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TweakTown's Guide to 3D Printing: Part 2 - 3D Printer Kit Selection

In our last installment, we discussed what made up a 3D printer, and what one should pay attention to when considering purchasing one. Today we are going to take a few more steps down the 3D printing road and discuss how to select a DIY kit.

@CharlesJGantt
Published Sun, Jun 2 2013 9:59 PM CDT   |   Updated Tue, Nov 3 2020 7:00 PM CST

Introduction and Different types of 3D printing kits

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There are literally hundreds of 3D printer kits on the market at the moment, and in many ways they are essentially the same kit with the same parts and being sold by a different seller. I am not trying to belittle any of the kit makers out there as piecing together kits is a tedious, and tough task, so much in fact that you do need to exercise caution when choosing a kit to buy. Some kit makers like to pull the wool over customer's eyes and will sell enough kits to order the parts before piecing things together. This can lead to weeks or even months before your kit will arrive.

Another thing you must look out for is kits that appear to be complete, but are missing key components like printed or laser cut parts, extruder parts or even guide rods. While most sellers are upfront about these missing parts, some leave little or no clue to what you need to finish the kit.

In this installment I am going to showcase a few of the best kits on the market, as well as point you in the right direction if you want to go the entire DIY route.

Different types of 3D printing kits

I covered this section in the last article, but I really want to make sure that you understand the two main types of 3D printer DIY kits. One will path will take you into the realm of hardware sourcing, while the other will provide you with almost everything you need to build your own printer.

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Scratch Built 3D Printer - Are you the DIY type who prefers to build things from scratch? If so, then you might consider going to DIY RepRap route. While it is up in the air if this method will actually save you any money, there is something to be said for building your own 3D printer from scratch. You become very intimate with the printer and will know every nut, bolt and quirk it has by the time you are successfully printing. The big problem with scratch building is the sheer amount of time that it takes to source everything. With hundreds of nuts, bolts, wires, belts pulleys and much more to locate, order and inventory before you can begin building, this method is by far the longest route one can take. Once all of the hardware has been sourced, you will still need to select and purchase or build a controller board, and depending on your skills level, this can range from easy to almost impossible.

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Kit Built 3D Printer - If you would still like to save some money, but not have to deal with the hassle of sourcing parts and modifying them to fit together, then maybe a kit is the way for you. Many manufacturers sell kits with "easy-to-assemble" instructions included. You still must be somewhat mechanically inclined and able to understand basic geometry. Many of these kits come with the electronics already built, but there are a few that require you to break out a soldering iron and populate the PCBs.

If soldering is not your bag, then I would definitely avoid a kit that requires soldering. Like a scratch build, you will need to spend hours adjusting, calibrating and configuring things before your machine is printing at a good level of quality. The image above is the typical RepRap Prusa Mendel kit you will find for sale around the web.

Building a 3D Printer from Scratch

Most 3D printers on the market today are built around designs and technology that is derived from the RepRap project. This is very good for those looking to build their own 3D printer from scratch as the community that has developed around the RepRap is like no other. In addition to the support available from the community, the entire RepRap project is open source, meaning that all of the design files, hardware bills of materials, and software are free for anyone to download, modify, and use as they wish.

What design do I choose? - This is something you will need to research thoroughly as each model is unique in its own way and as such, each model has it's pros and cons. Personally I am a big fan of the Mendel design, more specifically the Mendel Max variant. I like this design because it robust reliable and easy to set up and tune. With RepRap as long as you stick with something of the Mendel variant or one of the Prusa designs, you will always be able to find help in forums or IRC chat.

Below we take a look at some of the different RepRap designs and will list out their bill of materials. Keep in mind these are not the only 3D printers you can build from scratch, they are just my personal preference. After being part of the RepRap community for several years now, I feel more than confident in these recommendations.

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RepRap Mendel - The RepRap Mendel is the second generation 3D printer from the RepRap project and is a wedge design. It's small enough to fit on your desk, but with a print volume large enough for you to make big things. The machine is made up of parts sourced from local suppliers and online. Some parts will need to be manufactured by you. Like most kits we are going to talk about, you will need to acquire some 3D printed parts to complete the build. The bill of materials can be found here. More info can be found on the RepRap Mendel page of RepRap.org.

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Prusa Mendel V2 - The Prusa Mendel is by far the most popular of the RepRap derived 3D printers because the build is simplified and uses less parts. Prusa Mendel improves on a previous design by being more streamlined for manufacture. The Prusa Mendel is a simpler remix of the original Mendel. By default, it uses printed bushings instead of regular bearings, though options to substitute inexpensive LM8UU linear bearings or other types of bearings or bushings are available. You can find the Prusa Mendel's bill of materials here. Additional information can be found on the Prusa Mendel page on RepRap.org.

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Mendel Max - My personal Favorite, the Mendel Max (MM) is an Open Source RepRap 3D printer designed by Maxbots in December 2011. It is a true RepRap using printed brackets, but instead of using threaded rod for the structural elements, it uses inexpensive aluminum extrusions. This gives a huge increase in rigidity for a minimal extra cost (self-sourcing will cost about $80 more than a standard Prusa Mendel).

Mendel Max is based on the Prusa Mendel and keeps its best parts. The Prusa Mendel kept the frame of the Sells Mendel, but fixed the problems in the X, Y and Z axes. Mendel Max 1.0 builds on that by largely keeping the current XYZ axes, but completely redesigning the frame.

In addition to the increased rigidity, the printer is much easier to assemble than a standard Prusa. Even an inexperienced builder should have no trouble building the whole frame in an evening, two at most. And along with the easy assembly comes easy hackability. Almost any part on the bot can be removed with just a few screws, so swapping out literally any part on the bot is now a trivial operation. I have listed the bill of materials here and more information can be found on the Mendel Max page on RepRap.org.

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Prusa i3 - The Prusa i3 (iteration 3) is the newest and current 3D printer design by RepRap Core Developer Prusajr. The i3 incorporates lessons learned from the previous two Prusa designs, as well as other popular modern RepRaps designs. While this design is refined, it is still in its infancy and is actively being developed by many members in the community, as well as large companies such as long spot who's new to TAZ 3D printer appears to be based off the i3 design. To be honest, I am really unfamiliar with this design and would recommend you do research before deciding to build your own. The bill of materials can be found here, and you can find out more by visiting the Prusa i3 page on RepRap.org.

What to look for in a DIY 3D Printer kit?

Not all kits are the same and as I alluded to in the past, some kits come complete with everything you need to build your own, while others leave out some of the hardest to find or more expensive parts. It's very important when choosing a kit that you reference the printer's bill of materials against the parts listed in the kit, as some kit makers do not disclose what parts they leave out. In this section, I'm going to go over a few different kits that I feel are some of the best available.

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Prusa Mendel Kit from Maker Farm - This kit is to help you build a V2 Linear Bearing Prusa 3D printer and features a Greg's Accessible Extruder. This kit features V2 Linear Bearings which are far superior to any of the printed bushings or bronze bushings you will find another kits. This equates to better prints and easier assembly. This is because the Linear Bearings have virtually no resistance so everything slides like butter.

The kit includes everything you need from printed parts, to hardware, and even electronics; however there are a few parts you will need to purchase separately. Threaded and smooth rods are not included, and you will need to source a PC power supply to power the unit. A piece of glass is needed for the heated bed as well as the supporting Kapton tape and binder clips which hold the glass to the bed.

This kit will run you about $550 before the purchase of additional parts, but it is a good way to get started quickly. Unfortunately at the time of this publication Maker Farm seems to be out of stock on this kit, but it should come back in stock shortly.

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Prusa 8" i3 kit from Maker Farm - As I mentioned earlier, the Prusa i3 is a fairly new printer to me, and as such I am not quite as familiar with it as I am other RepRap 3D printer designs. However, I do know the man behind the design, and if his previous works are any indication, the Prusa i3 is a superior printer to the Mendel design. Maker Farm has a laser cut 8" x 8" x 7.25" i3 Kit that is said to be the easiest to build out of any 3D printer kit they have carried. It includes everything you need to get up and printing except for an ATX PSU and sheet of glass for the build platform.

Retailing for $560, the Prusa 8" i3 kit appears to be one heck of a deal and I may just pick up one for myself to see how well it prints.

Printrbot LC and PrintrBot Plus - PrintrBot burst onto the 3D printing scene early last year and is the result of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. Today they offer four different models covering the whole range of build volumes and budget levels. Each kit comes with everything you need to get started printing and the only extra purchase you will need to make is some extra filament because you will be printing so much.

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The Printrbot LC (Laser Cut) was one of the first models released by the company and features a 6" x 6" x6" build envelope. It is a little tricky to put together, but build instructions and documentation is one thing the PrintrBot crew excels in. It is available with 3mm or 1.75mm filament provisions, and a fan mount with fan. At $649 it is a little more expensive than the Prusa i3 kit listed above, but it comes with better build instructions.

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The Printrbot LC PrintrBot PLUS is identical to the Printrbot LC except it features a larger build envelope of 8" x 8" x8". This is very close to the Prusa i3, but cost almost $300 more. On the upside the printer has been around for about a year, so there are many users in the printer bought community page who are more than willing to lend a hand when issues arise.

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Printrbot Jr and PrintrBot Simple - Featuring a 4.5" x 5.5" x 4" filled envelope, the Printrbot LC Printrbot Jr is a much simpler version of the Printrbot design. Unlike its larger siblings, it is only able to print in PLA and uses one less motor than the two Printrbot models mentioned above. The company touts this as being a more kid friendly version, but with the extruder still reaching temperatures high enough to melt plastic, parental guidance is still advised. The Printrbot Jr is the cheapest kit we have featured yet coming in at $399.

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Rounding out the Printrbot offerings is the Printrbot Simple, a new mini sized 3D printer with a build envelope of 100mm. At the moment it's still in the beta phase, but will retail for $299 when it launches later this month.

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Mendel Max kit by TeraWatt Industries - This is an entire do-it-yourself Mendel Max version 1.5 kit, and features a Greg's accessible extruder. It features a build volume of 8" x 7.5" x 4" and all you will need to add is a sheet of glass for the build plate and an ATX power supply. Coming in at just over $1,225, this is a serious commitment to consider when purchasing your first 3D printer. As I mentioned before, the Mendel Max is by far my favorite design, as it allows for faster printing speeds and a more rigid frame which equates to better quality prints.

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Mendel Max 2.0 kit by Makers Tool Works - The Mendel Max 2.0 is the next generation of the super rugged robust RepRap derived 3D printer. It features a build volume of 9" x 10" x 7", which is significantly larger than the original Mendel Max. At the moment the kit is still in the beta stage that comes with everything you need to build your own Mendel Max 2.0. Priced at $1,495, it is the most expensive kit listed, but has the largest build volume out of all we have looked at. Keep in mind this is a beta kit and documentation is still being put together.

What does it all mean?

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At the end of the day this TweakTown article is just a guide that is here to aid you in making your own decision, I have never owned any of the kits I've listed, but based my suggestions off reviews from friends and the overwhelming positive feedback I have noticed on 3D printing forums. 3D printing is a fun hobby, but it is a hobby that has a fairly steep learning curve. You will need to learn how the software works, how to modify 3D files and even how to create your own. You will also need to learn how to maintain your printer, as well as repair it when things break. This is why I am such an advocate of building your printer from a kit. You learn the ins and outs, the proper way to assemble and disassemble things, and you get street credit for building your own 3D printer.

I have went down the path of sourcing parts for my own printer before, and if you're looking for a long-term project that you can accomplish piece by piece during your free time, this is the way to go. However, you do need to be somewhat mechanically inclined if you decide to take this path, as it will involve cutting, drilling, tapping and even some custom machining.

Purchasing a preassembled DIY kit removes a lot of the custom modification work, but you still must be able to assemble things using screwdrivers wrenches and other hand tools. There is some assurance from a preassembled kit as you know that everything you need to build your printer is in the box.

Both methods are can require hours of tuning and adjusting to get your 3D printer printing at a high level of quality. This usually just involves tweaking things such as the axis position and threaded rod positions. As I mentioned earlier, there are several 3D printing communities that are full of people willing to help you get through this process.

If the idea of building your own 3D printer from scratch or a kit does not appeal to you, stay tuned for next month where we will cover what I consider to be the best of the preassembled 3D printers, as well as the ones you should avoid at all costs. Stay tuned for part 3!

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A web developer by day, Charles comes to TweakTown after a short break from the Tech Journalism world. Formerly the Editor in Chief at TheBestCaseScenario, he now writes Maker and DIY content. Charles is a self proclaimed Maker of Things and is a major supporter of the Maker movement. In his free time, Charles likes to build just about anything, with past projects ranging from custom PC cooling control systems to 3D printers. Other expensive addictions include Photography, Astronomy and Home Automation.

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