6 min read

3D printing is certainly a hot topic today, and having your own printer at home is becoming increasingly popular. There are a lot of options to choose from, and in this post I’ll talk about why I chose to go with an open source 3D printer instead of a proprietary pre-built one, and what my experience with the printer has been. By sharing my 6 months of experience I hope to help you decide which kind of printer is best for you.

Prusa i3 Berlin 3D Printer

My Prusa i3 Berlin 3D printer after 6 months

Back in 2006 I had the chance to work with a 3D printer when the thought of having a 3D printer at home was mostly a fantasy. The printer in question was made by Stratasys, at the Eyebeam Art+Tech center in New York City. That printer cost upwards of $30,000—not exactly something to have at your house! The idea of doing something wrong with the printer and having to call a technician in to fix it was also a little intimidating. (My website has some of my early experiments with 3D printing.)

Flash forward to today and there are literally dozens (or probably hundreds) of 3D printer designs available on the market. The designs range from high-end printers that can print plastic with embedded carbon fiber, to popular designs from MakerBot and DIY kits on eBay. One of the first low-cost 3D printers was the RepRap. The goal of the RepRap project is to create a self-replicating machine, where the parts for the machine can be fabricated by the machine itself. In practice this means that many of the parts of a RepRap-style 3D printer are actually printed on a RepRap printer. Most people who build RepRap printers start with a kit and then assemble the printer themselves.

If the idea of a self-replicating machine sounds interesting, then RepRap may be for you. RepRap is now more of a philosophy and community than any specific printer. Once you assemble your printer you can make changes and upgrades to the machine by printing yourself new parts. There are certainly some challenges to building your own printer, though, so let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of going with an open source printer (building from a kit) versus a pre-packaged printer.

Advantages of a pre-assembled commercial printer:

  • Should print right out of the box
  • Less tinkering needed to get good prints
  • Each printer of a particular model is the same, making it easier to get support

Advantages of an open source (RepRap-style) kit:

  • Typically cheaper than pre-built
  • Learn more about how the printer works
  • Easier to make changes to the machine, and complete plans are available
  • Easier to experiment with, for example different printing materials

Disadvantages to pre-assembled:

  • Making changes may void your warranty
  • Typically more expensive
  • May be locked into specific software or filament

Disadvantages of open source:

  • Can take a lot of work to get good prints
  • Potentially lots of decisions to make, not pre-packaged
  • May spend as much time on the machine as actually printing

Technical differences aside, the idea of being part of an open source community based on the freedom to share knowledge and designs was really appealing. With that in mind I had a look at different open source 3D printer designs and capabilities. Since the RepRap designs are open source, anyone can modify them and create a “new” printer. In the end I settled on a variation of the Prusa i3 RepRap printer that is designed in Berlin, where I live. The process of getting a RepRap printer working can be challenging, because there’s so much to learn at first. The Prusa i3 Berlin can be ordered as a kit with everything needed to build the printer, and with a workshop where you build the printer with the machine’s designers over the course of a weekend. Two days to build a working 3D printer from a pile of parts? Yes, it can be done!

3D printer kit

Most of the parts in the printer kit

Building the printer at the workshop saved an incredible amount of time. Questions like “does this look tight enough?” and “how does this part fit in here?” were answered on the spot. There are very active forums for RepRap printers with lots of people willing to help diagnose problems. But a few questions with even a one day turnaround time quickly adds up. By the end of the two days my printer was fully assembled and actually printed out a little plastic robot! This was pretty satisfying knowing that the printer had started the weekend as a bundle of parts.

wiring

Quite a lot of wires

Assembling the plastic extruders

Assembling the plastic extruders

Thus began my 6-month (so far) adventure in 3D printing. It has been an awesome and at times frustrating journey. I mainly bought my printer to create connectors for my Polygon Construction Kit (Polycon). I’m printing connectors that assemble with some rods to make structures much larger than could be printed in one piece. My printer has been working well for that, but the main issue has been reliability and need for continual tweaking. Instead of just “hitting print” there is a constant struggle to keep everything lined up and printing smoothly. Printing on my RepRap is a lot more like baking a soufflé than ordering a burger.

The assembled i3 Berlin printer

Completed printer in my studio

Some highlights of the journey so far:

  • Printing out parts strong enough to assemble some of my Polycon sculptures and show them at an art show in Berlin
  • Designing my own accessories for the printer and having them downloaded more than 1,000 times on Thingiverse (not bad for some rather specialized tools)
  • Printing upgrades for the printer, based on the continually updated source files
  • Being able to get replacement parts at the hardware store, when one of the long threaded rods in the printer wore out

Sculpture with 3D printed connectors

Sculpture with 3D printed connectors. Image courtesy of Lehrter Siebzehn.

And the lowlights:

  • Never quite knowing if a print is going to complete successfully (though this can be a problem with many printers)
  • Having enough trouble getting my first extruder working reliably for long prints that I haven’t had time to get dual-extrusion prints working

Printer calibration

Accessory I designed for calibrating the printer, which I then shared with others

As time goes on and I keep working on the printer, it’s slowly getting more reliable, and I’m able to do more complicated prints without constant intervention. The learning process has been valuable too – I’m now able to look at basically every part of the machine and understand exactly what it’s supposed to do. Once you really understand how a 3D printer works, you start to wonder what kind of upgrades are possible, or what other kinds of machine you could design.

Printed upgrade parts

Printed upgrade parts

A pre-packaged printer makes a lot of sense if you’re mostly interested in printing things. The learning process for building your own printer can either be interesting or a frustrating obstacle, depending on your point of view. When you look at a print from your RepRap printer, it’s incredible to consider that it is all built off the contributions and sharing of knowledge of a large community. If you’re not just interested in making things, but making things that make things, then a RepRap printer might be for you!

Upgraded 3D printer with polygon sculpture

Upgraded printer with polygon sculpture

About the author:

Michael Ang is a Berlin-based artist and engineer working at the intersection of art, engineering, and the natural world. His latest project is the Polygon Construction Kit, a toolkit for bridging the virtual and physical worlds by translating simple 3D models into physical structures.


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