A Brief History of My 3D Printer

About five years ago (circa 2013), 3D printing was primed to change the world. These little machines, whirring about with seeming sentience, produced objects out of thin air. There would soon be a 3D printer in every home, printing new cups, plates and toothbrushes on demand. Factories would abandon their antiquated methods and produce all plastic parts on their shiny new printers. But, years passed, and the world was not changed. Almost nobody has a 3D printer in their home, and the technology simply didn’t prove economical for large scale production. 3D printers have instead been reserved to spending their days in the lonely basements of hobbyists and nerds, relics of the desktop manufacturing revolution that never came.

In early 2018, when I preordered my Prusa i3 MK3 for $749, I didn’t know exactly what I would be using it for. I wanted to try and use it for prototyping new products and inventions, but I didn’t have a particular project in mind.  Prusa had difficulty keeping up with demand when they released the MK3. I knew when I preordered my machine that printer shipments would likely be delayed. However, I was still enticed to choose the Prusa by scores of rave reviews. Additionally, I loved the company’s open source ethos and the fact that they 3D print all parts for their printers in house, on their own printers. After several months of anticipation (and modest frustration), my printer arrived in a cardboard box postmarked from the Czech Republic.

I opted to get my printer as a kit, instead of fully assembled. I did this in part to save money, but mostly because I thought it would be fun to build. My wife, Michelle, and I put the printer together over the course of about a week. It was, as anticipated, quite an involved process- we probably put about 7-8 hours into it. It was definitely fun (and, again, modestly frustrating).

Time to print. Over the next week I printed a number of objects that came preloaded on the MK3’s SD card; the Prusa logo, a little bulldog, 2 tree frogs, a model car, and a couple misshapen globs of stringy plastic. Reviews of the MK3 had lead me to believe that 3D printing with the machine would be foolproof. It wasn’t entirely. I had a number of prints that came off of the print bed in the middle of the print (resulting in the aforementioned globs), and I had some inconsistent first layers. I spent a couple hours dialing in my first layers and got them looking pretty good. I still have parts detach on me occasionally, but less frequently than in the beginning.

If I were to get another printer, I’d buy one fully assembled. Putting it together was cool, but I think it’s reduced my confidence in the machine a bit. I’m never sure what the cause of some printing issue is- so I usually default to thinking that I put the thing together wrong. Basically, unless you really like to tinker with stuff, I’d recommend the piece of mind of a professionally-assembled machine.

I’ve had my printer for a solid 6 months now. I’m almost finished with the spool of filament that came with it. I feel pretty comfortable drawing something up (or finding it on Thingiverse), loading it onto the SD card, and hitting print. I still have a ton to learn, but I’ve made decent progress.

A couple months ago, I needed some specialty parts for my mountain bike. They’re these little tiny plastic bits, but the only place online that sells them charges like $15. So, I jumped to action. I drew the part up in Onshape in about 20 minutes. Once loaded onto the printer, the part took less than 5 minutes to print. And then I had the part in my hand- a physical object that fulfilled the exact, hyper-specific purpose I needed. That is an incredibly empowering experience. In 30 minutes, I made the the thing that had just been a picture in my head, and I didn’t have to spend $15 on it, and I didn’t have to wait for shipping, and I didn’t even have to leave my house, and now that I’ve done that I feel like a can do freaking anything.

So no, 3D printers haven’t changed the world. I’m both a hobbyist and a nerd, and my 3D printer lives in my spare bedroom (no basement). But, for me, the reality of owning a 3D printing isn’t so far off from that future fantasy foreseen back in 2013.

Gavin Lewis