I’ve been watching 3D printers for several years. In the past, I was tempted to buy one, but after a friend did, I decided it was best to wait a little longer. At Microsoft’s Build conference for developers, there were a number of 3D printers on display.
Why were 3D printers on display at a developer conference? Microsoft released the preview version of Windows 8.1 at this conference. Within Windows 8.1, Microsoft is including native support for 3D printers. This means that it should be just as easy to connect and use a 3D printer with Windows 8.1 as a normal printer has been to use in the past. For this reason, several printers were on display and printing at the conference.
My initial impression of these printers was very positive. In the past, I’ve had associates buy 3D printers. They had to assemble the printers they bought, or else pay a hundreds of additional dollars for assembly. Additionally, while they not only printed slowly, but they also had a very dithered look to the pieces that were printed.
In looking at many of the printers on display, the printing is still very slow; however, the level of precision on printing has greatly improved. You can still see that printed items are not perfectly smooth, but they also are no longer stair-stepped as they were just a few years ago. Most print at a resolution as small as 150 microns. Of course, with the layer-by-layer printing of these printers, the process of printing even a simple object can take several minutes to hours. The results of what you can print, however, are open to the imagination.
Also improved was the printing area that can be used. Many of the printers can print up to 5 or 6 inches squared. (around 140mm). The Fabbster can print 225mm x 225mm x 210mm. The Cube could do 140mm cubed. The UP Mini could do 120mm cubed, while the UP Plus 2 could do 140mm x 140mm x 135mm. While this isn’t huge elements, these are not intended to be industrial printers.
In talking to a few of the vendors, you can expect to start seeing some of the printers, such as the Cube, at retail stores in the very near future. The Cube looked ready for retail and even comes in five different colors. This is a big improvement from the build-it-yourself kits of a few years ago that came in wood and metal colors!
Of course, the big question is price. While the printers come ready to use, and while Windows 8.1 will let you plug them in and start using them, there is still a big price hurdle to be overcome. None of the printers I saw were under $1000. Most were in the $1200+ range. More importantly, the plastics that are used can cost around $50 a cartridge. A simple plastic figurine that is a couple of inches tall can cost several dollars to print.
Additionally, while different colored plastics can be purchased, most of the printers use one plastic color at a time. To switch colors, you generally have to stop the printing and change the plastic source. With the print process being extremely slow, this can make printing a multi-colored object very tedious.
Microsoft has shown what they believe. They are adding 3D printer support to Windows 8.1. While the costs are extremely high today, the costs are likely to plummet as more people buy 3D printers. It used to be that 21” monitors cost over a $1000. Today you can buy a monitor of that size for a couple hundred. I expect in a few years, the same will be true of 3D printers. Time will tell.
Following are a few of the printers available today:
There are a number of other printers on the market as well. The above are just a few to give you sense of the current offerings.