In Paris Buying a 3D Printer is Cheaper than Renting Machine Time

As many of the members of the Brian Benchoff hate/fan club know, the life of a Hackaday writer is nomadic and filled with exciting adventures. Jenny List is actually crime fighting cyborg (think Bond); it’s why she knows so much about electronics. James Hobson is Iron Man. The list goes on. There are lots of unnecessary details, but to summarize: Last month I was living in Washington State, this month I am in Paris, France. It’s really nice here, the buildings are beautiful, the cathedrals stunning, and the food significantly tastier. 

However, as a contracting engineer with a project involving a deadline; I found myself in dire need of a significant amount of quick turn-around 3D printing during my working vacation to France. Through a lot of trial and tribulation, I eventually discovered that the most cost-effective way to get the prints done… was to just buy a cheap 3D printer and run it into the ground.

Appropriately, LVL1 is also home to the world's largest 3D printed trashcan (full of failed 3D prints).
Appropriately, LVL1 is also home to the world’s largest 3D printed trashcan (full of failed 3D prints).

I was spoiled by my hackerspace in Louisville, KY. They had enough 3D printers to go around and the pricing was fixed at 10 cents a gram. For the amount of printing I needed, this would be a perfectly economical arrangement. So, I set out to find a hackerspace in Paris. Whereupon I reached my first and obvious problem; I speak very little French.

Most of the hackerspaces listed in Paris are, as far as I can tell, illegally squatting in a scary part of town, exclusive to a university, exclusive to a business, or closed down.

So, I googled a bit harder. Wow! Apparently a Techshop opened up in Paris. It’s about an hour away from where I live, but having toured a Techshop before, I knew they would have the nice version of the tool I need. So, one morning bright and early I got on the metro and headed over to get a tour of the place.

What I’ve discovered is this: If you need things like a water jet cutter, welding station, or a 50 grand CNC machine, Techshop is a really economical way to get access to and play with tools like that. However, if all you want is access to a laser cutter and a 3D printer, it will set you back five-hundred dollars and you’ll have to jump through some incredibly annoying hoops just to get access to them.

Only a small fee of 400 euros to used these badboys.
Only a small fee of 400 euros to used these bad boys.

See, most pieces of equipment at a Techshop need to be reserved. Only the 150 euro and 300 euro a month membership tiers can reserve equipment. The 150 tier can reserve something for two hours, the 300, four. If you’ve ever 3D printed you can immediately spot the problem with that. For small prints this could be workable, but if you have a lot of large prints four hours is just not enough. However, there is a work around. If you’re willing to take a metro ride late at night, arriving at the Techshop at 10:00pm, you can, of course, run a print overnight.

There were two more glitches in the Techshop plan. To be able to touch the printers required a two-hour course with a 100 euros fee. The filament also ran 65 euro per 500 g. My printing needs would easily cost me tens of hours in travel and had a starting fee of 400 euros to be workable.

The entrance to Usine.io is terrifying. It's this massive pitch black hallway. I had no idea if I was in the right place until I got to the desk.
The entrance to Usine.io is terrifying. It’s this massive pitch black hallway. I had no idea if I was in the right place until I got to the desk.

Now, I’m not saying Techshop isn’t absolutely wonderful when it comes to more advanced tools. It’s probably the only Hackerspace in the world where you’re entitled to expect that the CNC machine is in working order, properly trammed, and there are actually cutting bits for it. However, if all you need is a 3D printer, don’t bother.

Now, I asked around some more and found that there was a competing space in Paris called Usine.io. It had a flat fee of 180 euros a month and the training was free. I actually did end up getting a membership here for access to a CNC and basic tools, but for 3D printing it was a bust. They only had three printers serving a sizable membership base. This left the printers with a 48 hour line to get your print started and a maximum of 40 hours of printing a month. A die-hard user of 3D printing can easily use 40 hours in 3 days. Because I had to test many iterations for my project, my need the next month was easily triple that number.

However, the shop itself is really nicely outfitted.
However, the shop itself is really nicely outfitted.

The last avenue available to me aside from 3D printer ownership was contracting someone with a 3D printer to run my prints for me. However, after asking around I found the service to be quite expensive. Rent isn’t cheap in Paris after all. If I just needed a single small print it would be worth it, but if I needed lots of printing it would quickly add up to be more money than I had.

That left me with one option. Which, honestly, sounded absolutely insane for someone visiting a country for a few months. Buy a printer. It’s an indication of the state of 3D printing that the price has come down so far that buying a printer is more economical than having someone do it for you. Even a few years ago this was not possible. However, European Amazon Prime had a workable enough import printer to my doorstep faster than any commercially available service could even process my order. We’ve come a long way since the Darwin. That’s for sure.

Featured Photo From Famous Paris buildings by LeFabShop

78 thoughts on “In Paris Buying a 3D Printer is Cheaper than Renting Machine Time

  1. “sounded absolutely insane for someone visiting a country for a few months. Buy a printer.” ???
    not that insane. I would do that without hesitation, then resell it when i leave.

      1. Sell it cheaper or make better photos, then. Also if you live in a remote place it´s obviously hard to sell. People will want to come and try. But inParis … and with the social network that a HaD blogger has … and “several months” of use, it´s obviously the best choice to buy one.
        In fact it´s more a “is it worth to buy a printer in US when you have so much easy and cheap solutions ?” problematic.

      1. Yeah buy 10 middling good ones and a used Transit Express to haul them round in, and you’ve bought yourself a living for half or less the cost of a franchise. Nobody likes get rich slowly schemes though :-D

    1. I knew a guy that rented out his Replicator 2 to a nearby major company. They’d lost the SD cards and dropped the printer, torquing the frame. I think he got them to pay for a replacement frame. Anyway, you’ll want some kind of deposit for damage and complete inventories of included items as well as photos and a checklist to document condition pre-rent. Just assume renters will f**k something up and some will try to f**k you over, so protect yourself if you do try this.

  2. depends on the actual need, i guess.
    get your print ready in good quality =/= buy a kit and spend a 2-3 week or more to produce ~acceptable results
    but on the long run having one is definitely more affordable. if you need something fast, machine time @ a shop with quality gear worths a lot more.

    if you also calculate the “learning curve” and the time spent for crappy attempts, things seem to be different

  3. Side note: I’m not sure I agree with referring to Techshops as “Hackerspaces”, as this article does. To me, Hackerspaces are inherently community-driven, in a way that Techshop very much is not. To put it another way, you’re a member at your local Hackerspace, but you’re a client at a Techshop.
    That does leave the question of what to call Techshops, but I’m perfectly OK with just calling them “Techshop”. The name is descriptive enough, and there’s not this feeling of some corporate entity trying to co-opt an existing grassroots thing.

    I don’t know, am I completely off-base here?

    1. Yes.

      Lack of coordination, exlusiveness, and constant references to the Marxist way are why I don’t join my local(ish) hacker space. It seems plausible that if they had a drive to make the place financially stable rather than a Venezuelan hacker utopia, the obnoxious drama would be tamped down a bit.

      They won’t hire anyone to do mainenance because it’s obvious kkkapitalist wage slavery, and yet no one volunteers either. If we want hackerspaces to flourish (and we do!) we shouldn’t denegrate different ways of doing it successfully, like Techshops seem to be.

      1. Ok. That’s an opinion regarding the ‘business’ model known as a ‘hackerspace’ versus that of a Tech Shop. You are replying to dahud right? Dahud was mostly just pointing out that they are different things and proposing that as such they should get different names. If you like one and not the other shouldn’t you be all in favor of naming them differently?

    2. No, I feel the same.
      They’re essentially CNC machine hire/rent shops, just that you can’t really take the thing home with you.
      There is no community involved.
      Business pure.

    1. Re: “Paris, France”.

      I grew up in Nashville. (See what I did there?) And with Paris, Tennessee significantly closer and more likely to contain one’s relatives, we all said “Parisfrance” like that, in one word, when we were talking about the one with the Eiffel tower.

      Funny, now that I reflect on it. I wonder if they do that in Texas (and all the other places with Parises) too?

      1. Yeah I guessed you meant the Tennessee Nashville, that’s the famous one. Same with Paris. While there are other Parises, they’re not the ones most of the world has heard of.

        I didn’t grow up in Nashville so I imagined the actual Paris. Also the little plastic Eiffel Towers were a dead giveaway.

        1. BTW if you haven’t been up La Tour Eiffel, you definitely should. I was there 20 years ago, so some of the accoutrements might have changed. Back then they had dummies hung from the metalwork, representing the guys who repaint it every so often. There were also boards with history and photos of them building it, from the bottom up. Started off from the bottom, and they built it a girder at a time, as you’d imagine. Pictures of guys with braziers for the hot rivets, and bloody great beams everywhere.

          At the top, and I think still there (since how the hell would they get it back down), is Mssr Eiffel’s piano. He took it up to the top floor, to play for guests in his private room at the top. The room was locked off, but you can see clearly through the windows. At the time, before the lift was installed, access to the top was through an enormously tall, but quite narrow, spiral staircase. A piano! You’d need somewhere to sit down after that, the sort of evening you’d need to plan in advance, and book sherpas.

          Now there’s just a terrifying lift from deuxieme etage to the top, with no shaft. 2 lifts, actually. I spent my journey up babbling about death and danger, while the other dozen passengers stayed silent. Well, it’s scary! The door had big clear windows.

          You can walk up stairs to the first 2 floors. The lift from ground to 1st is interesting, it runs on a slant up one of the legs (2 legs, actually there’s a pair). So more of a funicular I think. And it’s a two-storey lift. Nice design in itself.

          Next floor, 1st to 2nd, I took the stairs. Nice cos you get to see all the history and stuff, and the structure from the inside. Definitely worth walking, also worth taking the lifts.

          Getting directions from les gendarmes may be difficult. The key is to utterly butcher their beautiful language. To make such an atrocious mess of speaking it, that they tell you to stop, and start speaking English. Which they CAN speak, they just choose not to.

          And that’s some stuff I did in France in the 1990s. Also the amount of really stunningly beautiful French people, men and women, is astouding! They’re just so good looking, in that unique French way. I’ve seen blonde armpit hair on a young woman and it was gorgeous! I’m not at all into hairy women, but somehow she did it and made it wonderful.

          Apart from the Finns, a nation of beautiful elves, the French might well be the best looking people in the world.

          Oh, and Le Metro has double-decker trains. At Arts et Metiers station was kitted out to look like the inside of a fantastical submarine. With real fish in the portholes.

          Enjoy Paris, make the time, there’s stuff there you can remember forever. It’d be a crime to miss out. Just wandering round the place is definitely worth doing, as much as anything. Oh, and Le Sacre Couer church has a really weird perspective trick on it’s curved roof, the gigantic Jesus looks like he’s flat, and coming out at you, even though it’s curved. Gotta be some maths in there. There’s a neat little funicular railway up the hill to the church.

      1. Ahh, wow. OK. A friend and I were really considering coming over from Reading UK to check out Electrolab. [Judepaum] says it’s not active because their blog is a bit stale, but maybe someone knows more?

    1. What happened to Electrolab: not much, we were on vacation first half of August. And we’re usually too busy trying to keep up with running our 1500m² (17.000sqf for non-metric people) space to write blog posts on a regular basis (shame on us). Also true: our website kind of sucks, and is almost exclusively in French.

      Our space being 30mn away from Chatelet (kind of Paris public transport nevralgic point), if you have a 1h30 commute to come visit us, you must be on the other side of the city, unfortunately.
      Good news is: there are other spaces around Paris: hackerspaces.org lists some, but for some reason, many french orgs use the term “fablab” for whatever space that vaguely ressembles one. I would recommend checking out this map: http://www.makery.info/map-labs/ to find something closer to where you reside.

      Anyway, you’re more than welcome if you wanna pay us a visit: we answer the contact email address even when on vacation ;)

      Last but not least, we do have few Ultimaker+ printers, we charge by the gram, membership is 15EUR/month. But as you said, buying your own tool makes probably some sense, if that’s the only thing you’re looking for, and said tool is cheap… and this probably applies also outside of Paris, France ;)
      C.

    1. You know, it´s this place where people have guns, and there are black people. Like Saint-Denis. Veeeeery dangerous when you don´t speak a _darn frickin´_ word of non-English !

  4. I had a very similar experience when I was working for a notorious internet entity in SF. They wanted me to prove out some ideas using TechShop. In short:

    1. Membership is expensive but only gets you in the door. I think we bought a year to save money.
    2. Initial shop safety classes happen “when they happen” and cost money. Each additional class is more.
    3. When you finally get over the basics you are forced to use their software stack (at the time, Autodesk Inventor) which means more classes and more time invested.
    4. I had to drive 1 hour + each way in SF traffic for all of these painful steps to operate equipment which, in the end, I already knew how to operate.
    5. Then after getting cleared to operate the CNC router, I found out it was booked out for months and months.
    6. Front desk people tried to be helpful and let me know when other people canceled slots or didn’t show up.
    7. End result was 2-3 hours with the machine for about $1500 (and that’s not including my time).
    8. I ended up buying myself a CNC router kit from cncrouterparts and building it myself. Got the machine up and the work done in just over 40 days – about as much time as I had invested in TechShop.

    These days, I maintain all my own tools and I don’t bother with TechShop and only visit hackerspaces on rare occasions.

    1. This. I’m currently near the end of a one-year TechShop membership which I’ve never used except for wasting money on way too many of their “SBU” classes. In almost every class I took there were maintenance problems with the equipment which severely limited the utility that I got from the class (not that TechShop cares–the purpose of the classes is, ostensibly, to meet their insurance requirements), and in at least half the instructors were pretty damn bad (they let almost anyone teach, in exchange for a little cash and some “free” membership time if they teach enough hours). And, I discovered that their basic equipment (3D printers and laser cutters) is actually pretty crappy (though, I do like their big ShopBot, even though they’re too cheap to get a vacuum holddown system for it). The one good thing was that it gave me a chance to learn which of my prototyping and production plans weren’t so practical (their injection molding machine is a pathetic, unreliable toy, for example, and it would cost way too much to get hands-on access to a decent one).

      So, I bit the bullet, emptied my garage, and bought a humongous 100W LightObject laser cutter which blows TechShop’s Universal Laser machines out of the water, a Taz 6 printer which does ditto for their MakerBot Replicators, and a little Shark Pro CNC router to get started on (planning to replace it with a real one when I start making enough to justify it). I use this stuff for hours every single day, with very little maintenance downtime and no waiting for open timeslots. It’s glorious being able to jump out of bed and work in the middle of the night when I wake up with an idea for something to try. It was a big investment (and I now have to shovel the snow off my car), but I’m quite certain it won’t take too long to pay for itself.

      If and when the day comes that I really need to waterjet cut the wings for a homebrew airplane, I can go back down to TechShop and sign up for a one-month membership since I’ve completed all the necessary SBUs. But after much experimentation I’m discovering that I really don’t need any of their exotic gear for the stuff I do. Pretty much anything that’s practical to do myself I can (perhaps with some adaptation) accomplish using my three basic machines. Someone who needs to do a lot of fancy metal machining may have a different experience, but for building electronic gadgets and plastic enclosures, even pretty fancy ones, they have little special to offer (did I mention that their injection molding machine sucks?).

    1. Probably a surprise to some who comment on my articles, but a wanhao duplicator i3. I’ll write a review on it at some point. Verdict: There’s no reason to have any more lowest cost printer kickstarters. It’s not the best printer ever, but it’s good enough comparatively.

      1. What’s with their page on .io, btw? Seems exactly like an advert. I suppose it’s relevant to some of our needs, but still an advert. Do you allow that? It was a “featured” .io, which I’m beginning to suspect are randomly generated.

        I suppose if it’s actually Wanhao themselves and they answer questions from users, it could be useful. If it’s not just some box-shifter.

        1. Not certain. .io is done by a different team. I guess it’s a tough call whether to just remove a commercial user or not. I suppose it’s all depending on whether they contribute positively? I know as much as you. My job, as far as I can tell, is to write things and get accused of various logistically unlikely ethical violations by commenters. Haha.

  5. Hey next time ask your readers from Paris for some advice! Depending on who you worked for, there are many other adresses, like General Elecrric’s foundry in the Opera neighborhood with 3D printers and many other thimgs….

  6. you start (preferably at a young age) with a set of screwdrivers… then a set of files… then a good saw… an electric drill… a cordless drill… then a drill press… etc. And in ten years or so you have everything you need. A CNC is nice but you can do without, a laser cutter is nice… but you can do without. Sometimes it is a good exercise to make it yourself, instead a letting a machine do it for you.
    Sometimes it is better to do it in a few hours manually, then in 1 hour (after 3 days of waiting for your time-slot to come up).

    I’d always preferred to have my own tools, perhaps not the most advanced, but they are mine. I maintain them and if the break it is my own fault. And they are always available. Regarding a 3D printer, well I could do without many times, but some of the time it make the otherwise impossible a great ease. It’s simply a life changer.
    I made my own and opened up a whole new world. But printing large object cost time and I could not imagine printing it elsewhere then home, it simply would mean that the wife would complain that I should be at home more often. Because my projects are never “the first time right”. So to make a long story end… buy or build your own (no rental or spaces).

    1. Glad you blurted out the obvious (I mean that as a compliment). I am constantly amazed that people print out simple parts that any i***t could fabricate with sufficient precision with a hack saw and a drill press. A decent milling machine is below EUR 1K and 2K buys you a very decent lathe. Plus, when you have a lathe, even a bench-top model, you can make spare parts for all your other machines and even some basic milling is possible.

      But sometimes you really need a CNC mill or 3D printer. Reading the comments above, I have no doubt that buying a machine beats all other scenarios – especially when you take into account that even for hobby work, your time has some (significant) value. So, NOT driving to the CNC place, NOT doing an all-nighter at a makerspace because you are productive in your basement is paying for your machines…

      1. I say what you really need is good measuring tools. CNC is great for repeatable results, but for one offs, why bother.

        I’ve scandalized some car dudes in the past, they be all “I got this part custom machined….” and I’ll be like “I did it with a bench grinder and a vernier caliper.”

      2. Yea! One day I sat and thought about the amount of time I was about to spend to go to the hackerspace and cut something out on the laser cutter. I realized I could just… sit on my porch and make it with a coping saw in about five minutes. It’s easy to get spoiled.

        Right now I’m designing parts that will be injection molded, and nothing beats seeing a (close enough) copy in person… CAD just has a way of distorting your sense of size. Plus, if it fits together 3D printed. It will fit together with even the crappiest manufactured tolerances.

        1. Yup, back in the day of CRT monitors a good rule of thumb was that you could trust the proportions of a model if it (1:1) fits in the volume of the monitor you are using … we are using a lot of CNC and 3D printed models to simulate the final appearance (and handling) of consumer products and I could not imagine to go back to hand-sculpted mock-ups / prototypes even though I was trained in a prototyping workshop. What drives me nuts however, is people who take up (expensive) time on our printer(s) because they don’t know how to use other machines to make simple geometries.

  7. I don’t think this is a phenomenon that is specific to Paris.
    I ordered a fairly complex multi-part print from a service here in the US, shipped to a US address, cost nearly $1000. Recognized I was going to need multiple iterations of the design, choked on the price ramifications, and ordered a LulzBot TAZ5 off Amazon – prime next day. I had parts off my printer before my outsourced parts arrived.

  8. Its a metro area, real estate is expensive and so are rates. Lets not mention cotisations (social charges) thats even more crippling than tax. I imagine the same applies to London, there you’d have to travel to hackney or the like out in the burb’s a bit to get the same service. I’m not a big fan of Paris as a base for anything but tourism (sorry parisians, but there it is).
    For a supplier over here (I live about 3 hours south of Paris) I tend to go mail order use bulbzone in luxembourg and go mail order because they supply printrbot parts when I’ve wanted them. For consumables mostly its hard to beat prices to have rolls of filament shipped from the UK. On both price and speed of arrival sadly. Same for offcuts of aluminium etc, by and large its cheaper and more efficient to buy it in the UK (for now, sadly all that will change soon). Sometimes I use blokenstock when they have a special offer on too.
    If anyone has any great french materials companies who supply maker quantities without you having to be a SARL to suggest I’m all ears however.

  9. That’s why I bought a Monoprice mini (Malyan M200). Much less $$$ than having someone else print stuff. I had to replace the power supply with one from an Xbox 360 but that was only $15 at a shop selling used games and tons of other stuff.

    What I’ve been using it for will soon pay for it, and I get results in minutes to hours, not days to weeks, and I can very quickly make changes and print again. Rapid prototyping is only truly rapid if you have your own tools and equipment.

  10. You’re getting it slightly wrong. Maybe this is a cultural thing? The usine.io entrance is only terrifying if you’re terrified of hipsters, since obviously some thought was put into making it as fashionable as possible. From a safety perspective, it’s not terrifying at all. It’s just black, there’s an absurd amount of lighting, it’s just obviously very fancy.

    1. Look, I’ve seen 2001 a space odyssey. I know what happens when you see stuff like that. I’m happy with my dimension. I am not looking to experience any metaphors for death. Haha. (I actually like the entrance quite a bit, perhaps I overdid the hyperbole?)

  11. I agree with you that Techshop and Usine might be a bit overkill if you want to get a basic FDM print. Good alternatives are 3D Hubs or Sculpteo (French version of Shapeways). A cheap and quick 3D printing service would be crazy in Paris, I always found that FDM prints where very expensive compared to what they actually cost on existing platforms !

    PS If you live 1.5 Hrs from Electrolab you’re not living in Paris downtown but in a suburb, so I guess your point also works almost everywhere else including in large US cities.

  12. I live in Paris and the Gerrit’s problem was a lack of communication/knowledge
    Yes, a lot of hackerspace are in suburbain zone because the rents in Paris are very expensive, but suburban zones are really nice.
    We have some fablabs in Paris really cheapest than it was said in this article. We have a lot of printers on 3dhubs.

  13. Can’t you just outsource the whole thing? I mean you have (paper) printshops where you just order stuff and you pick it up later, so surely something like that exists for 3D prints too in France.

    1. Apparently someone didn’t read the whole article before posting….

      “The last avenue available to me aside from 3D printer ownership was contracting someone with a 3D printer to run my prints for me. However, after asking around I found the service to be quite expensive. Rent isn’t cheap in Paris after all. If I just needed a single small print it would be worth it, but if I needed lots of printing it would quickly add up to be more money than I had.”

      :p

        1. Oh and incidentally, there are cheap rent neighborhoods in Paris too Gerrit, where do you think the ‘north african’ rioters live? And they have their small shops too in those cheap rent areas, which probably are lower cost.

          That’s an odd name for an American southerner btw, ‘gerrit’, sounds dutch to me.

        2. While true, the corporate services for 3D printing are similar in cost from what I’ve seen (I suppose maybe it’s different in France?)… They usually charge per volume at a rate which seems like it would be not only horrible for bulk purchases, the turnaround is so bad it makes rapid prototyping nearly impossible. Don’t get me wrong, the service you get is amazing, but he would be paying a premium, and then wouldn’t see the result till about a month later.

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