Should You Buy a 3D Printer?

The market is new, but buying one could make sense—if you really use it.

By Jacqueline Emigh

Maybe you've heard some of the recent buzz about 3D printers. Unlike inkjet or laser printers, which print in ink on paper, 3D printers use plastic or metal materials to produce toys, vases, door knobs, smartphone cases, sculptures, and many other 3D objects. Does your family need a 3D printer now, or will it in the not-too-distant future?

3D printing got its start in the manufacturing industry. As yet, 3D printers are still a rarity in homes, but 3D printers do seem likely to become more commonplace as prices fall, capabilities rise, and parents and kids get used to the idea that they can create a multitude of objects whenever they want.

Some kids are already learning to use 3D printers in school. The 3D printer company Makerbot reports that its printers are installed in 5,000 schools, and competitors in this crowded field are targeting schools, too.

According to the Wohlers Report, which focuses on the 3D printer market, sales of 3D desktop printers totaled 160,000 units in 2014, and that number increased to 278,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, retail prices of 3D personal printers has dropped to less than $4,000, and some models are available for under $400.

Why Might You Want One?

We asked a couple of manufacturers of relatively low-priced 3D printers why a family might want a 3D printer. "3D printing is something that can be used by families to solve a problem, create customized or personalized pieces for around the home, or be a part of learning for kids," replied Braydon Moreno, co-founder of Robo 3D, in an email to Techwalla.

"3D printers aren’t reserved for gadget lovers anymore!" wrote Michael Armani, co-founder and CEO at M3D, in another email. "A 3D printer has practical applications for all ages and entertains kids in an engaging way that video games just can’t compete with. The simplicity of M3D’s printers allows kids to spearhead printing projects, which gets their creative juices flowing and opens them up to STEM subjects and design. Thinking long term, It’s an investment in a child’s future and saves families money and time because items can be printed on-demand at home."

3D printers can incorporate various technologies. Most lower-priced printers, such as those from Robo 3D and M3D, use a technology called fused filament fabrication (FFF), in which the printer melts plastic filament (which is sold in spools) and extrudes (or "squeezes out") the molten plastic in layers, which then solidify. The printer obtains instructions on how to build the design from templates consisting of computer programs known as STL files. Many, but not all, STL files contain printable 3D models of objects.

Spools of filament aren't particularly expensive—at least not in comparison to the price of ink cartridges for traditional printers. The cost of materials to make a toy boat, for example, might range from about 50 cents to $4, depending on the type of filament used and the size of the toy..

3D Boat

Lower-cost printers are adding new features even as their price goes down. M3D’s Micro printer ranges in price from $349 to $449. An upcoming Pro model, available to preorder on Kickstarter for $499, will include a dual-ARM processing system and a tempered, heated-glass surface that automatically adjusts temperature for greater consistency and easy removal of finished objects. After its release to the market, the printer will sell for $699 at retail.

Prices for Robo 3D 's current lineup of 3D printers range from $600 to $1,000. A forthcoming C2 model, priced at $699, will be the first from Robo 3D that can print remotely from a smartphone. Robo 3D has also recently released a drone kit and scented filaments.

Should your family buy a 3D printer? Much depends on your budget. For some families, dropping $700 on a new device is no big deal; but for others, it’s a serious investment. If you can afford it, though, it might be worth the price. In fact, kids and grownups might even be able to earn money making things on the printer, especially since 3D printers are still such a novelty. But if people in your family aren't going to use it, even as a learning experience, a 3D printer won't be worth what you pay for it.

Clearly, 3D printers aren't for everyone—and they might not be for most people. But here are three reasons why some families might use 3D printers frequently.

1. Family fun

Statistically speaking, families enjoy playing with toys, playing games, or doing art projects together more than they enjoy watching TV or movies together at home, though not as much as cooking and eating meals, doing things outside, or reading together, according to a recent survey by the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University.

Obviously, many families like making art and other things together. Lots of materials are available, from papier-mâché to Legos to Play-Doh. But 3D printers are quite versatile, and the objects they create are durable.

Some 3D printers come with STL files built into their memories. Printer manufacturers also make templates with STL files available on their websites. Kids can print out 3D block designs they've created in the Minecraft app because their projects can be exported as STL files.

2. Home enhancement

3D printers can come in handy for building household objects. Some are objects that you might otherwise buy in a store, but others are unique. In the photo below, a family is using a printer from Robo 3D to build flower pots.

3D Planting Pots

According to the design webblog  Hongkiak, some product manufacturers will make STL files for parts such as screws available so customers won’t have to wait for replacement parts.

How else can you obtain STL files with printable 3D models? ALL3DP offers an extensive list of online communities dedicated to 3D modeling, and many of these provide free STL files contributed by users.

At sites such as Thingiverse, you can download the files you need to create parts such as gears and knobs, tools such as plastic wrenches and hammers, and other useful household items.

You'll also find STL files for producing your own plant waterers, doorstops, soap dishes, bottle openers, lamps, clocks, vases, and sculptures. You can customize some 3D designs by editing the STL files.

With Halloween coming up in October, and the December holidays after that, you might start looking for STL files for making plastic jack-o-lanterns, cobwebs, tree ornaments, and wreaths, for example. Get the kids in on the action.

You can also print 3D objects in multiple colors, but only if the file includes suitable instructions to the printer. When the time comes, you'll be prompted on the printer screen to change the filament to a different color.

3. Earning money

People of all ages can use 3D printers to start part- or full-time businesses. A teenager, for instance, might spend time after school building toys and selling them to other kids in the neighborhood. There's no reason not to sell 3D thingies on eBay or Amazon, either.

Adults have already launched businesses creating and selling 3D objects. Janne Kyttanen created an iPhone case with extra room for a couple of credit cards. Kyttanen then offered the case for sale at $34.99 in a choice of three colors. It's named the Mondrian Case, after the painter Piet Mondrian, who used multiple vertical and horizontal lines, rectangles, and squares of primary colors in his paintings.

Another entrepreneurial business takes kids' drawings submitted by parents and converts them into 3D creations.

If you want to create your own unique 3D objects, you’ll need to learn to how to use 3D software tools. Such tools fall into three categories: computer-aided design (CAD) tools, which are based on geometric shapes; freeform modeling tools, which let you draw freehand; and sculpting tools, which mimic actions performed in sculpting clay—pulling, pushing, pinching, and grabbing.

3D Sculpture

Some (but not all) CAD and sculpting tools—including 3D Slash, a free and easy-to-use CAD tool for beginners, and SculptGL, a free, browser-based sculpting tool—let you export STL files with printable 3D models. You can see comprehensive listings of 3D tools and their capabilities on the 3DPrintingForBeginners website.

You can also use listings on ALL3DB to find sites for selling (and buying) STL files with printable 3D models. The market is just emerging, but selling your own 3D designs is another way to make money, and there could be greater opportunities in this area in the future as more people buy 3D printers.

Photo credits: Robo 3D, Thingiverse, M3D.