Should I Invest In A 3d Printer?
Crash! That was the noise Mrs. Tako and I heard one fateful day. The loud crashing noise came from our kitchen, but it wasn’t immediately evident what had happened.
At first glance the kitchen looked fine. No pots and pans out of place, no fires, and nothing on the floor. Everything looked completely normal… until we opened the pantry.
Our pantry is comprised of a series of pullout drawers mounted inside the cupboard. It was one of these drawers that failed, crashing into the drawer below it (and making a huge mess).
Why did the drawer collapse? A critical piece of plastic failed. This plastic part is what the drawer slides mount to, and they carry the entire weight of the drawer.
A bad pantry drawer design? Too much weight? Maybe just old plastics? It’s hard to say exactly, but these plastic offsets are failing all over my kitchen.
I needed replacements (and fast). Nothing a quick trip to the big-box hardware store can’t fix… right? That’s what I thought…
Unfortunately Home Depot doesn’t carry the part or anything close. Neither did any of our other local hardware stores. A searching of the Amazon didn’t reveal any matches to my parts either.
In desperation, I tried gluing the parts back together, but those failed again in just a few days.
I was stuck. I had a number of these critical broken plastic parts with no way to replace them. Capitalism failed me! It’s an unfortunate situation, but not a terribly uncommon one either.
Plastic, while cheap and strong is not entirely indestructible. Over time, age and stress can weaken plastic parts. It’s a simple fact that frequently used plastic parts will eventually break. Meanwhile manufacturers of these parts will either switch production molds or go out of business entirely… leaving the owners of said plastic parts high and dry.
Fortunately technology has invented a solution in the form of 3D printers…
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past decade, you’ve probably heard of 3D printers. The ability to print any object in 3 dimensions down to millimeter accuracy was an absolute game changer in fabrication technology.
Instead of fabrication being the realm of artisans and machinists, anyone could suddenly fabricate complex objects if they could use a computer and 3d modeling software.
With new technology of course there’s bound to be a few problems, and 3d printers were no exception. Back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, these “3d printers” were extremely expensive, costing many tens of thousands of dollars for a basic model. What’s more, they were finicky and needed constant repairs.
By-in-large the most common 3d printers today rely on a technology called Fused Deposition Modeling — essentially heating-up plastic and laying it down (hot!) one layer at a time. This technology was patented and kept 3D printers well out of the price range of your average consumer during those early decades.
In 2009 the patents on FDM printing finally began to expire … and prices began to drop. Now, a mere 9 years later a regular Joe like myself can pick-up a low-end 3d printer for under $200.
Considering A 3D Printer Purchase
When I started this journey, I was only vaguely aware of 3d printers. I imagined 3d printers as mostly expensive toys for tech nerds, mainly used to print little plastic figurines (and little else).
However, when I considering the cost of low-end 3d printer models, and the fact I have over 50 of these small plastic brackets scattered around our house (which will probably break over the coming years), a cheap 3d printer begins to look like a very viable option.
Imagine for a moment that I was actually able to find a seller of my plastic part — at $1.99 per part that single use case would cover half the cost of a low-end 3d printer.
If I consider all the trips I make to Home Depot in a year to buy some random plastic part, my guess is I could recoup the cost of a printer in one or two years.
So which 3d printer models am I considering? Primarily the low-end or medium range models…
Popular Low-End Models:
- Monoprice Mini Delta – $156. Really small heated print bed, but would get the job done for my small parts. Print size is a 110 mm X 120mm cone.
- Monoprice Select V2 – $186. Comes with a heated build plate and can print 120 x 120 x 120 mm.
- Creality Ender 2 – $197. Heated build plate (no cooling fan) and print area of 150 x 150 x 200 mm.
- Tronxy X-1 – $189. Auto leveling, heated build plate, print area of 220 x 220 x 240mm.
Popular Medium-Priced Models:
- Creality3d CR-10 – $439. Hugely popular model with tons of community support. Not auto leveling. Large print area of 300 X 300 X 400mm.
- Prusa i3 mk2s – $599. This is the ‘kit’ price. Assembly required. Supports printing of PLA, ABS, PET, HIPS, Flex PP, Ninjaflex, and many more. One of the most popular models available. Print area of 250 x 210 x 200 mm.
Of course if I buy a printer, I’ll need something to print — plastic filament. PLA seems to be the most trouble free and most widely supported plastic filament.
PLA is fairly cheap too — A simple 1kg role of PLA runs about $20 on Amazon for a good quality roll of filament. Will that be enough to cover my replacement parts?
At first glance, a single 1kg spool would seem to be more than enough to cover my plastic bracket problem. However, 3d printers are far from being trouble free devices. Printheads can get clogged, beds can be “not level”, poor print adhesion to the bed, temperatures can be off, and a whole host of other fiddly things can go wrong that’ll mess up a print.
Based on the research I did, a 50% print failure rate would not be unheard of for a beginner to 3d printers (which I most certainly would be). I should probably assume that 50% of the filament is going to be chucked into the recycle bin.
My conclusion about filament? A low cost 1kg spool would be just barely be adequate to reprint all the brackets in my home.
Safety & Monitoring Costs
After doing considerable research on 3d printers, I discovered the costs don’t end with the printer and filament either. There are hidden costs to owning a 3d printer.
What kind of hidden costs you ask? Mainly the cost of safety and monitoring systems. After all, 3D printers melt plastic with high heat. Temperatures get hot enough to start a fire (example 1, example 2, example 3) if something goes wrong.
I know what your thinking — “So just stand there with a fire extinguisher while its printing!”
Yeah…no. That’s not going to happen when 3d prints can take up to 16 hours to complete. (I’ve got better things to do than stand around and watch a printer for 16 hours.)
It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of low-cost 3d printers are subject to high-failure rates. Most affordable printers are cheaply made in China and don’t adhere to safety standards. Furthermore these 3d printer companies have no US or EU presence. Meaning, if something goes wrong with the printer and your house burns down, there’s nobody you can sue.
Realistically, safety systems like automatic fire extinguishers ($45) and monitoring systems like octoprint (roughly $50, but price varies) should be required equipment to make certain a 3d printer doesn’t start a fire when you aren’t watching.
It’s like walking away from the kitchen with the stove on for 16 hours — Of course you want some safety gear!
You might take the risk and ignore these hidden costs, but I’m not going to.
My Printer Decision
Considering the hidden costs, fire risk, and the amount of “fiddly time” it might take to tune up a 3d printer, I decided the technology isn’t quite ready for me yet.
Don’t get me wrong — 3D printers ARE ABSOLUTELY the future. The technology looks awesome and prices have come down to very reasonable levels, but at the cost of safety and ease of use. Safety and monitoring systems should really be default on all devices like this.
The time needed to invest in learning how to get good prints is also considerable. They’re not “plug-n-play” devices just yet. If you look around, almost anyone who uses 3d printers spends a lot of time and money on this 3d printing “hobby”.
In my opinion, 3d printers fall somewhere between a hobby device and a money pit (right now). Neither of which I really want to invest in.
So how did I resolving my little plastic-shelf bracket problem? I spent the weekend making a whole bunch of very crude replica parts from scavenged hardwood flooring.
In the long run, my oak version is going to be far stronger than any plastic part and should last considerably longer. My solution was also a free one, but the accuracy of my wood parts does leave something to be desired.
I made about a dozen of these parts (to start) and a few wouldn’t actually fit the existing screw holes due to slight inaccuracies in my hole drilling (oops!). 🙁
While I’m not entirely happy with the solution, at least they only cost a few hours of my time.
30 thoughts on “Should I Invest In A 3d Printer?”
Constraining resources boosts creativity. It’s always best to try and work with what you have before spending money. There’s a good chance that you’ll find a better solution than what you get by throwing more resources at the problem. Nice hack on the part!
Thanks Mr. CK! 🙂
Some local libraries have started making 3D printers available. We have 2 near by (in the Toronto area) but I haven’t had time to check them out. I expect there is a queue for projects.
We don’t have any libraries in my area that offer such a service, but I do know of a few maker spaces I could join for big $$.
Wow, printers are cheap in the US. Those exact printers in our side of the world were 3x as expensive. Similarly for 0.5kg of filament it was twice the price, making it 4x for a kg compared to what you posted here. Kind of the reason I would never have thought of getting a 3d printer at this stage. I agree, work with what you have, once printers are mainstream then get a 2nd hand one for sure =)
Also, isn’t there a hobbyist or maker studio where you could go and either rent one for a few hours or get someone to make it at a reasonably low cost (like initial design fee, but then print 50 for you at low cost? like this reddit forum https://www.reddit.com/r/3Dprintmything/comments/6jag53/list_of_users_offering_printmodeling_services/
My local maker spaces charge a ridiculous amount of money to join. I’d be better off just buying the printer!
But finding someone willing to do3d prints for hire is an idea I’ve thought about. No idea if its very cost effective at this point though.
If my wood versions fail I’ll look into that next. 🙂
My husband frequently orders parts online based on CAD files he sends for his work (he’s a PhD engineer). It wouldn’t be $1.99 but if you’re doing plastic and not metal it isn’t insanely expensive either.
Wow fancy! I’ve heard of 3D printers before but still have no idea how it works. My colleague told me her daughter used a 3D printer to make pancakes at school (private middle school @_@). I think your replica looks great and will be more durable than the plastic one. Great job!
Thanks Ms. FAF! I’ve never seen a pancake printer. Cool idea! 🙂
I think I’m going to add 3-D printers to the list of things (boat, swimming pool) you want your neighbor to own. Someday they may be worth it, but not today.
I like your MacGyver solution. Go MacGyver!
Haha! I wish I was more like MacGyver. He’s way cooler than me.
I would have approached this a different way.
Why not re-design the row of brackets as a single unit of matching maple and ditch the plastic altogether? Seems like it would be stronger and less work than making individual pieces.
I considered that. Unfortunately if I went with a single strip of maple then the screws would not have fit (they’re quite short).
This way I was able to reuse the existing screws and screw-holes.
my Husband is an engineer and has a 3d printer. If your oak parts don’t work out, please feel free to contact us.
Thank you Raine! That’s a very kind offer, and I’ll definitely keep it in mind if the wood parts don’t work out.
The wood units are a good idea.
I was thinking of getting a small metal bracket (from the jar of junk metal parts) and placing it against the bottom to create reinforced support- that would hold the shelf for sure.
I did the same think with a plastic part to manually adjust the front seat of the car. It was a much cheaper fix than ordering the part for VW!
Interesting idea Mike, that’s not an idea I had considered!
Did you consider making a mold of the part then casting it from resin?
I’ve actually tried exactly that for a different part. The resin holds up well, but it was not very cost effective. (Wood is pretty much free, but resin is not)
You could also look at plastic welding. You could use one of your now extra brackets as source material. Once welded you could also reinstall flipped over (stress fracture appears to be only on one side). Though the wood seems like a more permanent solution.
I’m not familiar with plastic welding. Got a link to information about the process?
I have thought about a 3D printer as a hobby. Also I play a lot of boardgames and these are great for printing out pieces and miniatures.
You’d have to be printing a lot of plastic pieces for it to be worth it!
Smart man. For stuff like this I typically try to fashion a replacement at my little workbench. The wooden replacement looks great! In a pinch, I take the broken piece to my local ACE Hardware and generally, someone savvy enough will point to a swappable part or jerry-rig.
I almost thought you were considering a “third” printer when I glanced your headline.
Hehe – no! Just one printer would be enough!
My friend is a teacher and had a 3d printer in her classroom one year. She offered to print stuff for friends over the weekends if needed (reasonable requests), for the cost of the PLA and some money towards the running of it. I didn’t have a need.
Have you considered if any of your local schools might be willing to for cost of PLA and a small donation help you out? It could be a cool shop project, or just keep the equipment running instead of sitting idle.
As far as I know, our local schools don’t have 3d printers.
Bummer. 🙁 Any makers space near by that might? I know they have them in NYC and Philly.
If you want to play with 3d printing, there are companies that can print things for you. Also, if there is a college in your area, see if they have one. We have several, and they are open to the public. At ours, you can print things at 20 cents a gram, which covers the cost of the material. If this is an option available, you could print a few and see how they fare compared to the hardwood.
I liked this article, but knew the conclusion you and I both had to arrive at. But even more, I really liked your solution! I have gotten very good (if I don’t say so myself) at fixing little plastic doohickeys with fiber reinforced epoxy. Sometimes it’s a matter of making sure the parts match up perfectly or have some alignment pins drilled through. If my parts aren’t stronger than the original they are just as strong. (Still, I think your solution here was better.)
Which leads me to the realization that if either of us were to build a pole barn style wood shed we would use… poles, preferably from our 66 acres in Vermont.