The home printer is poised for a big change. Forget documents -- your next printer may be used to print a broken part for your washing machine and a handful of figurines for a visiting grandson.
Instead of ink cartridges, 3D printers use plastic filament. The printers read a three dimensional design file similar to the way your computer reads your document file to print a paper copy.
I had the opportunity to spend an evening at EnjiGo, Salt Lake City's newest makerspace (a haven for hobbyists who can pay a monthly fee to use the center's computers, 3D printers and other tools). During my visit, I saw makers devise a handheld electronic Etch-a-Sketch, discuss designs for hi-tech office furniture and test a 3D-printed seatbelt lock designed for a member's young daughter.
Just like a generation of kids who learned to use computers in the 1980s and 1990s, today's high school students are becoming adept at using 3D printers, whether it's in an art or engineering class, said EnjiGo's founder, James Howard.
"A lot of high schools have them -- when these kids leave school, they'll be the ones who'll bring them home," Howard said. But he warned that today's 3D printers, even the high-end ones such as Makerbot's $2,200 Replicator 2, don't work out of the box.
Automated push-button calibration software is the Holy Grail of 3D printers, but the technology is not quite ready. Getting the printer's elements fine-tuned to print what you want is a trial-and-error process -- and one that's caused a lot of frustration, Howard said.
Further, users must calibrate their printers each time they want to print. The printing bed must be level and usually needs adjustment. Air temperature and humidity affect printing. That's why some printers are enclosed, which helps maintain a more consistent printing environment. And, each color of plastic filament has a different melting point, which means the printer must be adjusted when you change colors.
Push-button calibration will eventually become commonplace, but if you buy a pre-assembled printer today, what are the chances you'll be able to retrofit your current printer to use it?
"About zero," Howard said. He recommended that people buy a kit and assemble their own printer.
"If you take the time to build your own 3D printer, you'll know how to fix it when something goes wrong," Howard said. "And you will be able to upgrade it as technology advances."
If you decide to buy a 3D printer, keep the following considerations in mind.
Software: Some 3D printers run open-source software. Others run on the manufacturer's own software. What happens if the company goes out of business? Using open source is like taking out an insurance policy against that scenario.
Materials: Today's 3D printers usually use either PLA or ABS plastic filament. PLA and ABS cost about the same and are available on spools, but that's where the similarities end. For the home printer, PLA is the better choice.
PLA is a corn-based material that smells sweet when heated. It's rated safe for food and melts at a fairly low temperature, between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The downside to PLA is it can soften in temperatures over 200 degrees F. -- temperatures cars can reach on a hot day. Howard knows. He left his newly built printer in the sun; the PLA connectors melted and his printer collapsed. But here's the beauty of 3D printing: Howard remelted his plastic pieces, printed them again and put the printer back together.
ABS is a petroleum-based product that is used primarily by industrial printers. It smells like burning rubber during printing and must reach a temperature of about 260 degrees Fahrenheit to melt. While it's heat resistant, the higher temperatures pose an accident risk.
Print bed: The size of the objects you can print is determined by the size of the print bed, as well as by the maximum distance between the print bed and the extruder (the device that pushes the plastic out to build your object layer by layer).
The standard print bed measures about 8 x 8 inches, but if you select a larger one, you'll be able to print not only bigger objects, but several objects at the same time.
Speed: Technology tends to get faster, but for home 3D printers, big gains in speed will be more difficult to achieve. It took between three and four hours for Howard's custom-built printer to make the 4-inch lion statue that sits on his desk.
"You could make a printer print faster, but you'd wind up with a mess," Howard said.
However, 3D-printing enthusiasts can look forward to higher-resolution printers, much like the gains made in inkjet printers. The good news is that better detail will be made possible through firmware and software updates -- not necessarily through mechanical components.
Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at email@example.com.