When I first got into 3D printing I can admit that I knew very little about the technology or what I may encounter as I began a journey that felt like a nightmare more often than not. Like any adventurer, I jumped right in after a respectable amount of research. Talking to various 3D printer manufacturers and consulting your favorite search engine will only get you so far and most of what I found did not provide enough real world examples to prepare me for what I was about to endure. After all, you don't know what you don't know and not knowing the ins and outs, good and bad, and everything in between about the real life operation of a 3D printer can cost you more than you think.
My first 3D printer was a mid-level model that set me back $500. Of course I splurged and bought a few spools of fun colored filament, mostly PLA as I had learned that it is more forgiving, less difficult to print than ABS, and had a lower odor than other filaments. I've never been accused of being an environmentalist so the whole "made from cornstarch, better for the environment" thing wasn't really a factor.
1. Bed Leveling
Thanks to the streamlined online ordering and shipping process at the world's largest e-commerce company I had my new printer in 72-hours. Like any responsible consumer messing with something new for the first time I made sure to read the instructions a few times, watched a YouTube video (or three to be precise), and then set out to assemble my new toy. I should mention that I purchased an partially assembled printer or kit which saved me a few hundred dollars. After spending a bit of time putting it together I then started the process of leveling my build platform. I had read enough comments on forums and hobbyist blog posts about ruined prints due to an uneven bed so I made sure to spend some extra time on this step. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with desktop 3D printers for hobbyists at this particular price point I quickly found out that sometimes level just isn't enough.
2. Wasted Time and Money
My reasons for wanting/needing a 3D printer were legit but I quickly found myself spiraling out of control downloading random unnecessary models from Thingiverse and burning through my three spools of filament in a few weeks. I could already see how this could become an expensive "hobby" if I couldn't be disciplined enough to resist the temptation to print every cool design that I found. The cool factor just doesn't outweigh the overall cost to buy, maintain, and supply a 3D printing habit. When you factor in failed prints for a variety of reasons it just doesn't seem worth it:
Moisture bonding to your filament causing bad print quality or failed print
First layer adhesion - messing around with tape, adhesives or alternate build plate surfaces
Uneven bed and the time spent to tweak this before every print
Thin walls that won't print well - the learning curve is enough to drive you mad
Supports - another expensive lesson learned to determine where and when you need them
Infill - learning how to balance print time with strength and form is an art that takes time to master
3. Unattended Print Fails
Unless you are printing very small parts or models it is unlikely that you are going to sit in front of your 3D printer until the print job is finished. It is inevitable that the moment you walk away the printer will shift a layer or stop unexpectedly resulting in a failed print so spectacular you are not sure you'll ever be able to use the printer again. Even with a Raspberry Pi setup to monitor your print you still need to watch it which is bound to mess with your work/life balance.
Never leave your 3D printer unattended. Try to start a print when you have time to monitor the first 50% or more of the print and then check on it periodically to avoid a disaster like the one pictured to the left.
Printing large models can range from several hours to a full day. Most consumer grade 3D printers have a limit of 12 hours for continuous printing so consider breaking up your model into smaller parts that print in less time or use a 3D printing service with commercial printers.
4. Quality Materials Matter
Over the course of printing thousands of models I learned the hard way that using quality materials really does matter. Using a generic or off-brand filament versus a quality product like Ultimaker or Hatchbox will absolutely impede on your ability to get a successful print. Using the same settings you are more likely to get a better looking print with the slightly more expensive filament than you are with a cheap option. If you can enough to print it then care enough to use the best materials that you can afford otherwise you are just wasting your time AND money. I personally try to only do one of those at a time.
5. Nozzle Care
You would think that something that gets up to 240 degrees would not jam up for things like leaving filament loaded in the hot end when not in use or not using the right nozzle diameter can cause your nozzle to clog. As you can imagine, this causes more time and money being spent on the maintenance and upkeep of your printer as well as downtime while you repair the unit. Be prepared to have spare nozzles for replacement and/or various sizes to quickly swap out when you change filament type. A tip when printing with exotic filament like carbon fiber: invest in hardened steel nozzles!
6. Post Print Cleanup
Unlike in the movies when you print something on your personal 3D printer it will most likely NOT come out looking like some store bought item. There is typically some "post production" cleanup required that may involve support removal, sanding, drilling, and overall surface smoothing due to layer lines or support contact with visible surfaces. Aside from being tedious work it can result in broken models or a finished product that just never looks good enough. Something that every 3D printing hobbyist should invest in are dental tools. It might sound funny but they are the most effective tools for removing supports and blobs in your prints.
7. Noise Pollution
If you plan to operate a 3D printer in your home you should be prepared for some noticeable noise coming from your home office at all hours of the night while you run your prints. Those of you lucky enough to live in a mansion may not have this problem but for the average Midwesterner this can be difficult to avoid. Even with an enclosed 3D printer the noise is present and leaves a residual sound in your ears even when the printer is not running.
8. DIY Repair
For those of you that are electrical engineers this probably won't be much of an issue but for the rest of needing to replace a component of a 3D printer is a problem. There are very few retail locations in most cities in the United States that you can bring your printer for repair. Even if you found a local repair shop it will no doubt be an expense that you won't forget anytime soon. Between the stepper motors, pulleys, heating elements, extruder(s), motherboard, and other various electrical components, the troubleshooting and ultimate repair of a 3D printer can be compared to an import car that only a special mechanic is qualified to work on and even then you have to take him/her at their word. If you decide to venture into the world of 3D printer ownership you will eventually become an expert in your printer, hopefully before it ceases to provide you joy and value.
9. Material Inventory
Most of the fellow 3D printing enthusiasts that I meet do not stick to just one type or color of filament. For the average person that invests in a 3D printer you can expect to see three or more colors of a particular filament type. With an average price of $20 per 1kg spool, it can start to become an expense to maintain an inventory that supports your 3D printing taste. Add in the shelf life of filament and you find yourself with a material that you need to use or risk wasting the investment in inventory. A possible solution for those still determined to buy your own 3D printer is to invest in smaller spools (0.5kg) or sample packs that provide four different colors or types of filament for a similar price to a single standard spool. I personally liked the filament set by AMOLEN and was able to experiment with different materials without over committing to a particular type.
10. Time Suck
As a proud husband and father I did not realize how much of a time suck it would be to have a 3D printer in the house. Conceptually, it sounded like a cool and fun appliance that would give me and my family the flexibility to design and print anything that we wanted but in the end I spent too much time babysitting my printer waiting for that perfect first layer only to have to stop the print, making an adjustment and then starting again. Spending time designing a new product or widget is one thing but being anchored to a 3D printer just to make sure it comes to life is another. Why not make that someone else's job?
So at the end of a three year journey I decided that as a hobbyist it wasn't worth it to own and operate a personal 3D printer. The total cost was much higher than I anticipated and 10 times more costly than outsourcing my 3D models to a 3D printing service.