Saturday, 16 May 2015

Self-builds And Kits Versus Consumer Units


There’s more than one way to get a 3D printer, but which is best for you?

Although the range of 3D printers on offer is wide and varied in everything from size to technology, one thing all 3D printers have anything in common is that they’re expensive. In the UK, even the cheapest models approach £500.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, however. If you buy a 3D Printer Kit – where all the parts are provided for you to assemble yourself you can save around £150 on the price of even a cheap 3D printer. Buy the components yourself and you can save even more money – but is a cost saving the only benefit? If not, what else attracts people to 3D printers which are considerably more complicated to set up than the ones you can buy fully assembled?


As the name suggests, a self-build 3D printer is one you build out of raw, unassembled parts. Indeed, in some cases you’ll take it a step further: once the printer has made it to a certain level of functionality, you might actually be required to print the remainder of your device before it can be considered complete. Baptism of fire just about covers it in terms of getting yourself set up.

The most common version of the self-build 3D printer is a sub-set of devices called RepRaps. Short for ‘REPlicating RAPid-prototypers’, RepRaps were born out of attempts to create self-replicating machines. The idea is that, since most 3D printers are primarily composed of plastic, you could potentially use a 3D printer to print all of the parts you need to build another 3D printer, and RepRaps seek to get as close as possible to this goal (though separate electronics and motors are usually required) by using compatible materials and parts small enough to be reproduced in such a way.

The RepRap project was the original basis for low-cost 3D printers, and it was this movement that created the open source 3D printers that now form the basis of most consumer models. Therefore, RepRaps are cheaper to make than most consumer printers, and usually quite simple, since they’re designed to be both minimalist and easy to assemble.

The problem with self-build 3D printers (including RepRaps) is that there’s no accepted way to create one. They all have elements in common (hot beds, a stepper motor, the control CPU), but when it comes to actually choosing and assembling the parts, you have a million different choices for how to proceed – and that much choice can be paralysing for some people.

While the RepRap community has probably produced hundreds of guides on how to build a device from scratch, it’s probably a little too complicated for most people. While the price savings are good and the customisability is huge, your biggest investment will be time – choosing the parts, buying the parts and assembling the parts requires a lot of research and trial and error. It’s worth noting that, even when you have the right parts, it’s a difficult job to get right unless you truly understand how 3D printers work. Just as you wouldn’t start your driving lessons by assembling a car from scratch, we think most people should be extracautious about starting with a self-build. It’s not impossible, but it’s also not the natural choice for everyone.

prusa i3


Kit-build 3D printers sit on the mid-point of the spectrum between self-builds and off-the-shelf models. These kits contain almost, if not actually everything you need to build a 3D printer and instructions as to how to do it. Imagine a piece of flatpack furniture from IKEA, but a lot more complicated and with moving parts, and you’re more or less there.

The benefit of kits is probably obvious: a lot of the more difficult legwork is done for you, so you don’t have to spend hours researching which printer you want to build, and what hardware is compatible with what other hardware, or lose days waiting for the parts to arrive once you know what you want. They’re also excellent learning tools if you’re hoping to make your next one a full self-build, because at least with kits you know you aren’t missing anything.

The disadvantages of kit builds are that you can’t really customise the device you end up with, and with customisability being one of the biggest benefits of self-builds (after cost savings, which are also reduced with kits) it’s in danger of coming across like a halfway house that doesn’t please anyone.

What’s undeniable, though, is that they’re a good way to learn. If you want to understand how a 3D printer works, building one is the best way to do that, and if you’re going from a position of having near-zero knowledge about the hardware then knowing what the end result should look like is a huge advantage, as is the knowledge that you have the right parts to see to complete the job at hand.

Consumer Units

As we’ve already established, the clear disadvantage of consumer 3D printers is their cost. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t represent value for money, though; the advantages you get as a result of buying one could be well worth the money you spend. Indeed, you could even save money in the long run.

For instance, the great thing about consumer 3D printers is that you don’t have to build any part of them yourself. This saves you a lot of time and means you can’t make mistakes half-way through construction that doom your printer to creating objects that only ever look like a pile of scrap. You might save money on a kit or self-build in theory, but not if you don’t build it right first time.

Likewise, if your 3D printer needs repairing – and they’re currently relatively fragile pieces of technology, just like standard home printers used to be – then you have a manufacturer who can help you sort it all out, standard parts that can be easily replaced, and maybe even a warranty to fall back on. If you need help getting something to work, be it software or additional hardware, the specs of your printer will be obvious to all involved. An off-the-shelf printer is easier to troubleshoot and maintain than something you’ve put together yourself, because at least you know it’s been through some QA process.

Consumer units also have some other relatively minor benefits (such as looking slightly better and being a little easier to transport) but for the most part they’re best aimed the extreme high and low ends of the market. If you’re after something too specialist to build – or something that you don’t have to  build – then buying off-the-shelf is the way to go.

Whichever type of 3D printer you decide to buy, it’s worth remembering that they’re all an order of complexity greater than most other pieces of computer hardware you’ll encounter on a day-to-day basis. You need to be interested in the hardware itself, capable with technology, and ready for things to go wrong. Whether you want a cheap kit or the most expensive off-the-shelf model, one thing’s for sure: there’s currently no such thing as an easy ride when it comes to 3D printers.