We continue our feature on 3D printing: the 3D printers you can buy and use at home today.
Many of the 3D printers on the market aren’t exactly cheap. These are the printers used by 3D printing bureaux and, for example, by Formula One teams who have used them to print out new parts for their cars while at the track using a design emailed by their engineers back at the factory.
Chances are, you can't afford the tens of thousands of pounds for one of these, so we'll concentrate on the increasing number of 'budget' 3D printers that have become available recently. The prices still aren’t low enough for them to find a place in every home but they could be soon.
Most of the manufacturers are American and, as yet, they tend not to have offices in the UK, nor are their many resellers here. If you do decide to import one yourself, there’ll be a hefty shipping charge and you’ll also be liable to VAT at 20 percent.
Formlabs Form 1
Form 1, from Formlabs offers a very respectable resolution of 25 microns (0.025mm) but a fairly modest print size of 125mm x 125mm x 165mm. Unlike nearly all other budget printers that are based on the fused filament fabrication method, though, the Form 1 is a light polymerisation printer.
So far it’s only been produced in batches and Formlabs is currently accepting orders at the discounted price of $3,299 (approximately £2,000) for delivery in May. However, whether or not Formlab’s aim of bringing 3D printing to the masses succeeds will depend, to no small extent, on the success or otherwise with a lawsuit for patent infringement that has been brought against the company.
Makerbot Replicator 2
In just the same way that some of the earliest home computers were sold in kit form, some budget 3D printers are supplied as kits but already things are changing. Makerbot, for example, sold a DIY printer called the Thing-O-Matic but this has now been discontinued in favour of the pre-assembled Replicator 2 that can be yours for around £1,799 (typical UK price including VAT).
Using the fused filament method of 3D printing with a layer resolution of 100 microns (0.1mm), Replicator 2 has a surprisingly large build volume of 284mm long by 152mm wide by 155mm high. If you’re prepared to pay a bit more – around £2,290 – you could avail yourself of the newly-released Replicator 2X. Similar to the Replicator 2 in many ways, the 2X has two extruders which means that you can create objects in a couple of different colours, but at the expense of a slightly smaller build volume.
RepRap Huxley and Prusa Mendel
Despite the demise of the Thing-O-Matic, you could still try your hand at building a 3D printer and make a considerable saving in the process. RepRap, which comes in two current variants – Huxley if you’re happy to print small objects, Prusa Mendel for larger objects – is a fused filament printer.
As an open source project, the design, including full assembly instructions, is freely available. In fact, the designs of many of the RepRap parts are available as 3D models for download which means that once you have a RepRap printer you can print parts to make another printer. Accordingly, these parts are widely available from multiple sources including amateur RepRap owners.
Exactly how much you’d pay depends on whether you buy a complete kit or track down each of the individual components separately at the lowest cost but there are reports of units being built for less than £300. People have built RepRaps in as little as 20 hours but it could take you considerably longer, especially if you’re not experienced in mechanical assembly or soldering electronic components. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing option, especially in the light of the rather sinister science fiction theme of machines that are able to self-replicate.
Bits from Bytes RapMan
RapMan from Bits from Bytes is a kit based on the original RepRap (the Darwin) but it has different electronics which means that it doesn’t have to be connected to a PC. Instead it allows models to be printed directly from a USB memory stick. In its single print-head form, it has a large 270mm x 205mm x 210mm build volume and a vertical resolution of 0.125mm.
RapMan is available in various configurations from £954 to £1,486 – note that these prices differ from those shown on the website because we’ve added VAT.
For a low-cost solution that you don’t have to build yourself, you could try the Cube from Cubify that costs $1,532 (approx. £965).Another fused filament printer, Cube has a rather modest resolution of 0.2mm and can produce objects up to 140mm x 140mm x 140mm in size.
As a hint of things to come, though, and unlike many of the other low-cost 3D printers, Cubify have given due thought to the Cube’s appearance and, as a result, it wouldn’t look out of place on your desk next to the PC.
The manufacturers claim that it’s the only 3D printer certified for safe at-home use by adults and children and the Wi-Fi interface means it’s not encumbered by wires. A slightly more up-market printer from Cubify is the CubeX which has up to three print heads, thereby allowing you to print in one, two or three colours of plastic.
It also has a higher 0.125mm resolution, and a larger 275mm x 275mm x 275mm build volume, reducing somewhat for the two and three print head variants. CubeX costs $2,662 (£1,687), $3,227 (£2,045) or $4,276 (£2,709) depending on whether you want one, two or three print heads.
Bits from Bytes 3DTouch
3DTouch, which is also available from RapMan manufacturer Bits from Bytes, is a fused filament fabrication printer that comes in various configurations (one, two or three print heads) starting at £2,394 (including VAT) for the single print head version.
The product sounds very similar to the RapMan kit in many ways although the 3DTouch is fully assembled.