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.
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.