printed can be surprisingly low.


  • Ask a friend

If you have a friend with a 3D printer, it’s quite likely that they would be willing to print whatever you need for free or cheap. (As long as they aren’t already making money 3D printing). Most people are happy to help friends and show off what they can do.

If you want a specific color part, ask what brand and type of material they like to use, and buy them a spool. It will cost you less than $30, and you can print a lot of parts from a spool, so they will have some left over to use for themselves, win-win.


  • Consider other methods

Focusing on 3D printing can leave you closed minded to other obvious solutions. There is no reason to figure out how to design and print a stronger L-Bracket, when you can buy one at the store for $.50. For larger objects, it can be much faster and economical to use a different manufacturing method or ready-made components. For rods and tubes, you can design the end-effector/connector to add to a stock pipe, rather than 3D printing a large tube. It is very convenient to print everything in one piece, but at times you can save many hours by creating a design that incorporates stock components rather than being fully 3D printed for the sake of being 3D printed.


Some things to know about 3D printing

  • 3D Printers are not always reliable.

Especially on the more affordable home models, you may end up “trying” to print something multiple times. Especially if you’re trying to print a gift, you may spend a lot of time dialing in your 3D printer settings for the best looking results. If you want to “Press go – get part”, that is not really how it works, pretty much regardless of what you spend on your printer.


  • 3D Printing is pretty cheap.

Especially FDM type 3D printers, you can get spools of filament from Amazon.com and others for under $20. These spools can produce many small parts or several large parts. For example you can print a full size helmet with one spool of PLA. Upkeep and consumables for these printers is low cost, But do be prepared for the occasional repair.

If you buy a lower-cost ($200) 3D printer, don’t be surprised if you end up spending more on upgrades and/or repairs than you did on the printer.


Decision Time!

If you’ve got the space to run it, and are open to learning a bit about 3D Modeling, I say go for it. I don’t want to name specific brands, but at the end of 2018, there are printers under $200 that are getting very good review. A $900 printer is currently the gold standard for home users, so you don’t have to break the bank to get started.

I will say that if you’re more of a perfectionist, or don’t have the patience to solve problems or live with minor flaws, you may find using a 3D printer to be more pain than pleasure.