Should You Buy a 3D Printer?

Back in 2016 I bought a 3D printer. It was mostly on the spur of the moment although I did have some concrete ideas for a few things I could repair with 3D printed parts. Now almost 5 years later, I haven't regretted it at all and I have created and repaired many things using this printer, most of which are my own designs. Not too surprising because if you browse around on this website, it is obvious that I am a tinkerer and having this new means to produce parts with high precision allows to tinker in ways I never could before. If you fall in the same category as I, then you can stop reading and just buy that 3D printer, you won't regret it. But what if it is not that clear-cut?

This article only focuses on the type of printers that are affordable for the typical consumer or small businesses. If you plan on starting a business with a fancy metal SLS printer, most of the advice on this page is probably of little use.

Cool but mostly useless gizmos
The risk of buying a 3D printer: ending up with a big pile of cool but useless gadgets. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it is the only final result of buying the printer.
(This photo contains some CC-licensed objects, in theory I should attribute them but the sheer number of things shown here makes this infeasible. You can always contact me if you want to know what is one of the things in these photos.)

Possible Motivations

Roughly spoken these are the main possible motivations to spontaneously buy a 3D printer:

  1. You are a tinkerer and want to print parts for projects: like I said before, this is a good motivation. Have fun!
  2. You want to sell prints: this is a decent motivation, but be aware of the many pitfalls. If you have no technical proficiency at all, you may want to rethink this. Even the most advanced 3D printers still are not push-the-button-and-it-all-works. Some skills need to be acquired to get reliable good-quality results. Don't start selling prints until you have built up enough experience to know what your printer can and cannot do. When selling prints of models made by others, make sure to honour licences. Also be careful with supposedly “free” CAD software that usually is no longer free when used in a commercial context. (More details in the next section.)
  3. You just want a 3D printer because it seems cool and someone you know has one, and you also want to print those cool articulated gadgets but have no idea what to do with it afterwards. This is a dubious motivation. It could turn out OK if by printing gadgets you get inspired to start making your own designs. If printing pre-made models is all you are going to do however, in the long term you risk ending up with both a machine that takes up space and gathers dust, as well as a big pile of plastic junk, and regret.
Useful prints
A few of the things, partially or entirely 3D printed, that I truly use on a regular basis. Present but invisible in the photo is a 3D printed mount for two 80 mm fans under the laptop for extra cooling. (Same comment about licences applies as above.)

In Detail

In this section I dive a little deeper into reasons why a 3D printer may be a good investment or not, as well as some more general advice.

Printer Types

When considering consumer-grade printers, you are basically limited to two main types:

  1. FFF or Fused Filament Fabrication, also known as FDM or Fused Deposition Modelling, is the kind of printer that uses a spool of plastic strand that is melted and extruded into thin lines that make up the printed shape. It is the most convenient type of 3D printer because there are no liquid reservoirs or hazardous powders to handle. This doesn't mean this printer cannot pose health hazards because the plastics may emit fumes when heated, and even those that don't may still emit tiny particles. Good ventilation is always important.
    This type of printer is pretty easy to get started with, although getting a good first layer with proper print bed adhesion remains a challenge even after all these years of evolution. The advantages are a wide range of materials to print with and which are generally cheap, and relative ease of use. Parts that come out of the printer are generally ready or need only minimal post-processing. Disadvantages are that these printers are not very suitable to print fine details or truly transparent objects, the parts are generally not very strong, and the printing process is inherently slow because the entire model basically has to be squeezed from a single tiny extrusion nozzle that has to move around.
  2. SLA or stereolithography was actually the first type of 3D printer to be developed. It uses a light source (a laser or projector) to solidify material inside a tank of liquid resin. This has the advantage of allowing to create very detailed models, as well as a potentially higher speed (especially when using a projector which can do an entire layer all at once). The printed objects can also be truly transparent and are generally pretty strong. Disadvantages are the liquid resin which can be nasty to handle, may emit noxious fumes, and is generally expensive. Parts need post-processing when coming out of the printer: washing, drying, and curing for final strength. From a consumer point-of-view, this type of printer is not very suitable to print large objects, but if making tiny figurines is your thing, this is probably the printer type you're looking for.

Manage Your Expectations

Things one can and cannot do with a consumer-grade printer:

Can

Flexible filament
The original strap and cradle for this detachable smartwatch had disintegrated after a few years. I 3D printed replacement parts in TPU and PETG. These are now lasting longer than the originals.

Cannot

Where to Find and Share 3D Models

Long ago the obvious answer was Thingiverse. Today it is much harder to point someone to a single website and I simply won't even try. Look around and do your own evaluation, the landscape continually changes anyway.

I do can say one thing: do not waste your time on Thingiverse, especially not if you are looking for a reliable place to distribute your own models and run some kind of 3D-printing related business. Thingiverse's golden days when it had a vibrant community are long gone. It is now owned by a company that just happened to inherit the website as part of its acquisition of Makerbot, and this company does not care about Thingiverse but they also don't dare to simply ditch it. All the employees who acted as true community moderators have left or were fired, and have not been replaced. This leaves the site in a state of palliative care. There are tons of bugs and problems that make it a chore to work with the site, and it is very hard to have them fixed because communication with the site maintainers is mostly a game of shooting in the dark. The seldom moments when the site gets a significant update, are either because they want to try to milk some ad revenue from it, or make it appear superficially trendy.

Arguably the only reason why Thingiverse still exists is due to its huge archive of models, although there are indications that the owners of the website have started to randomly delete less popular models, maybe to avoid having to invest in more storage space. Thingiverse is still worth a look if you are searching for something, but I consider uploading models there a frustrating endeavour and I stopped doing it. Some like to defend the site with the “but it's free” argument, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. At Thingiverse, you pay with frustration and anguish, and having to find silly workarounds to get things done that would be trivial on any well-maintained website. If time is money, then Thingiverse is expensive.
Speaking of searching: do not bother using Thingiverse's own search because it is often broken. Use Google instead and add site:thingiverse.com/thing to your query.
Also do not try to use the site's Customizer because you'd be lucky if it would work. Just run customizer on your own computer instead.

©2021/05 Alexander Thomas