How to Evaluate Your 3D-Printing Needs

When selecting a design for your first 3D printer, it's good to determine what you plan to do with it. Ask yourself, “What do I need a 3D printer for? What am I expecting a 3D printer to do?” Often the reply is “I just want one.” This answer is absolutely fine. 3D printers are an exciting new technology and are well worth exploring just for the fun of it.

Do you want a RepRap or another 3D printer?

Next you should work out whether you actually just want any 3D printer or specifically a RepRap. This distinction is important. Due to the demand for 3D printers, many companies have built on the RepRap technology to produce machine designs that can be traditionally mass-manufactured.

It's ironic that the success of a low-cost self-replicating machine now makes it hard enough for manufacturers to keep up with demand that some companies choose to mass-produce parts. This leads to a few issues for the customer; one is that if you can't reprint parts for your machine, it's harder to upgrade, repair, or self-replicate.

These issues are obviously not a problem if all you want is a 3D printer and have little interest in RepRap's self-replicating nature. There are many machines available that will fit the bill, and almost all of them started from a RepRap branch or using its core technology. Some still class themselves as RepRaps, whereas others aim to hide those origins.

The one thing that keeps RepRap on top is the fact it can upgrade itself. Other printers that are made up of mostly laser-cut parts, pre-fabricated frames, or custom injection-molded parts will still be able to print the parts for a RepRap, even if they can't print parts to replicate themselves.

In this respect RepRap technology becomes ever more fertile and other machines become sterile and risk constant obsolescence. So it's easy to see that every 3D printer manufactured during the last 30 years can help RepRap grow bigger and better; even the mass-manufactured machines of recent years contribute to the overall goals of the project.

RepRap is an open-community project, and its technology forms the basis for almost all new home 3D printers. But RepRap stays vibrant and ahead of the game by its diversity and by the sheer number of users and developers found in its community.

One of the core benefits of RepRap is the control it offers you. Changes, upgrades, and enhancements are made to RepRap on a daily basis by individuals and companies all around the world. With RepRap, almost any improvement or enhancement you can imagine has already been implemented by one developer or another, someone who has probably made that improvement available to you.

This doesn't just go for machine-based improvements, either: You can also find upgrades for software and machine firmware (software running on the electronics of the printer). These updates can help you avoid a lot of frustrations. Many consumer printer manufacturers, for example, fix the settings of their printers so you can print only with a specified material or at specified speed and quality settings.

With a RepRap printer, you can print with simple settings or you can alter virtually any single aspect of the machine. This flexibility becomes really important when you're trying to create adventurous objects or wanting to print with new or unusual materials.

Not everyone will want this much control, of course, but pretty much anyone can appreciate the freedom this flexibility offers: With RepRap, you're not limited by arbitrary manufacturer settings. You're limited only by your own imagination.

Should you buy a ready-built 3D printer or use a kit?

Should you buy a 3D printer or a kit? To answer this, go back to your reasons for needing a 3D printer in the first place: If you want to use it as a tool, and the output is the only important factor, then a commercial machine fully built, with backup, support, and training available may be the way to go.

This route is more costly and will somewhat limit what you can do with the machine. It's also harder to get online community support, because the commercial models are not the machines most people are using, upgrading, and tinkering with. Thus fewer people will have a desire to assist you, and to be fair, that's now the job of the company that sold you the commercial closed-source machine.

It’s always a good idea to build from a kit or (if you're feeling more adventurous) sourcing all the parts yourself. It's the best option at this stage of the game. These machines are still highly mechanical, so parts will wear out, components will require careful calibration, and over the life of your 3D printer, you'll run into all sorts of problems that interfere with your printing.

Consider, however; that these same issues will occur with any 3D printer, no matter the cost. This is just the nature of the technology. This is why it's better to have built up your own machine and to understand exactly how these parts work together to function as a 3D printer. When you've built your machine, you're in a much better position to repair and maintain it.

Don't be too worried. Building up a 3D printer from a kit is really not as hard as it sounds. Almost all kits have completely ready-built electronics and wiring, so your job is only to assemble the mechanical framework, measure and mount parts with nuts and bolts, and then plug in all the connections into the electronics control board.

The RepRap community now extends to every corner of the world, and comes together in many different ways. For anyone seeking advice, the very best way is to join a local group of like-minded individuals. It's a lot to take in and a steep learning curve, but well worth the effort.

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