3D printers have been used by companies to produce industrial design prototypes for decades, but until recently the cost to print a 3D object in the home remained prohibitively expensive. Now, instead of applying for a second mortgage, you only need a small personal loan to buy your very own 3D printer.
The MakerBot Replicator 2 is an example of the latest in affordable 3D printers (if you think $3000 is affordable, that is). The printer is compact (49 x 42 x 38cm) yet solid, weighing in at about 11kg, with a platform in the middle of the case that marks the 3D print area. In this spot, the print head moves back and forth across the platform – generally over several hours, depending on the size and complexity of the design – to build up the layers of what becomes your 3D object.
The compact size of the printer may at first appear to limit its usefulness in creating larger objects, with a print volume area of 28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5cm (about the size of a large loaf of bread). However, many 3D print projects are a compilation of different components, so everything from a model car to a briefcase can be produced by the MakerBot Replicator 2. To create 3D objects, the Replicator 2 uses a material called polylactic acid (PLA), which is available in a dozen colours and can be bought in a 1.2kg roll for about $66 a spool.
Choosing which of the three quality settings (low, medium and high) to use has a significant effect on the print time. Our test mug appeared in a couple of minutes using medium quality, but took almost two hours at the high setting.
Import existing models or DIY design?
The software included in the package, MakerWare, allows you to view and import 3D files with support for most of the more popular computer-aided design (CAD) formats. But if you want to create your own 3D objects, rather than simply download ready-to-print 3D designs, you need to add a CAD package, such as AutoCAD (free trial version also available), and you'll probably need to have some design experience to create anything more complex than a cube or a circle. Another option is Google Sketchup – perhaps start with the free trial version before committing to pay $600 for the full version.
Our testers found the 3D objects they created, including cups, teapots and a chain with independent links, to be surprisingly robust. But even if you're an experienced CAD user, don't expect all your print jobs to be a success – any small deviation in the process will leave you with a useless lump of plastic.
There's no denying the wow factor in being able to print a 3D object, and the price drop from tens of thousands of dollars to just a few thousand dollars is a good thing. The increasingly impressive catalogue of objects available to download from sites such as thingiverse.com should keep 3D printer fans busy for some time. But unless you need this printer for commercial reasons and are an experienced CAD user, it is still a very expensive – albeit very cool – toy.