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3D Printers: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Buy

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There’s no doubt about it: 3D printers are the new big thing. Sales of consumer-based units doubled in 2013 and are expected to double again in 2014, so if you find yourself longing for one, you’re not alone.

If you’re new to the field of 3D printing, here are five questions to answer before you buy:

1. What do I want to make?
This is the central issue. Many people simply want to experiment with this fascinating technology, others have particular projects in mind. To begin defining the type of printer you might need, develop a thorough list of things you would like to make.

2. Am I using the printer for fun or profit?
If your goal is to have fun, the opportunities are endless. Choose an easy-to-use printer you can have up and running in the shortest amount of time.  If your goal is to make something specific such as model parts or jewelry components for yourself or as marketable products, look for a 3D printer capable of producing your target items.

3. What type of materials do I want or need to use?
Many desktop 3D printers are designed to use ABS or PLA plastics that melt easily and produce plastic objects. Some are configured to process metals or alloys like gold, silver, brass, bronze, copper, platinum, steel and stainless steel. Others print gypsum (stone) objects or wax forms that can be used for molding and casting processes. A few are versatile enough to handle several material types. Defining the material(s) your projects require will guide you toward printers with the capabilities you desire.

4. What qualities must the finished item have?
This is a crucial question. If you’re just having fun, you have the flexibility to choose a printer that produces one-color objects with an acceptable but unrefined surface texture. If your goal is to produce end-use products or objects for display, you may need one that handles multiple colors and produces finishes. Narrow your search to those that meet your criteria.

5. How big are the items?
Desktop 3D printers have severe size limitations, a fact that surprises some newcomers. Many compact, low-cost printers have a maximum build capacity of 4 x 4 x 4 inches, while more sophisticated ones accommodate items as large as 10 x 8 x 6 inches. Identifying the maximum size you hope to achieve will direct you to a printer with the right capacity.

Naturally, there are other considerations at play. If budget isn’t an issue, simply find a printer that meets your standards. If price is an issue, search for one that offers the features you require and fits your price range. There are also countless technical considerations that will influence your decision, but answering these questions will help you begin to pinpoint the type of 3D printer you want and need.

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