Back in 2013 I read a paper titled Life-Cycle Economic Analysis of Distributed Manufacturing with Open-Source 3-D Printers. The study, which focused on the legendary RepRap 3D printer, was conducted by Joshua Pearce at Michigan Technological University and concluded:
The results show that even making the extremely conservative assumption that [a] household would only use the printer to make the selected twenty products a year the avoided purchase cost savings would range from about $300 to $2000/year. Assuming the 25 hours of necessary printing for the selected products is evenly distributed throughout the year these savings provide a simple payback time for the RepRap in 4 months to 2 years and provide an ROI between>200% and >40%.
In other words, 3D printing, at least according to this analysis, could save consumers real money even factoring in the cost of the 3D printer. Alas, what the study didn’t really evaluate was ease of use.
A couple of years ago, I tested a leading 3D printer in the $1,500 range and it was an exercise in frustration. While I managed to produce a few objects with excellent finishes and dimensions, the setup was laborious (the build platform had to be manually leveled) and the software was clunky (I never wrote about the product because I thought the product was just a “nice idea” that needed a lot more polish unless you were a patient and well-off geek).
My prior experience notwithstanding, there was, and still is, no doubt in my mind that consumer 3D printing will be commonplace. In fact, I just got my hands on a product that clearly shows this is going to happen sooner than you might think: The Micro M3D, tag line “the first truly consumer 3D printer,” priced at under $400. Started with a Kickstarter campaign, the Micro M3D was extremely successful and was funded by over 12,000 backers.
So, here’s the details: The printer’s overall size is a 7.3-inch cube and, according to its specifications, it can print …
… objects as tall as 116mm (4.6"). The base print area is 109mm x 113mm (4.3" x 4.5”). Above a height of 75mm the print base area is 91mm x 85mm (3.6” x 3.3”) … [and] the X/Y positioning resolution is 15 microns. You can choose layer resolutions from 50 microns to 350 microns.
In other words, the smallest volume you can print is 350 microns square horizontally by 50 microns high which is excellent resolution even for higher priced machines.
For printing materials, M3D offers an impressive array of choices including PLA or ABS filament in a range of colors along Chameleon 3D Ink which “changes to a rich white color when exposed to a specific temperature. Chameleon 3D Ink comes in 10 variations between 7 colors and 4 temperature modes.”
After I installed the Windows software (it’s also available for OS X) I used the included PLA filament to print a holder so I could hang the filament spool on the side of the printer. You can also have the spool located under the build platform but that’s a fiddly place to put it because you have to remove the build platform to change spools. I chose a medium quality print and some 10 hours later, there it was. Overall, the finish and sizing was very good.
Next, I printed a statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, which I chose for three reasons: The model had a high level of detail, I have Buddhist relatives, and what’s not to like about a god with an elephant’s head? I used a higher but not the maximum resolution and, 12 hours later, the results were excellent. I’m about to start printing the gears for a clock at high resolution and we’ll see how long that takes but I’m guessing to the order of 15 hours each.
In operation the Micro M3D is extremely quiet and, as with all 3D printing, weirdly soothing to watch. While there are no fumes or any reason not to run the M3D on your desk next to your PC, I strongly advise against it; you will wind up hypnotized and your productivity will decline … also, it’s best to place the printer on a solid surface otherwise your print may acquire artifacts from knocks and vibration.
While the printer is billed as “plug and play” and is both self-levelling and self-calibrating, the fact is it’s not quite there yet. Following the instructions and plugging in the printer after installing the M3D application led to Windows vainly looking for the right USB driver. I finally figured out that the required driver is actually in a sub-sub-subdirectory of the software … the instructions fail to mention this. I’ve found the USB driver to be stable under Windows 10 but under previous versions of Windows (I first used a machine running Vista that I hadn’t got around to upgrading) the USB driver sometimes failed to connect the printer to the application and much hilarity (not) and rebooting ensued.
As for the M3D application itself, it’s just okay. You can load models in .stl and .obj formats although I found that not all .obj models are created equal; a couple I tried to load were simply rejected as faulty without any further explanation which is not necessarily M3D’s fault, whatever app was used to generate some of these models could well be the problem as this is a pretty new field, but all the same, it was annoying to not know what the problem was.
My big complaint is that the M3D application’s user interface is clumsy (it looks like an engineer's design). With my first print (the spool holder) I found I had to rotate the object to make it fit on the build platform and it was annoying to have to make several random attempts until it was oriented correctly. Even then the supporting "raft" (a layer on top of which the actual print is built to ensure the model's stability) wound up overlapping the edge of the build platform which, while it didn't cause a problem, seemed wrong. While optimal positioning really should be done by the application, a better user interface would suffice.
A final complaint, the filament spools have what M3D calls a "cheat code" printed on the side (what's a "cheat" about this I have no idea) that you use to tell the application which material you're using. The code on the side of a spool the company sent me didn't work. I sent M3D's support a query about this and got the reply:
Thank you for contacting M3D! We're very sorry to hear that! The cheat code that you actually need to be entering is "TGH". To ensure that the code works, please make sure that you have our latest software installed on your computer. Please also be mindful that our Tough 3D Ink is intended for external port use only and that a printing temperature of anywhere between 215 and 225 is recommended. If you have any other questions, please let us know and we'd be happy to assist you. Have a great day!
If the code should be "TGH" why does it say "TGB" on the filament spool label?
... and got the reply:
That is a really great question. The code TGB is a new code for our future software. When the new software is released, the code TGB will be accepted.
Yes, it is a great question and the answer is kind of ridiculous.
“Come on, Mark” you might say, “Aren’t you nit-picking?” and you’re right, given what the Micro M3D offers at its price, it's amazing. It’s just that my complaints are what places the Micro M3D in the geek enthusiast market rather than positioning it where it ought to be: The consumer market.
Nit-picking aside, the Micro M3D really is a great product and definitely affordable which makes Pearce’s value estimation look extremely conservative. Currently priced at $349, the Micro M3D is amazing value and gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out 5.
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