Buying a Bunch of Printers

But not that kind of printer … .


I am teaching a course on 3dprinting this semester (you can see the syllabus here if you are interested it is a mix between theory, history of information & communication, and praxis, printing stuff). It has been a difficult class to construct and think about, in large part because the desktop 3d printing market is so young and these things aren’t nearly as easy to use as computers or 2d printers.

The Issue

So one of the first “big” choices I faced in teaching a class about 3d printing was solving the hardware issue. Unlike say teaching a class that requires students to blog, I can’t expect them to have the hardware. Indeed, I am pretty much guaranteed that students will not have personal access to a printer so I needed to figure out a way to provide them. This creates a few issues. First, printers cost money. It would be nice to provide enough for each student to have one, but that isn’t probably economically feasible. Right now a printer cost anywhere between $300 and $3000 (okay they can actually cost a lot more than $3000 but for my purposes am playing in the $300 to $3k range). Second is ease of use. The easiest option is to go with Makerbot. It is really just plug and play. Makerbot comes with its own software and is really easy to use. Indeed its ease of use is probably what makes it so popular among educational institutions, especially the secondary ed market. But Makerbots are expensive $2,900 or so. It’s true you can purchase a Makerbot pull it out of the box, load software onto your computer and be printing in 10-15 minutes. And for the most part you can get fairly good quality prints out of the machine.

But …

Aside from cost there are two big issues here. First is that Makerbots are too easy.

Too easy?

Yes. Too easy. Part of what I want students to learn is the technology of these things, how they work, their ins and outs, to think about the way they work, along with how they work. By making the machine less easy, it seems less like “magic” and more like something students are capable of intervening in/modifying. Thinking with machines means understanding how to make interventions. The Makerbot’s principle advantage is the software, it is really easy to use, but that comes at a cost, not understanding how the software works.

Which brings me to the second problem with going the popular Makerbot route: lock-in. If you learn to use a Makerbot, you get really good at learning to use a Makerbot, but that knowledge doesn’t so easily transfer to other systems. Aside from the deplorable path they are taking in terms of Intellectual Property it seems the Makerbot system is likely to be one of a 3d printing ecosystem that is convenient to use but in which you are locked in, unable to transfer out (similar to say the way iOS works).

There are other options. If I wanted to go the expensive route and had all the money in the world, and wanted easy printing I would probably select Ultimakers.

Cost and Learning.

One of these, ready to use printers, cost in excess of $2000 though. True you can actually get a much cheaper one like the Davinci but they also require that you buy their plastic not just any plastic. Thus, you end up back at the 2d printer problem, where companies sell them at or below cost only to extract higher profits from buying the printer cartridges and ink. No thanks. So in the end I decided to purchasePrintrbots. They are inexpensive, work well, you can tinker with them, and since they are built on the reprap platform aren’t going to be restricted to one kind of plastic. We got a mix of the Plus models and the Simple models. I’ll report back later …