3D printing is an exploding technology. The printers are definitely one of the hottest things on the technology market right now that you can buy. While some schools have had these printers for a few years, there are many more which are considering buying one to put in a classroom or a computer lab.
I’ve recently found out that I am receiving a grant in my classroom to buy a 3D printer. This drove me to do a lot of research on printers to make sure that I fully understood what I was buying. After doing all of this work, I thought I should share what I learned.
3D printing is exploding as an industry, but it has been around since at least the early 90′s as a community. Beginning in places like MIT, the community expanded out after that to people interested in hacking / design / DIY. This community still exists and is stronger than ever as the rest of the industry has gain international attention. It is centred around the concept of RepRap or self replicating manufacturing machines. A still fairly technical hobby, RepRap printers involve having a knowledge of building, electronics, soldering and software. It is from this community of tinkerers and hobbyists that today’s growing industry is emerging out of.
The 3D printing industry today is changing and becoming much more mainstream. This is based mostly around ease of use. 3D printers in the past were sold mainly as kits (or even just lists of parts that you had to find yourself) that involved a fair amount of construction and soldering. Each printer had to be built, the electronics needed to be soldered, and the machines themselves, once they were put together, needed an extensive software set up and calibration process. The difference now is that some companies such as Makerbot, Printrbot, CubeX, Makibox and Afina are selling machines that are already constructed and ready to go out of the box. This has opened 3D printing up to a much larger market.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
Bringing a 3D printer into a school or classroom needs to be first and foremost about pedagogy and opportunity. As with any other technology, it will do little good to spend valuable budget dollars on technology that you haven’t got a solid plan to use. Shiny gadgets that sit in the corners of rooms and are not used do little to enhance learning.
Assuming that you have that significant hurdle tackled, you then need to move on to other questions and concerns. 3D printers are still a growing, changing technology that is moving quickly and is not as stable and reliable as, say, laptops are. This means that concerns such as reliability, the availability of spare parts, supplies and software upgrades are important. A 3D printer is not like a computer which you buy, install, and upgrades happen automatically and usually easily. These are machines which will need a time investment and some looking after. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a good, solid measure of all of these factors. As fast as I found this blog post outlining reviews and different factors, I found this post debunking it.
One thing I learned that I was surprised about was that there are actually few differences in the quality of the models that the printers will produce. 3D printing was an open source hobby for years. Many of the commercial products that you buy are not that many generations away from the days of being open source, hobbyist projects. In fact, two of the best known companies, Makerbot and Printrbot, grew directly out of the RepRap community. While Printrbot was financed through a popular Kickstartr campaign and still uses open source software, Makerbot was heavily criticized for moving to proprietary licensing in its latest models. Overall, most of the models of machines that are available will print models of a very similar quality. Paying more money for a printer will probably not get you a higher quality machine. In fact, most discussions on 3D printers insist that the quality of what you build is much more dependent on the time that you spend in tinkering and calibration then the budget you spend on the machine. Paying more money at this point, will get you a machine that is already assembled and may be easier to use, but it will not get you a machine that will necessarily make higher quality models. The only other significant difference between most printers is the size of model that they will produce. Smaller, lower cost machines such as the Printrbot Simple (only $399 assembled) will print an approximately 100mm (4 inch) cube, while a larger model as the Makerbot Replicator will print much larger items that are 250mm X 150mm X 150mm (11 inches X 6 inches X 6 inches). You may also want to consider the cost of a professional development course as an important part of integrating a printer into your building.
WHAT I DECIDED
When I first considered buying a 3D printer, I had my heart set on a Makerbot. The name was well known, the printers are attractive looking, and Bre Pettis is well known as the face of the industry. But as I looked deeper into the printers and the industry, I found that while Makerbot has a reputation for building a good printer, the models it produces are no better than others on the market. Makerbot did not invent the technology, but they did make it more attractive, marketable, and easier to use. Once I started comparing printers and learned that most of them print at similar qualities and resolutions, I found that the $2 199 price of the Makerbot Replicator was high.
From there, I started to look around.
There are many companies that are producing printers. Many of them I had never heard of in the past. From hours of looking around, I settled on purchasing two different models:
1.) Printrbot Plus. I settled on a Printrbot for a number of reasons. First of all, they are reasonably priced. While the Makerbot Replicator is worth $2 199, the Printrbot can be purchased for $999. Second of all, the Printrbot can be purchased fully assembled. While it will still need calibrating and tinkering with, this is a machine that will get us moving into fabricating quickly.
2.) MendelMax. This is an open source RepRap printer. There are a few common models of RepRaps and they are constantly being tinkered with and improved by the community. There are a number of places that sell RepRaps and they vary in price and design, but overall, they are fairly similar. The MendelMax is going to be much more of a construction and design project for us, but these machines are much more “future – proof.” As all of the software is open source, it is easily upgraded. The same goes for the design of the printer itself. As improvements are made to the printer by people in the community, the improvements are shared and placed online. Once they are here, you can simply print off most of the parts you will need using your own printer.
These two printers are each approximately $1 000. I was amazed how much they have fallen in price. The cost of a decent laptop or two, they are becoming much more affordable and this will see them move into schools much more quickly than in the past. The two machines will cost approximately $2 000, but I am also going to order a few spare parts and the printing supplies (rolls of plastic filament) that we will need as well. I have read in a few places that one of the commonly used filaments (PLA plastic) ages and cracks over time so there is no use laying in store a large supply that will only be wasted if not used fairly quickly.
I thought this was a good visual of how far a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of PLA filament will go:
When you are deciding to buy a 3D printer for your school or classroom, make sure that you first take pedagogical and learning goals into account. These printers are no different than any other gadget and you must ensure that you have a solid plan in place for their use. After this, there are a number of other factors that you need to think about: budget, supplies, models, suppliers, reliability, time you want to spend on the machine itself, etc. These are all factors to consider. 3D printing is a powerful concept and my hope is that alongside with other things that we already have like a Makey Makey, Lego Mindstorms, Raspberry Pi computers and software such as Scratch, it will allow the students in my class to understand that they can control the technology they have access to and use it for creative goals of their own.