Last week, Aviela told Cynthia and I that what she really wanted for her 12th birthday (once we convinced her that a hover/powerboard was simply not in the cards) was a 3d Doodler pen.

3doodlerIt’s an interesting toy.  Think of it like a soldering iron, but using plastic instead of lead-based solder.  You heat up the pen, feed in the stick of PLA filament, and — if it’s working correctly — you can draw three-dimensional shapes out of thin air.  Drawback #1: the pen was $100 by itself.  Drawback #2: the extra filament kits, each containing fifteen sticks that, by the look of things, won’t last very long, cost $10 per package.  Drawback #3: at least based on Avi’s first trial with the pen, it doesn’t quite work as promised.  The filament doesn’t quite melt and feed at the right rate and consistency to do much with it (other than watch it dribble out).  Like many hobbyist toys, this one will take some tinkering and getting used to.

Despite the relative lack of success with the pen, watching the numerous YouTube videos that Aviela perused and thinking about the whole filament process suddenly had me thinking about a bigger, badder adult version of the same thing:

MakerBot-Replicator-2

Being the true geek that I am, having recently purchased tickets for the family to go to Phoenix Comicon, I began to dream up the cool cosplay pieces I could craft using such a 3D printer.  Masks, “armor plating,” weaponry… Yeah, I knew that most of the 3D printers in my price range would be one, or at most two color printers with relatively small volume printing areas, so I might have to create my toys out of multiple pieces, sand them down and use model paints to give them the appearance that I desire.  No big deal, right?  Cynthia asked me what else I would even use the thing for, and… Crap.  What else WOULD I use this thing for?

I love to tinker, no doubt.  I have an Android phone (Nexus 6P…for now) and an Android tablet (Nexus 9 LTE–likely for a while) because I like the idea of being able to modify, personalize, and set things up to my liking.  I don’t always look for easy, prepackaged, sanitized products.  I consider myself relatively creative (though I always bemoan the idea that I could be so much MORE creative if I only had the time), and not afraid of a complicated project (hey–I am an appellate attorney).  But the more I started to think about the undertaking to create, say, a Star Lord environmental mask, the more I started to backpedal.  Then I spent some time looking at actual 3D printers…

Okay, I knew 3D printers were going to be moderately expensive ($350-800 for the lower end models).  I knew they used consumables (a 1 kg spool of PLA filament runs $22-30).  I even knew that many of the cheaper models were actually kits.  You know, the kind of thing people used to love doing as a hobby–they send you all the parts and an instruction manual, and you build the thing yourself.  This is how hobbyists made the first mainstream “robots.”  Upon researching 3D printers, here’s what I learned:

  • Many of the cutest, tidiest, least expensive 3D printers are made with plastic, which is OK, but are also made with proprietary parts that can only be replaced by purchasing them through the original manufacturer.  This can include filament, extruders (the “ink jets” or “print heads” that melt and pump out the plastic to form your model), power supplies, motors, and other parts.  I discovered this is a big deal because…
  • 3D printing, especially under $3,000, is very much a hobby.  Many people who buy and regularly use their 3D printers perform their own maintenance, replace mechanical parts, upgrade, troubleshoot problems–and it’s much easier to find less expensive parts when a 3D printer is made from standard, open source parts.  Most of the good YouTube videos I watched contained warnings about buying a 3D printer that works on only proprietary parts–especially filament, which is the one part everyone needs in decent quantities.  The idea that I need a printer that uses open source parts led to the fear that…
  • I was going to be spending hundreds of dollars on an erector set with motors and really hot metal parts.  As much as I really think this would be a fun toy, it’s still a toy–and I don’t know if I want to spend more time fixing and upgrading the parts than I do designing or printing items.  Speaking of designing…
  • Sure, there are lots of resources on the web to find 3D models in the proper format to just load up an image file and print–but most of the coolest applications require the use of at least a rudimentary CAD/CAM application.  I’ve played with paint programs before–and even some vector drawing software, but never with a higher end CAD program.  If I want to really be creative, that is software that I will have to learn.
  • Time.  A definite drawback of “inexpensive” (read, less than $1500) 3D printers is that they are SLOW.  Most videos I found showing demonstrations used some serious time lapse videography to be able to show the models being made.  Several talked about “having the printer work overnight” to create items that were maybe 6-7 inches tall and 4-5 inches wide.  I’m a relatively patient person, but I’m not sure I’m that patient…
  • Very few 3D printers have solid, across-the-board good reviews.  The average review on Amazon.com for most 3D printers is about a 3.2-3.5 star review (out of five stars). Usually four- and five-star reviews followed by a zero- or one-star review absolutely blasting the quality of the product, the condition it was received in, or the extreme difficulty the user had just getting it to work.

If I was going to buy a 3D Printer, I had it down to the Printrbot Simple Metal (or Simple Metal with heated base – $600/750), the FlashForge Finder ($700), the Robo 3D Plus ($800) or the much smaller, cheaper M3D Micro ($350)…but I just couldn’t decide…so for now I’ve shelved the idea.

What do you guys think?  Do you have any cool ideas for a 3D printer?  Anyone have one of these models — or others — and want to share your impressions?

Next up…DSLR thoughts…

David

 

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