Now that the 3D printing industrial complex is humming away nicely, it's time—precisely the time—to dive headfirst into making your own 3D-printed objects at home. Not only are consumer-grade 3D printers proving to be useful, increasingly affordable, and easy to find, but they're the vanguard of an emerging technology that will eventually become as ubiquitous as inkjet printers are today.
Whether you're musing about building a 3D printer from scratch, staring at your new prefab printer and wondering where to start, or just interested in learning more, the information below will give you a working knowledge of these consumer-grade manufacturing machines.
Layers of heated filament
Most 3D printers operate in the same way: They pull a solid material—usually some type of plastic filament—into a heating core, which melts it, and then pushes the molten stuff out through a tiny hole in the printing nozzle. You can think of the moving head of the printer as an exceedingly precise hot-glue gun, but the melted plastic that comes out of the 3D printer nozzle (known as an extruder) is much thinner. Consequently the printer can lay down very thin layers of plastic, each layer building on the one below it.
When there's nothing below the layer—if you're trying to print, say, an arch or a rooftop—the printer creates scaffolding support, which you can remove once the print is complete.
More-advanced printers shoot a laser across a tray of liquid resin at the bottom of the device, which causes a thin layer of resin to solidify into a specific shape. A platform slowly pulls the print upward as each layer of resin hardens. As a result, the object being printed seems to emerge from the tray of resin.
Resin-based printers use the same layering method to form objects that simple 3D printers use, but they create much thinner layers, which in turn makes more-detailed prints possible. Thinner layers also permit more-complex models, and require little or no support material.
Some assembly required. Or a lot. Or none...
Many manufacturers ship their 3D printers as a box of parts that you can put together yourself. If you're not the DIY type, you can get a preassembled model. The Afinia H-Series ($1599), the Solidoodle 2 ($499) and the Solidoodle 3 ($799) are designed to be ready to start printing straight out of the box.
Other manufacturers, like Printrbot, let you choose between paying a lower price for a unassembled printer and paying a premium to have the company assemble it. These printers range in price from $399 to $999 preassembled. The assembly fee is between $100 and $200, depending on the complexity of the printer.
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