makerbotI recently was Staples and noticed a whole selection of 3D Printers for consumers.  I was sorta put off by the price tag and asked a customer service rep his thoughts.  Firstly, I said what can I do with this to which we replied anything.  My next question was can I produce items from this to cover the cost of ownership.  His response was that they are just a neat creative item and that it was unlikely you could produce to the level to break even on the cost of the devices ownership.  This got me very curious about the place for consumer grade 3D printers so I reached out to a friend of mine, Jerome Foreman, who owns a product design and engineering company to get his thoughts on this topic.

Nathan Neil: Are 3d printers for consumers worth the investment or just a novelty?

Jerome Foreman:  Consumer grade 3D printers are a great educational and hobby tool for anyone interested in additive manufacturing. Most consumer grade printers us Fused Deposition Modeling(or FDM) technology to melt thermoplastics through an extrusion nozzle dictated by numerical machine code called “Gcode”. This code dictates the position of a tool within the machines X, Y and Z axis, and is also similarly used in subtractive manufacturing.

Consumer grade printers can produce decent plastic parts which the consumer either designs in a CAD program, or downloads from a website(such as Makerbot’s www.thingiverse.com). The CAD drawing is typically exported to a Stereolithography(.stl) file format which is then digitally “sliced” into multiple layers. After the slicing is complete, the operator then prepares the printing bed, and executes the print. Prints can be anywhere from 15 minutes to days, depending on the complexity of the part or assembly.

Nathan3d print Neil: What is the expectation for consumer 3D printers and do they meet market place standards?

Jerome Foreman: There is a level of expectation for consumer 3D printers that does a slight injustice to the technology. In general, the media has presented 3D Printing as a revolutionary technology that can make anything. Many consumer printed parts are just novelty items; In most cases many printed parts could not stand the rigidity standards of entering the marketplace as a functional final product.

Nathan Neil: Can you provide any examples of interesting projects done with these types of devices?

Jerome Foreman: Conversely, some amazing things have been done with consumer printers. Take the organization E-Nable(http://enablingthefuture.org/) for example. This organization consists of volunteers that cheaply print prosthetic hands for children. Parts are pre designed, and the volunteer only needs to scale the size of the part.

Nathan Neil: So what are your thoughts on consumer 3D printing devices?

Jerome Foreman: Am I anti consumer 3D printer? Absolutely not. I own a consumer printer that I use to print out prototypes….or speaker mounts for my home theater system….It has its purpose, and I use it as a quick and dirty setup. If I am developing a professional prototype or part for a customer, I leverage other additive manufacturing technology such as Direct Metal Laser Sintering and SLS.

Nathan Neil: What would you recommend to the average consumer?

Jerome Foreman: I would recommend that the average user do their research prior to investing in a printer, and make sure that it can perform to their specifications. If you’re seeking to have a product made, I believe that money is more effectively spent by having a professional design and engineering firm handle it.

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