3D printing: what’s out there and how much does it cost

11 Jan 2013

3D printing suggests an intriguing future: forget going to the shops to buy an item, simply design and print your own.

For the present, however, 3D printers – which “print” items by layering liquid or melted plastic – continue to be just out of reach for all but the most enthusiastic early adopters, because of high prices and the skills needed to use CAD software.

That could be set to change, based on the 3D printers on show at CES this week. Competition is starting to push prices down, and new features are making it easier for mainstream consumers to use the machines. We checked out four to find out which offered the most potential.

MakerBot Replicator

When it comes to 3D printing, MakerBot is the name that first springs to mind. The company was one of the earliest to start shipping machines to be used at home by hobbyists.

MakerBot is now on the second version of its Replicator, and has added another version that supports a different type of material – previously it used a recyclable plastic called PLA; now the Replicator 2X supports biodegradable ABS, which is harder to work with.

The Replicator remains expensive at $2,199, but the machine has a build size of 410 cubic inches and is fast, too. Plus, it has an established, extensive community – 15,000 Replicators have been sold, and the hobbyists who use them like to share their ideas.

That’s at the core of Thingiverse, MakerBot’s sharing website, which has a new feature that allows users to upload a design for others to customise and print. That means a new MakerBot owner can get started without first mastering 3D design, by using the app to configure existing designs how they choose, such as an iPhone case.

"It's going to give people the ability to make things that are customisable by other people," he told PC Pro. "We built a platform so that people could change digital designs... now people can make things that other people could customise."

"It's like going to digital design school on the first day," he said of the configurable API system. "It's what gets you started." Still, $2,199 is an expensive first step to take.

Afinia H-Series

Following MakerBot’s success, rivals have popped up, and Afinia has one of the more successful 3D printer designs.

It’s H-Series is small – it prints up to 5 x 5 x 5in – and is simple to use, its makers claim. It’s also priced at $1,200 – much less than MakerBot’s design, though it follows a similar additive printing process and uses the ABS material.

The ease of use and lower cost make it a good choice for schools and small businesses who want to try 3D printing, but don’t want to spend too much or invest in training.

Unlike the MakerBot, it doesn’t yet ship to the UK, which is a shame as Make magazine picked the Afinia H-Series as its top choice in a recent group test.

Formlabs Form 1

MakerBot and Afinia both melt a filament of plastic down, using it to spray layers that eventually add up to the finished product.

Formlabs does things differently. The Form 1 printer's base material is liquid, and it doesn’t require heat. Instead, a pan at the bottom of the machine – with room to make objects that are 5 x 5 x 5in – fills with the liquid, and the printer draws the design with a laser from the bottom. As the laser hits the material, it cures it, and the object is formed.

The process takes longer than rival printers, but allows it to print very fine and delicate objects compared to the others.

The Form 1 is yet to be released, with shipments heading to its Kickstarter funders in April. As it’s still in early stages, it so far only offers one colour of the acrylic material, but the resulting prints can be painted.

The Form 1 costs $2,299 and it ships internationally at added cost.

3D Systems Cube

3D Systems made the biggest 3D splash at CES. Its Cube is offered in two versions – the first is a heavy-duty printer reminiscent of the MakerBot Replicator, but the second is a consumer-friendly version, designed for 3D printing beginners, and that’s what grabbed the attention.

The $1,299 Cube can print in a single colour of ABS or PLA material, and is small enough to truly sit on a desktop – the company had people wandering halls with them hanging around their necks, while printing sunglasses. It prints objects to as large as 5.5 x 5.5 x 5.5in, so it’s not the smallest of the 3D printers, but not as large as the MakerBot. It also can connect over Wi-Fi, allowing users to start a print job from work, for example, and have it finished when they get home.

The Cubify Invent software is a key part of it, allowing users to design 3D objects without any CAD skills. However, the software costs an additional $49.

The Cube is slower and not as fully-featured as its bigger sibling, the CubeX, which can print in up to three colours and create objects as large as a basketball, but prices range from $2,799 to $4,400.

If either the Cube or CubeX appeal, the company ships internationally.

How to try 3D printing

3D printers remain expensive, but before investing it’s possible to try out the technology first – even for free, if a local hack space has one, such as London Hackspace.

Alternatively, it’s possible to design your object and send it to a 3D print company. One firm at CES, Sculpteo, showed off its new iPhone case printing, which allows cases to be customised and printed for $25 – a much cheaper way to get a taste of 3D printing.

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