It’s a great time to get into the world of 3D printing on the hobbyist level. There are tons of companies offering relatively inexpensive kits with all the parts you’d need to build a fully functional FDM style 3D printer. These are the type that operate by heating a thermoplastic (generally either ABS or PLA right now) and then extruding it through a nozzle onto a build platform. As it does this, each axis is moving according to a 3D CAD file. By controlling the movement of the nozzle/ bed and simultaneously controlling the plastic coming out of the extruder, these machines will build a three dimensional plastic part that is accurate to the 3D file inputted into the software.
I hope I didn’t lose too many people on that explanation. For a growing number of people, that is pretty basic information about these printers. However, it is still not fully adapted by the masses, which is why it is currently in the hobbyist phase. These 3D printer kits are getting cheaper and more reliable each day. There are huge communities of smart, helpful people that are testing, troubleshooting, and contributing knowledge to these projects.
Many of the kits are open source, which allows knowledge to be shared amongst anyone interested. Open source basically means that the “source” (original backend work to create final product) is openly revealed and provided to anyone who wants it, free of charge. Open source is common in software development and has led to awesome, well-rounded products due to the immense knowledge being contributed and reviewed by anyone interested.
Last October I ordered a 3D printer kit from one of the better known personal 3D printer kit companies, Makerbot Industries. Their newest model is called the Thing-O-Matic and I got the kit of parts to build it for about $1200 USD directly from their online store.
Although there are several companies and models being offered from different people, Makerbot was relatively inexpensive, has a very user-friendly appeal and therefore attracts a large community for support/troubleshooting help, and they’re doing a good job in the current hobbyist climate that these kits are in. They’re also behind the immensely helpful and popular site Thingiverse, which offers free 3D models (user-submitted) free to download and print at will.
Other good 3D printer kits are Ultimaker (known to be a faster machine) and MakerGear (great site for kits and parts/ extruders/ plastic/ etc.). These are just 2 other sites I was considering when making my purchase, but there are tons of companies with offerings. Check out this helpful post on the Fabbaloo blog for a list of some.
The grandfather of all these extrusion 3D printer kits is the Rep Rap Project. What an awesome initiative and project! There is a huge community constantly developing add-ons, updates, and improvements and helping to make personal-use 3D printing widely adapted and able to improve our quality of life. Imagine never having to go out to the store to buy simple things – just download or create them in 3D and click print.
I’m planning on starting my first RepRap build soon, and if anyone else is interested you should check out this awesome visual guide to the Prusa Mendel build. Very informative and detailed, I’ll definitely be referencing this as I build.