Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sifting through the features or "The Guide to Not Buying a 3D Printer"

[UPDATE 29.8.14]




Yesterday while writing this post, I wasn't aiming for anything special, I was just a bit irritated how misleading most of the information about 3d printers currently is. I published it and went to bed, expecting my usual few hundred pageviews in the morning. What happened was just insane. Somehow, this post spread like wildfire... reddit, twitter, G+, and featured on hackernews! I was welcomed by 15000 pageviews which turned to more than 35000 by the end of the day. I really don't know what to say except - THANK YOU PEOPLE! Especially since 99% of all comments I saw were really encouraging and positive. There are always people who disagree, which is absolutely fine, and even those comments were polite and respectful, and that is one of the reasons I love the 3d printing community so much. 

To all the people who found a problem with my stance towards Makerbot, I will explain my position in a future article in detail. I wasn't even dreaming this would reach such a wide audience, therefore I didn't really find necessary to explain every single detail, and while I try to cover as much ground and explain as well as I can, in the 40-60 minutes it took to write this thing, many things were simply forgotten. This was called a "Guide" more as a pun, but as it seems, turns out to be one anyway. :) 

If nothing else, by the response it seems there is a need for such a guide (but definitely more detailed) and I will seriously consider expanding on this further. 

I did just add a chapter about filament cartridges I completely forgot about, and thanks a lot to Daniel Gentleman for reminding me!



The problem.



Well, a person looking to buy a 3d printer nowadays will have a larger choice than ever of manufacturers and models. Literally hundreds of them. Alas, of those hundreds maybe 5% are actually worth spending money on.

As with any emerging technology, it didn't take long for people to start inventing catchphrases, wrapping completely trivial features into mysterious techno babble, and generally exploiting everything they can think of to sway a non-suspecting onlooker into buying their product. 

There's ample proof of this on almost any 3d printer product page on the web. If I could take a random sample of those product pages, it would probably take hours to find one which doesn't have any such stuff.


Time to call bullshit!


Technobabble

"...Its self-adjusting clamping device ensures the right contact pressure of the filament to the feed roll."
(GermanRepRap.com about their DD-2 direct drive extruder)


Self-adjusting clamping device you say? In reality it's a spring. I know. Revolutionary. There are many such revolutionary inventions lying around. If you find some good examples please let me know, I'll add them here. :) I must add here that GRRF guys aren't a bad bunch AFAIK. It's just a really poor way of describing your product. I may be too hard on them because it's not their native language, but still, I'm allergic to stuff like this. 


"Open Source 3D Printer that anyone can use." 
(From every crowdfunding campaign ever)


First of all, everyone wants to jump on the open-source bandwagon. I have no problem with that, I love open-source! And given that the 3d printing community is sensitive to closed source printers (and with good reason, since most of them use stuff directly taken or derived from advancements in the open source community), most printer campaigns put their open source badges on their foreheads, so to speak - it's the first thing everybody mentions. To clarify, a machine is not better because it's open source. It's a philosophical question, nothing to do with actual performance. 

As for the "anyone can use" part, that's probably still the biggest myth going around. There is no printer anybody can use. Never was. Not even among the professional super expensive ones. I could elaborate that on a thousand levels, but suffice to say there are people who can spend their whole lives not learning how to assemble a PC, while in reality almost anyone could do it given the right parts. It's around a hundred times easier than dealing with a 3d printer of any kind. I can explain to a complete noob over the phone how to assemble a computer (which I did on numerous occasions) but I couldn't explain in a week to a person knowing nothing about 3d or electronics how to properly use a 3d printer and get consistently good results. Getting good prints out of a printer is a skill you learn with time, if you are willing to invest said time. Whoever tells you otherwise is lying to your face. 

Take a look at the support forums of ANY 3d printer and you will see thousands of threads started by those very same "anyones" who are lost trying to get their printer to work at all, let alone properly.

Properly using a 3d printer requires specific technical knowledge due to various technological limitations, and honestly I don't see that situation changing very soon (at least not until HP comes around and makes it all work like an inkjet printer, I suppose).


CG Prints

(although 3d Systems would like you to think so, this is not a print, it's CG, see an actual print here).

My all-time favorite. There is so much wrong with this I don't even know where to begin. If you look at my BotObjects post, or the CubePro post, you will see examples of that. A 3d rendering intentionally made to look like a 3d print. There are at least two possible scenarios when this is used, both of them just plain insulting:

1. The people trying to sell you a 3d printer have either never actually built a working prototype, or

2. Their printer is so crappy they don't want you to see the actual results. 

Either way, it's outright cheating so avoid at all costs anything that smells of CG imagery of prints. If you suspect somebody of showing CG prints, but are not sure, let me know, CG is my bread and butter and they can't fool me. We'll add them here as an example. :)


Still in development, will be awesome...


On the other hand there are always those cute campaigns where people actually show you their crappy prints, saying how it's all in development, and in time it will be awesome. Avoid that too. If it doesn't have a HD video at the end of which is a print of acceptable quality, don't give them money. Pictures can be (and often are) faked. There is no way of knowing where the item on the photo was printed. 

There is no excuse for putting an unfinished machine on kickstarter, whatever people may think. If you believe in your idea invest some of your own money to build a working prototype to show to the world. A printer is made of parts, not promises. 


Comparison tables


Another favorite of mine. I've mentioned this before but did you notice that if you compared all those comparison tables (inception alert), in each one you will find one category that appears nowhere else, and somehow every single time the printer in question is the only one delivering on said category. Usually those comparison tables offer no useful info at all. 


Hypersonic print speed

[Image courtesy of +Richard Horne  aka RichRap]

It's always funny to see the advertised print speeds of various printers. Besides usually being outright impossible to achieve, this info is also useless to you. Why? As anybody who ever printed something can tell you, you'll spend most of your time in the 30-60 mm/s range. And most of the printers are capable of that. Some of them can go faster, but the resulting prints will not be something you will like to look at. A well tuned printer (and that takes time and knowledge) could deliver good prints a bit faster than that but not too much, as it also depends on the materials used and various other factors. Plus, travel movement and extrusion movement are not the same thing. Travel speed depends solely on the gantry, while with extrusion the material feeder and hotend (aka. the extruder) must also keep up with those speeds.


The almighty positional accuracy. 


Positional accuracy in 3d printers is basically the resolution at which they are able to move the printhead around, the limiting factors being the choice of motors, microstepping, and belts and pulleys. Now manufacturers will quote various micron sized values for how their printer is positionally accurate. What they won't tell you is that this number is theoretical, and derived from the specifications of the chosen components. In reality it depends on much more than that, because no machine is perfect (I'm talking about DIY printers here, for you engineering buffs, not a HAAS processing centre :P), and there are better and worse gantry designs, and more or less quality manufactured machines. Theoretical accuracy isn't so crucial to the end user. It's just another term at which you are supposed to say "Whoooooa!". Ignore it. Repeatability on the other hand is a much bigger factor, ie. when you tell the machine to get to point A, then B, than A again, how much will it be offset the second time, but that's not something you will usually find listed.


Revolutionary, patent-pending, groundbreaking

Be on the lookout for keywords like that. Usually (and usually does not mean always) indicates crappy printer. It's the same like all that "as seen on TV" stuff. Example: http://3dprint.com/11553/3d-gence-printer/


Open source is of course one of the main features but lo and behold: "The pressure control system of the nozzle is not the only patented feature which has been used within the design of the 3D Gence. Additionally, there is a patented system put in place for the quick removal of printer heads. No unscrewing, loosening of bolts or clamps is required." So they patented the fact that you can remove the printhead with a latch. That's so innovative I just might cry a little. How does open source work with that? It doesn't. Out of the four highlighted features on the promo picture one is "OPENSOURCE" and the fineprint says it operates on open source software. Nice move there. Take from the community but keep yours for yourself. A model of nice behavior there. Also note the all present keyword PRECISION, and the fact the whole printer is just a render. A render that costs 1999 Euro.

On the subject of patents VS open source, while it may be perfectly legal to make a printer and patent some of your solutions, and still use it with open source software, it doesn't make you a good guy in my book. Patents hinder innovation and are ultimately bad for everyone, especially for the end user.

(Just to note that while pressure control in the nozzle is something I've seen discussed quite a lot, and would really be a welcome improvement, no proof of 3dgence's claims exists AFAIK, so for now it's just a buzzword.)


Cheapest ever, high quality-low price and similar nonsense


(The Pirate3d Buccaneer - the printer that started the super low cost boom)

While a 3d printer, due to it being a relatively complex piece of machinery, is definitely more than the sum of its parts, it can only be that much more. You cannot source quality components for a whole printer for $50. Printers which come assembled and cost $300 always have some sort of catch. If you want a solid machine, be prepared to A) pay for it, B) pay less initially and then tinker, upgrade, modify or C) source all the parts yourself so you have absolute control what goes into your machine. Do note that of course, vice-versa is also true - quality parts do not make a good printer by themselves.

This excellent article by Daniel Brown explores in detail why the super cheap kickstarter 3d printers are in general destined to fail.


Filament cartridges

Easily one of the most misunderstood things on this list. Contrary to popular belief, filament cartridges are not easier to use, or better for you. A filament catridge is in essence a spool of filament encased in plastic (which you pay for) and a chip (which is there so you can't use non proprietary filament). They lock you to a single filament supplier, which is probably the worst thing that can happen, since major progress is being made on the materials front by great companies like +taulman ThreeD+colorFabb Filament and others. So cartridges mean missing out on that progress completely. Also, the cartridge system has one true purpose only - and that is to sell you filament for more money than it's worth. Companies like Stratasys have been selling filament for years at prices which are many times higher than what it's actually worth just because they could. The advent of DIY printers finally showed how much filament is realistically worth. So, please don't be fooled there is actual value for you as a user in cartridges. Even with your standard ink-jet cartridges, EPSON recently proved home printers can work just as well using refillable containers instead of cartridges. I'm not directly comparing this to that here, just saying it is obviously possible.

So fact ,1: Cartridges = less choice, more cost

As for the ease of use, it's not really that hard to take the end of the filament from a spool and stick it in a PTFE tube, is it? And the filament inside the cartridge is no better than the one you can buy on a spool from a reputable manufacturer. And it could very well be worse. Besides, on some cartridge systems you have to pull the end of the filament and stick it in the guide tube manually anyway. And there's another great feature in cartridges too, they tell you how much filament there is left. But not really, they tell you how much is supposedly left, they are usually not transparent so there is no way to know, and there is a chance you will throw some away in the end. (To be honest, I don't have proof of this, but it's an educated guess). On the other hand, is it that hard to look at a spool to see how much is left?

Therefore, fact .2: Cartridges easier to use? Not necessarily.

Somebody somewhere mentioned the XYZ Printing daVinci as a good choice for non-tinkerers, because it's all cartridges and buttons,no-nonsense easy to use. Okay, let's look at that one a bit. First of all, the actual vs. print volume of that printer is just ridiculous. And as for the ease of use and quality this video is an awesome example, since it's completely honest. And here's a HD screenshot from said video which best illustrates my point:


This shows the excellent quality you can get with such an easy to use printer, I mean the guys just took it out of the box and it worked, right? Yes, in the sense you can put wooden wheels on your car and it will still drive. This print is beyond horrible. Which brings us back to my point there is no easy to use printer. If the daVinci can even print decent objects (and I have no idea if it can), it will obviously require tinkering. Tinkering in which the community won't be able to help you so much because it's all pro and closed, so you will rely on their support. And we all know how technical support works (very rare exceptions aside).

Fact .3: Better quality? Not necessarily.

To sum up, you get less choice and pay much more, for something that is not necessarily easier to use, not produces better quality prints. I'll let you decide if that's a smart thing to do.


Features VS quality?  Always quality!


I've said it before but I'll say it a thousand times more if necessary. The first and foremost important feature of a 3d printer is the quality of the prints. That's what it's made for. It's not made to connect via WiFi, tweet when the print is done, change LED colors while printing and make coffee. It can do that, sure, but that's not its primary purpose, now is it? When I look at some of the currently offered printers it's like someone trying to sell me a car, with all the bells and whistles, for a crazy low price, and it's not that ugly actually... but sadly the only thing it doesn't do is drive.

To future printer builders who might stumble upon this: when designing your printer get your priorities straight and please make sure it does its primary purpose as it should, before worrying about the cosmetics. 


So how DO I buy a printer then?


A fair question to be sure. Well, here are some pointers:

1. Educate yourself
Each minute you spend learning about 3d printing and 3d printers before you commit to buying one will save you a nerve or two in the long run. Don't fall for the catchwords.

2. Listen to the experts
There's a vibrant community on Google+ about 3d printing. Lots of them to be exact. And also a lot of very good blogs. There's a good chance that when a suspicious printer appears some of the bloggers will react and warn people. 

+Richard Horne , +Jeremie Francois , +Whosa whatsis , +Nicholas Seward , +nop head , +Thomas Sanladerer are some of the people you should follow. It's amazing how much good info you will get from these guys. 

3. Read the forums
RepRap forums, Ultimaker forums, Printrbot forums... there's lots of places with knowledgeable people willing to help. 

4. Find reviews
The best way of knowing if something is worth your money is to see the other users' experiences with it, free of all the corporate and marketing BS.

5. Don't take news portals seriously
While 3d printing news portals like 3ders.org or 3dprint.com are a good source of latest info, think of them more like the celebrity pages in the papers. They will usually publish whatever info they get from manufacturers, without checking the facts or offering any critique, so not a good place to find crucial information on how to best spend your money. Every printer seems really cool and packed with features if you read about it on those sites. All in all - good to stay in the loop, but to be taken with a grain of salt.

6. Avoid Makerbot
My final piece of advice - do us all a favor and do not give Makerbot your money. They are the exact opposite of what the global 3d printing community stands for and works towards.

(If the thing about Makerbot confuses you, I will be elaborating on that in the future, stay tuned for that)

Now that you're done with this take a look at Jeremie Francois' excellent rundown of what you'll run into when you do buy a printer and try to do something with it.


You disagree with something here, or I missed something? Let me know! 

BTW I am fully aware I tend to write a bit on the harsh side sometimes, but being polite all the time is boring and I absolutely despise being politically correct. So there you have it. :)
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