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  • Writer's pictureRyan Bailis

Paper Is So Old Fashioned: Building My First 3D Printer

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

Over the past few months, I have become incredibly interested in the maker movement that allows ordinary individuals and hobbyists to create and market products with cheap and accessible materials. 3D printing isn’t a new idea, but it is changing the way engineers develop and test their products. A good friend of mine, Adam Li, has spend hours of time developing and perfecting a printer of his own, modeled after the RepRap Rostock that features high print quality coupled with rapid completion times. In alignment with my passion for robotics and building gadgets, I have embarked on a journey to build my very own 3D printer.

Prusa i3 Kit, Fully Assembled (Retail ~$190 USD)

I was initially going to build my printer from scratch by selecting suitable stepper motors, drivers, a power supply, extruder, and framing materials, but I came across the Prusa i3, a RepRap kit that that sells for about $190. The cost of materials alone for a printer of this quality is a well over $200, making this kit a complete steal. It will also save me tons of time and allow me to focus on the tuning the printer and CADing designs to print. Although scrapping my custom 3D printer idea is a bit of a bummer, the cost and time savings are well worth it.

I finished building the kit without any major problems. The instructions were a bit difficult to follow, but Wiki sites and the online community were extremely helpful with prevailing questions. After flashing the firmware and downloading all the necessary drivers on my Mac, the printer works, but it prints slower than molasses and the quality is near unusable. I’m a bit far off from the expectations I initially had, but am optimistic that hardware and software tweaks will create an incredibly useful tool to use in my design process. Using trial and error (and the scientific method!) I was able to dramatically improve the print quality and speed. It’s time to print some useful mods...all in red of course - everything is faster in red. Thanks to Thingiverse and Fusion 360, I was able to find and modify multiple designs to clean up the design of my printer and make it even better.

I’m incredibly satisfied with the way my printer came out. Over the past few weeks, I have been able to print numerous designs (some practical, others not) that have shown me the incredible possibilities of plastic. PLA plastic is much stronger than I could have ever imagined, even with a very low (10-15%) infill. New 3D printers on the market sport metal, ceramic, rubber, and even glass extrusion techniques that dramatically increase the production value of niche products and make testing materials incredibly easy and cheap for designers.

The practicality of even the simplest of 3D printers can be show in the production of custom robotics parts to be used in the coming weeks. Designing gears, wheel hubs, pulleys, and slide rails are all made easy when we can iterate our design multiple times without the need of a manufacturing process. Building my very own 3D printers was an incredible opportunity to partake in a movement that I believe has the power to change the world. The advent of every household being able to produce their own goods, from materials well beyond simple PLA plastic, is what excites me most about this technology. 3D printing has the potential to render Henry Ford’s assembly line useless and give makers the upper hand in designing incredible and visionary products.

I’m at a point with this printer where I could theoretically print another printer, and then have that printer print another version of itself  - creating the endless multiplication of 3D printers to rule the world. Too bad I’m wasting my time printing little elephants!

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