It's been almost five years since the first entry in this blog. From the start, my interest has been on seeing the realization of low cost 3D printing beyond the realm of the hobbyists looking for the "build experience". And, for most of those 5 years, the goal seemed far, far away.
But, 2012 changed all that. The Cube was introduced. It represented the introduction of the 3D printer as a true consumer product. All one had to do was open the box, perform a quick and easy setup and begin printing. It was, to me, a watershed event.
But, the Cube wasn't the only watershed event to happen in 2012 as other manufacturers began to move beyond kits and the "build experience" to deliver the "out of the box experience.".
Beginning with this post, the focus of this blog will be directed to pre-built 3D printers aimed at prototyping and light manufacturing.
I am most interested in moving the state of the art of 3D printing forward. And, that means focusing on improvements in print accuracy, speed and developing new materials to be used with 3D printers. The problem with printer kits is that the end result is as much a factor of the skill of the builder as it is the design of the kit. It is only when 3D printer manufacturers are held accountable for the final product that their printers produce that we will see a rapid increase in the factors that will make 3D printing viable for accurate prototyping and light manufacturing.
The ultimate goal for me, in regards to a printer that goes beyond the consumer/hobbyist marketplace, is design specification fidelity. This goal says that a part to be printed should end up being exactly the dimensions that are prescribed in the CAD application. A printed 1/4" bolt should fit easily into a machined 1/4" nut without the user having to adjust the design to offset printing errors.
This means improvements in hardware and software. It means completely eliminating the dreaded Z-Axis wobble that plagues so many printer designs. It probably means more control of the flow of melted filament. It means any number of small; but, important improvements that don't cost an arm and a leg.
WHERE TO START
I have decided to limit the focus of my journey on my quest to only those 3D printers that arrive fully prepared to begin the printing process with very little setup required. No kits.
This narrows the field only slightly, since most of the major players and many of the Kickstarter projects are moving toward that same focus. It will not be limited to extrusion style printers. Liquid based systems will also be followed. While I would not rule out the viability of a great $5,000 3D printer falling into the category of my interests, most are going to be available for $2,000 or under. In this category there are a growing number of manufacturers.
Makerbot and Bits from Bytes are probably the best known. But, there are lessor known offerings that seem promising to me. Among these are Lultzbot, which touts a 0.075mm layer height. I hope to have some print samples from Lulzbot soon. And, Lulzbot has announced a new, much larger capacity printer to be released 2013.
Depending on the outcome of a patent infringement lawsuit, Formlabs, with its remarkable Form1 printer, is also a manufacturer to watch.
And, of course, these are not the only players that we will be following in 2013. Who knows if or when some of the major 2D printer companies will become interested in low cost 3D printing with new technologies and breaktrhoughs. In the meantime, we will try to examine print samples and design tests to see how the various offerings fare toward meeting our ultimate goal.
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