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Desktop 3D printers offer gee-whiz technology with mainstream potential

CubeX, MakerBot, and Solidoodle get the Consumer Reports lab treatment

Published: August 2013

MakerBot Replicator 2X

When you hear the word "printer," you probably think of that machine connected to your computer that spits out boarding passes, greeting cards, and photos (sometimes guzzling ink in the process). Well, get that notion right out of your head. A 3D printer is a different animal: It’s designed to create a three-dimensional object—such as a chess piece, figurine, or bracelet—by building layer upon layer of plastic. (Watch our video for more examples of what you can make.)

Consumer Reports has three such 3D printers in the labs right now, and they’ve been wowing testers and staff alike.

3D printers sound cool, and they are. But before you run out to buy one, there are a few things you need to know. At current prices, a machine will set you back $500 to $3,000, plus $40 to $100 for a roll of plastic to feed it. Churning out one little object could take hours, and cost more than buying it. And you need some technical savvy to pull it off.

That’s why the first devices are more fun than functional, and most likely to appeal to DIY enthusiasts, hobbyists, and early adopters. But all that could change as the technology matures and prices come down.

The black-and-red piece around the pipe was built by a MakerBot to hold sensors in place

We initially bought the MakerBot Replicator 2X ($2,800 for our tested configuration) so that we could create certain objects we need for lab tests: For example, our dryer lab needed a specific kind of housing for temperature and humidity sensors (see the photo at right).

But to further investigate 3D printing itself, we decided to try two others out as well: the 3DSystems CubeX ($2,500 for our tested configuration; also see our CES report on the Cube) and the Solidoodle 3rd Generation ($800 for our tested configuration).

The designs (the creative and only slightly geeky part of the story)

How do you tell the machine what to print? If you’re familiar with computer-aided design, or CAD (including free programs such as Autodesk 123D Design, SketchUp, and Tinkercad), you can design your own objects. If not, you’ll find plenty of 3D model designs online, many of which are free to download.

For example, at thingiverse.com (owned by MakerBot), you’ll find a mind-boggling array of downloadable designs, ranging from action figures to birdhouses to tweezers. Many are customizable, too. 3DSystems' cubify.com also offers a myriad of designs, but many of these are not free. You can browse both sites to get an idea of what's possible with 3D printers.

Once you have a design you’re happy with, your computer sends it to the 3D printer, and it starts to build your object. Watching each successive layer pile on is mesmerizing—for a while, anyway!

3DSystems CubeX

How it works (the really geeky part of the story)

Several methods are used in 3D printing, but the one most consumer 3D printers use (including the three we evaluated) is Molten Polymer Deposition (MPD), also referred to as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). This process pushes a plastic filament through a heated "print head" that extrudes molten plastic in thin layers to build your object.

The main materials used for MPD 3D printing are ABS and PLA plastics. These cost around $40 for a 2.2-pound roll. As a frame of reference, MakerBot claims that one roll provides enough material to print 100 chess pieces—that's 40 cents a piece, assuming every attempt is picture-perfect. (Our testers wound up with some discards.) But one of our test samples (the CubeX) used a filament spool that costs $100 and weighs about 1.36 pounds.

Each 3D printer comes with software that prepares your 3D design for printing. Once you choose the settings, the printer starts building the model layer by layer. This process varies with model complexity: Some of our creations took as little as half an hour to complete, some as long as 8 hours.

Solidoodle

Our take

3D printer users should have a lot of patience. Also, some technical background is ideal, so you’re comfortable using the software to create models. You'll also need to perform routine maintenance on the printer hardware, including leveling the print bed, cleaning print heads, and replacing the Kapton tape (that’s a thin film used to prevent the object from warping) on the print bed. The better shape your 3D printer is in, the better it'll perform.

Desktop 3D printers have great potential, but we think they need a bit more refinement before they’ll achieve mainstream adoption. Eventually the ability to print objects at home may change how we think of manufacturing for small business—and more important, how consumers buy products. Imagine being able print your next purchase at home—and that time may not be very far off.

—Carol Mangis with Frank Spinelli

   

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