We Have A Problem: 3D Printers Are Too Expensive

Hackaday, we have a problem. 3D printing is changing the world but it’s still too expensive to be embraced as a truly transformative technology.

With each passing year, the 3D printing industry grows by leaps and bounds. Food safe PLA is now the norm, with dissolvable and other exotic filaments becoming more mainstream.  New filaments are making it possible to print objects that were not possible before. New CAD software is popping up like dandelions, with each iteration giving novice users a friendly and more intuitive interface to design 3D models. As time marches on, and we look into its future, a vision of the 3D printing world is evident – its only going to get bigger.

3d printerImagine a future where a 3D printer is as common as an ink jet printer in homes all across the world.  A future where you could buy filament from the supermarket down the street, and pick up a new printer from any hardware store. A future where dishwashers, refrigerators and bicycles come with .stl files that allow you to print upgrades or spare parts. A future where companies compete to give the market easy-to-use printers at the cheapest price.

Is this future possible? Not until the technology changes. It’s too expensive, and that’s the problem you’re going to solve. How can you make a 3D printer cheaper? A cheap printer could change the game and make our future a reality.

Where do we need cost savings?

To get you going, here are some parts of common 3D Printers which think need to find cost-saving solutions.

XYZ AND HOT END MOTORS

Stepper motors are going to run you about $15 each. Is it possible to use cheaper DC motors with some type of position tracking while keeping the cost down?

HARDWARE

Threaded rod is probably the cheapest way to move your XYZ axis. What about couplings and guide rods? Check out how this guy made a CNC out of parts from his local hardware store.

ELECTRONICS

No arduino with Easysteppers here – too expensive. We’ve just seen a super cheap controller a few days ago. If we use something other than NEMA steppers, it will radically change the typical electronic controller for our super cheap 3d printer.

EXTRUDER

What is the cheapest way to melt and extrude plastic? What about using thermistors in place of thermocouples? Let’s think out of the box with this, and see if we can get away from the typical stepper motor based extruder. Remember, everything is low cost. If we have to sacrifice some resolution, that is OK.

So there you go. Let’s hear your input on the issue. We need to make 3D printers a lot more affordable and we want to hear any ideas you have on the topic in the comments below. Do you think this is in our future and why?


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219 thoughts on “We Have A Problem: 3D Printers Are Too Expensive

  1. As an outsider I am fascinated and horrified by the entire 3D-printer universe. The hacker part of me badly wants one, and I could happily pay £500 for one without batting an eyelid, just as I paid for a 2D printer, my welder, soldering iron, home computer, etc. etc.

    However, I look at what’s on the market and what they can do and wonder if my £500 (or even £1000) would be better spent on a boring old subtractive CNC micro mill or some other less trendy equipment like a plasma cutter, TIG set, home forge, etc. for making stuff I want to make.

    Right now there is not a single 3D printer I could buy as a hobbyist and put in my workshop that would produce anything I could point at to justify having the thing. It’s partly the materials (relatively brittle low-melting-point plastic) and partly the machine performance & hassle of use. If I hack some item out of metal using a grinder, lathe, welder, mill, etc. I can at least have confidence that the thing will be strong, solid, hold water, and tolerate heat.

    When I can print an adapter for the oil pipes on my engine, mount for the handlebars on my bike, hinge for the door, head for the shower, that special nut & bolt you can’t get from the DIY store on a Sunday, etc. then I’m 1st in line to buy one. In the meantime I’ll be in the workshop hacking lumps of metal, wood, and plastic about like it’s last century.

  2. I like the idea. I already investigated this some time ago – I disassembled my scanner and it has some cheap DC motor with a photo-sensor for distance/track measurement only. The whole head is actuated by a single rubber band with small teeth.
    And this mechanism is able to provide ~600-800DPI resolution (measured).
    To drive such motor you need just a cheap H-bridge and the photo-sensor is worth pennies.
    I would like to build delta-printer using this approach – should be quite cheap…

  3. People who write articles like this usually haven’t spent much time with a 3D printer — the (mechanical) technology is not even robust, much less established…and you want to make them cheaper now?? Get ready for a crappy machine that fails after a few weeks. I have two printers (one that I made myself) — initially I paid around $400 for the first one, but with all the replacement parts, upgrades, wasted filament and fried circuit boards I am sure I’m well over $1,000 — and I am just now to the point where I can get consistent high quality prints — until the next part breaks.

    My home made printer ran about $300 for parts (sure, go cheap on the motors and the extruder — watch how long they takes to start failing on you), and that is salvaging a lot of what I could from parts laying around. The math for a $100 printer just doesn’t work — $30 min for the extruder, $30 min for the RAMPS board, decent motors are at least $10 each and you need 4. Then you have bearings, belts, end stops, connection wires, power source…no chance, unless it is someone’s loss leader.

  4. People who write articles like this usually haven’t spent much time with a 3D printer — the (mechanical) technology is not even robust, much less established…and you want to make them cheaper now?? Get ready for a crappy machine that fails after a few weeks. I have two printers (one that I made myself) — initially I paid around $400 for the first one, but with all the replacement parts, upgrades, wasted filament and fried circuit boards I am sure I’m well over $1,000 — and I am just now to the point where I can get consistent high quality prints — until the next part breaks.

    My home made printer ran about $300 for parts (sure, go cheap on the motors and the extruder — watch how long they takes to start failing on you), and that is salvaging a lot of what I could from parts laying around. The math for a $100 printer just doesn’t work — $30 min for the extruder, $30 min for the RAMPS board, decent motors are at least $10 each and you need 4. Then you have bearings, belts, end stops, connection wires, power source…no chance, unless it is someone’s loss leader.

  5. A reflection on the Step motors. In the early scanners and paper printers, stepper motors where used. Nowadays, both are using regular motors with strip step detection.
    This cost reduction for 3D printers should follow their example for cost cut.

    1. Just to needlessly mention the Sinclair ZX Printer, must’ve cost them next to nothing to manufacture, although it had a few weak points for things to go wrong. Surprisingly they rarely did, as long as you the screws ABSOLUTELY ALONE! One little bit of tinkering and you’ve likely ruined it forever!

      That used the same, cheap DC motor with a 4-quadrant encoder disk. It was at least optical, they spent some money on optos instead of using PCB and conductance. The way some cheap mice did. Maybe they tried it the cheap conductance way and couldn’t get it working. Not even once I mean, “reliable” wouldn’t have been a problem to a company with 50% or more return rates on some products. Bless ’em, they brought computers to the home dirt cheap, sometimes half the price of the competition, for a computer with colour and sound.

      A boner with the computer I mention, the 16K / 48K Spectrum, was no joystick interface, but back in 1982 it wasn’t obvious you needed one. So a good few companies sprung up providing just that. The Spectrum brought the full Z80 bus, plus a few signals from the ULA that did almost everything else, out to the back of the PCB as it’s “expansion port”. Worked though. An “Interface 1″ added a serial port, and a port for a Microdrive floppy-tape drive, and simple networking.

      All of these were bit-banged by the CPU. To save money they didn’t bother decoding the I/O ports from the Z80, each peripheral, including the internal ULA, checked just one address line for a low signal. So a joystick interface just checked IORQ and address bit 5, then connected the joystick lines straight to the data bus when selected. So just a 74xx series chip and Bob’s yer uncle.

      Annnyway… cost cutting. Microdrive used the same method. As did the (non-Sinclair invented) 3″ floppy drive, a DC motor driving the drive spindle with a synthetic-rubber band. At least toothed, but I think all the smarts were done by reading the formatting from the disk itself.

      On a similar irrelevant note, it was interesting to see how specialised, and how simplified, 3.5″ PC floppy drives got towards the end of their time. Motor / spindle as one unit built in, all special purpose parts, all very cheap I’d guess. They were selling for 2 and 3 pounds toward the end, tho that might have been to empty stockpiles. From their beginning as full-height 5.25” (and 8 inchers) packed full of mechanics and electronics, they really came on. If only they’d thought of that years earlier. Maybe the sales numbers would’ve been a lot more, earlier on, if they had. As it is, nobody outside the USA had real floppies for their 8-bitters, except a very few toward the end.

      Anyway, motors, yeah… I suppose scanners needed the strength of steppers as well as their accuracy, at first. Since USB brought in the cost savings of no PSU, if you can keep below 500mA, there was motivation to make the scan head smaller, and use RGB LED lighting instead of a fluorescent tube. So mechanics got a bit lighter. That, and no need to keep pausing the scan while the old parallel port connection is buffering.

  6. Way back in the 1980s, when paper printers were priced in the thousands, there was a design that stood out from the pack. One design by Digital Group Systems, used a solenoid driven ratchet device to feed paper accurately while keeping costs down.http://bytecollector.com/dg_printer.htm
    It seems that a similar design, employing small solenoids and ratchet mechanisms on the vertical axis

  7. We don’t hear as much from people who were working to make 3D printers 100% printable, or as close as possible, any more. That, and the ability to make your own filament from bulk plastic grains, would help a lot.

  8. Performance Art.

    I’ve often wondered why someone smarter than me doesn’t make building a 3D printer performance art. Sure it wouldn’t be a great printer, but I think it could be done in an entering fashion. It may take a special set of printers, but at the end of the performance, there would be something printing.

    It would take probably 2 ink jet printers, I like the cannon ones. Belts and motors would be used for the X,Y and Z axis, the frame they are in would be partially used, along with the rods for the print heads. A dremel, screwdriver and a hammer would be used to put the components into the proper general shape. The more jagged edges the more entertaining. Opto sensors or maybe the front panel push buttons should be used for the limit sensors. Re-using screws as much as possible would even make it better. Narrating the destruction would be interesting (IE “some bean counter surely influenced this engineering choice”), and thoughts about the assembly would be entertaining as well.

    An off the shelf extruder and controller board would make it possible.

    Buying 2 printers at Walmart maybe $100, control board ~100, extruder well…

    (used printers are a bad choice, have you seen where all the ink goes? not on the paper :-o).

    Anyway just my thoughts.

  9. There’s a useful metric that’s not getting sufficient attention, and that is usable build volume, in cubic centimeters. A RepRap Morgan gives you 20 x 20 x 22 cm, 8800cc. If you can build one for $350, that’s 30 cents per cc. Does this metric have appeal to anybody else?

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