Getting Started with 3-D Printing: the Hardware

MakerGear (photo from http://www.makergear.com)

MakerBot Replicator (photo from http://store.makerbot.com/replicator.html)

The RepRap Family

If the wooden-box 3-D printers are like commercial Linux distributions, you can think of the RepRap family like Debian. RepRap is a community-driven project that aims to build a 3-D printer that can create many of its own parts and self-replicate. Because of the community-focused design process, anyone can propose improvements or new RepRap derivatives, and successful designs get rewarded with popularity. There are a number of generations of RepRap designs, but the Prusa Mendel seems to be the design most people in the RepRap community recommend to newbies today. The community also has built incremental improvements and additions to the design—many of which you can download from 3-D printer design sharing sites like http://www.thingiverse.com and print out yourself, so you can continue to improve your printer as you use it.

As you might expect, there are a number of different ways to acquire a RepRap, starting with sourcing your own parts on-line from published bills of materials on the RepRap Wiki to buying completed kits from other members of the RepRap community on eBay. Some members of the RepRap community have even gone on to start their own businesses selling RepRap parts, including sites like http://lulzbot.com, http://makergear.com and http://printrbot.com, the latter being a new Kickstarter-funded company that sells a low-cost RepRap derivative that has a more-simplified design.

Printrbot (photo from http://printrbot.com)

Although the RepRap is as capable (some would argue more capable) when compared to the wooden-box printers, people tend either to love or hate the simplified metal-rod design. The simplified design results in a lower cost in general though, with self-sourced RepRaps as cheap as $400 or $500, a complete Printrbot kit starting at $550, and complete Prusa Mendel kits usually starting around $800 or so.

Prusa (photo from http://www.makergear.com/products/3d-printers)

So what printer should you choose? That's like asking what Linux distribution you should use. As with Linux distributions, it really comes down to people's personalities and what they want to accomplish. For instance, the RepRap community is full of people who love to build and calibrate 3-D printers and tinker with them to get the most out of them, so if you are the kind of person who likes to fine-tune and tinker with your Linux distribution, that class of printers may be right up your alley. On the other hand, the laser-cut wooden-box 3-D printers seem to appeal more to folks who don't find tinkering with the 3-D printer itself as appealing and are more interested in printing objects. If you are the kind of person who leans more toward the commercial Linux distributions that focus more on working out of the box, these printers might appeal to you more. In my case, I bought a basic Printrbot kit because I tended to lean more toward the RepRap side of things as far as tinkering went, but in particular, the simplified design and the lower overall price to get started on the Printrbot appealed to me.

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Kyle Rankin is a director of engineering operations in the San Francisco Bay Area, the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal.

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3-D Printing

RonTrex's picture

Kyle, what a fantastic job covering all aspects of 3-D printing, I'm impressed. The $500 model seems feasible, but for goofing around with fun in mind this is not an expense I care to dish out so easily. Still, to print your own 3-D objects for that sort of money is not a bad deal at all.

Ron @ http://www.bluepelicanloans.com/

3d printing seems to be

Custom Printed Labels's picture

3d printing seems to be evolving much quicker than other printing process. I believe you can product 3D in HD now?

3D printing is great!

cheap designer bags's picture

The 3D printing is looks like the real world, it's amazing! I love it!!! <3

3D printing is to printing what apple is to orange !

Franck Porcher, PhD's picture

Please soundly refrain from using this coined name before it becomes too late, before it becomes another "Java", "Ajax", "Web 2.0" or whatever new marketing fuss and hype !

Really, where does one see in this technology, whatever promises it carries or future it might have, that it has to do with printing ?

By concept, "3D-printers" are much closer to general purpose machine-tool that they are to printers.

Therefore why add to the general confusion induced by already too much technical acronyms and meaningless coined terms and lure the general audience into believing what 3D-printing is not ?

For 3D-printing is to printing what apple is to orange, that is zippo !

Thank you

Dr. Franck Porcher, Ph.D.
(Theoretical Computer Science)

3d-oranges...

Stephan van Ingen's picture

What's in a name: it's called 3D printing, maybe because it is somewhat similar to 2D printing in that way that it kind of 'exports' a digital representation into (3D), or on to (2D) a real-world object. Language is not as theoretically consistant as i.e. math, it's a convention of words...

3-D printing review.

Samsel1's picture

Can you give me the name of a CAD program that runs under Linux that would compare with a CAD, or CAD/CAM program such as Mastercam which runs on Windows only?

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