So you've got some pretty cool 3D models and now you want to dive into the world of additive manufacturing, also know as 3D printing. It might be tempting to just go out and buy that expensive 3D printer that everybody's talking about, but will it work for your needs? It depends on what you look for in one of these nifty devices.

3D Printing in Action

Factors To Consider

  • Is it compatible with both your Operating System and your preferred 3D modeling software? There's not much point in buying a 3D printer that works only with Windows if Linux is what you've got. The compatibility should be listed in plain sight on any model you consider. If you aren't sure, see if you can get in touch with somebody in the company who knows. If you never hear back or they give you a shady answer, well, maybe you don't want to buy from those guys anyway because they'll never respond if you end up having issues with your machine.

  • Can it produce detailed models in a reasonable amount of time? 3D printing is no fun if it can't do anything more complex than vases, bowls and plates or if it takes a week to produce highly realistic truss segments, complete with solar panels, for a fair-sized model of the International Space Station. A truly good 3D printer can get at least 80mm/s while giving you the kind of detail that looks like a miniaturized Soyuz could really dock with your finished model. Look for one that gives you somewhere in the 100-to-150 micron range to give you a good amount of detail. You can still see the grain, but it's very fine and doesn't take a heinous amount of time to build.

  • What kind of build size can you get? Are you thinking about printing off a full-scale model of the Starship Enterprise? If so, it's probably going to come out looking like Legos because most desktop 3D printers can only handle that kind of job in pieces if they don't have a meltdown from so much rapid-fire printing. The MakerGear M2 is one of the larger ones and has a print volume of 8” X 10” X 8”. So you definitely want to pay attention to the size of your models before you start in on additive manufacturing.

  • What do you intend to do with it? There's a vast difference between making a few models to assist in your product demonstrations and mass-producing models for sale. If you want to print models for your own enjoyment, a good desktop-level printer might suit. If you are hitting the retail route and selling merchandise for that cool new movie you produced in Blender, I hope things get to the point where a heavy-duty industrial 3D printer will be quite useful.

  • How much assembly is required? For some 3D printer enthusiasts, assembling the beast is half the fun. Others just want to be able to plug it in and print their models. I can honestly tell you that it's convenient to pick an Open-Source model that lets you print off a few of the 3D printer's own parts right from the outset, both as a test and to have a spare or two if the device ever breaks down. Anyway, depending on how you feel about assembling your own machine, you'll have to choose between the models that come pre-assembled and the ones that come in pieces that you can put together.

  • Are people talking about it? If you've been into 3D art for a while, you probably know the usual forums and/or can find the ones devoted to the additive manufacturing world. Ignore those snooty professional reviewers if you want and find out what the average person who actually uses these machines on a regular basis says about them.

  • What kind of material can it print with? Most desktop models are going to use plastic filament spools like ABS and PLA. Unless you're unfortunate enough to get one like Cubify, which locks you in with a specific type of cartridge, you can get spools that work with most machines for between $30 and $50 per kilogram.

  • What's your budget? We all know that 3D artists make pretty good money, but that's only if we can find steady work. So you should decide how much you can afford to spend on the actual printer and still have enough to pay for a decent amount of refill cartridges. You don't want to skimp if you're serious about this arena, but you can find decent models in the under-$1500 range.

Get Started with 3D Printing

3D printing for fun and profit is pretty cool if you get the right machine. My favorite? The FlashForge. It costs $1,199 on Amazon, gets good ratings from average people, and some call it comparable to a MakerBot.