Do you need a 3D printer?

No, of course not. Might you want one?  Possibly. The promise of home 3D printing has definitely been over-hyped; the 2014 documentary “Print the Legend” covers this well, by profiling the rise (and beginning of the fall) of MakerBot, one of the pioneers of the consumer 3D printing market.

Nonetheless, the hobbyist market is progressing; there are a number of excellent printers available. MakerBot is still around, the Kickstarter-funded M3D Micro offers an entry-level printer for $249 and, at the other end of the spectrum, Robo and Ultimaker sell excellent, almost “prosumer” class printers for significantly more.

I bought this 3D Systems 3rd-generation Cube printer, used, on Ebay, a couple years ago. It originally sold for $1000, but I got it for around $300.

IMG_2323This was 3D Systems last consumer model. It’s an excellent printer but suffers a fatal flaw: the filament is contained in non-reusable cartridges, the idea being to make replacement as easy as changing ink in a paper printer. The cartridges are prone to jamming, however, and originally retailed for $50 each, much more expensive than buying bulk filament. I’ve got quite a few cartridges, but when these run out, I’ll be looking for a replacement printer.

So back to the original topic: why have a 3D printer at home? If you like to make things, being able to create plastic parts, in almost any form you can imagine, is indispensable. weathercube_controller

Case in point, to borrow from an earlier post: for the weather cube project, I needed something to hold the three circuit boards in place. Using Autodesk’s excellent (and free) 123 Design CAD software I was able to design, prototype and print a perfectly-fitting “cage” in a couple hours. UPDATE: Autodesk no longer makes this software available but you can still get the Windows version (and this is kind of odd) by searching for “123 Design” on Amazon.com. You’ll find it listed for $0. Add to your cart, check out, and you’ll get a download link to what appears to be a legitimate copy of the software.

Beyond hobbyist projects, I’ve found that, once you have a 3D printer, and understand what it’s capable of making, all kinds of applications around the house begin to appear. IMG_2309For example, this set of custom-designed stands for our TV, to accommodate the sound bar placed in front.  Without these risers, the sound bar would block the bottom of the screen. By designing curved stands that perfectly match the shape of the TV’s “feet”, the sound bar can be nestled in-between, for a compact appearance.

To get a better idea of what’s possible, check out Makerbot’s Thingiverse web site, a sort of clearing house of user-created models, all available for free download and printing, in standard .stl format, on just about any 3D printer.

Custom-fit brackets and holders are another application area where 3D-printing excels. You’ll want to investigate more durable plastics, like ABS, for some applications but for use around the house, PLA is often sufficient, and easy to work with. Here’s an example: a bracket to hold this flashlight in a convenient location.

IMG_2312

If you find any of this intriguing, but don’t want to commit to buying your own printer, there are online print services, Sculpteo and Shapeways are two of the more established service providers. Other options include local libraries that might have 3D printers available for free and UPS, which has offered print services at some locations.

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