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3D Printing: Why Does this One Differ From All Others?

By now, you’re either living under a rock or you’ve seen the plastic trinkets being churned out by the many hot new 3D printers on the market. I attended this year’s Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. It may have been the largest gathering of 3D printer aficionados yet. The MakerFaire brings makers – people who like to tinker, do it themselves, and play with all sorts of materials from compost to fiber optics – together in one place.

Following in the footsteps of nascent markets including PCs and mobile phones, the 3D printer world is overflowing. This year it’s not enough to simply be able to do 3D – you’re going to have to do it well and begin differentiating your product from the others. According to John Arabella, the chief of the 3D Print Village at the Maker Faire, the 3D Print Village has grown from 15 enthusiasts when it first began to more than triple that size in 2012.

Printers will begin to fall into different categories based on a variety of characteristics. Most 3D printers use a plastic composite material (it comes in a string-form) which is heated to melting and is used to “print” the object. The object is designed using a CAD drawing that is sent to the printer.

What makes one 3D printer different than another?

Price: You can find 3D printers for beginners for prices as low as $350. It goes up from there but $1500 – $2000 is the average range for a printer that might have cost $10,000 just a few years ago.

Resolution: The fineness of the detail, the higher the resolution, the more closely the layers are painted on, making the final product more smooth and precise.

Build Volume: The size of the object you can build with a printer varies from little game pieces and jewelry to large prototype designs for buildings or cars.

Open Source vs. Proprietary Software: Most of the printers come with a software design program.

Speed of Printer: How quickly can the printer lay down layer after layer of material.

Type and cost of filament: The filament is the plastic/resinous compound that is used to build the objects. Some printers offer their own filaments specially made for their printers; others use off the shelf filaments. These vary in what they’re made of but it’s usually a polymer of some sort that can be heated to melting and then quickly hardened.  

Here are a few noteworthy candidates…

Best To-Market Story: MakerBot Replicator 2: The darling of MakerFaire, this 3D printer requires no assembly by you, but it’s manufactured  in Brooklyn. As a matter of fact, the company just opened a retail store in Noho that sells the printers, supplies and made objects. I saw Pettis and Chris Anderson address an adoring crowd at MakerFaire. They made a persuasive argument for local manufacturing and for the maker spirit. The latest version of the Makerbot printer costs just over $2,000 but unlike predecessors it’s designed to be up and running “out of the box”,  which will appeal to makers who prefer not growing their own machines (BTW, this is similar to the old PC mentality when PC makers wore badges of honor for building their own PCs; then Apple got smart and started shipping ready-to-wear). The MakerBot filament is made from corn, and according to the manufacturer, the objects are less likely to expand, crack or grow rough once built. And the Replicator 2 was built to look sleek and professional, touting a 100 micron resolution, which is about the thickness of a sheet of paper.

For a bit less money and more portability look at the $1500 Afinia. They lack some of the panache but seem like a thoughtful design.

Kickstart Darling: Form1 managed to achieve their KickStart goal in a single day. They are the current talk of the town. Form1 uses a technique called stereolithography, which uses lasers to draw on the surface of a  liquid resin that hardens one layer at a time.  The company says that this allows it to achieve even higher resolutions and smoother designs.

DIY Award: Mendel RepRap is named after the geneticist and is the grand-daddy of many commercial 3D printers. It’s all open source. It’s all

 
open source, and you can buy the parts to make your own printer that can cost as little as $500. Ultimaker also caters to the DIY crowd, selling kits and consumbales.

Back-To-School: For only $399 you can get the new Printrbot jr. At just over six pounds, the Printrbot folds into a smaller package which makes it great for schools.

Tree Huggers Delight: For those tired of looking at plastic doodads, Laywood d3 is a filament that looks like wood. It’s made from 40% wood and 60% binding polymers. The finished product looks and feels like wood.

Community: Cube, a $1300 printer, lets you download print plans from a shared store and upload objects for sale, creating a community of 3D engaged individuals. The Cubify Invent software is easy to use, making this a good starter system. And the printer is WiFi enabled – no need to attach your PC manually.

Noticeable Omissions? EPSON, HP and Canon have remained mum about 3D printing plans. Are they behind the times or readying their salvo?

To keep up on the 3D printing scene, head over to www.3ders.org and read about the nearly 75 printing companies at MakerFaire.

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