With the rise of 3D printers it was pretty inevitable I would end up buying one eventually. And sure enough, it finally happened!
( That’s usually the way these articles start, isn’t it? )
I’d been thinking of buying a 3D printer for well over a year, so at least, I’ve had plenty of time to explore the market. 3D printers range from €150 to €15 million per printer, with a hundred thousand price points in between. Given that such a wide range of 3D printers exist, it was probably for the best that I took a full year to make my decision.
Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense. I went for the 2019 model of the Prusa i3 MK3 (which is to say, it’s the MK3S):
Well, sort-of. Because if you pay close attention, you’ll see that it’s the kit version. I’m going to have to assemble this myself. That wasn’t a mistake, either; I made a conscious decision to buy the kit and assemble it myself.
Have I mentioned that I have practically no prior experience with electronics? Yeah, I’m a little bit crazy.
Here’s the thing, though. The kit cost €770 whereas the prebuilts cost €1000. That’s a €230 difference. For some people, that amount of money won’t be very significant… but anybody who knows me, knows that I don’t really have a lot of money. In fact, the only reason I’ve able to buy such an expensive kit is that I’m getting my holiday pay this month.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of “holiday pay”: in the Netherlands this is a legal right for all employees. Generally speaking 8% of your gross monthly pay is reserved every month, and then the full year is paid out at once in the month of May or June. This also applies to everyone who gets disability, enabling even the poorest people to, once a year, go on a small holiday, do something cool, or save for something that they’ve been wanting.
Granted, not even my holiday pay is enough, but I’ve saved up €250 on my own as well, in part thanks to your donations. Combined, that was enough to buy the 3D printer kit, two additional nozzles, and an additional spool of filament. But it wouldn’t have been enough to get the prebuilt instead.
That’s okay, though. There’s another good reason to be building the kit myself, and that’s familiarity with the hardware. These machines are going to need maintenance at some point, or have broken parts replaced in the future. If I’d just gotten the prebuilt, I wouldn’t know what to do. I probably wouldn’t even know what might be wrong to begin with. By building the kit step-by-step, I’ll be able to obtain a familiarity with the hardware that will serve me well in the future.
If you’re still reading, you’re apparently interested enough that you may wonder why I chose to buy this kit instead of something cheaper, especially since there are cheaper printers that have handy features such as built-in WiFi – a key feature not found on Prusa MK3S. Or one could ignore many recent advanced in 3D printing and buy a (comparatively) dirt-cheap Anet A8 instead, which can be had for as little as €165; one-fifth the price my order cost me.
The thing about many of the cheaper 3D printers is that they’re either too small for practical work (some of them have build volumes of only a couple of centimeters) or are too cheap. I know that’s a weird concept, but hear me out.
When you want a specific part, you can get that part for a variety of prices. And higher prices don’t always mean higher quality, but lower prices usually do mean lower quality. By allowing for greater deviations from a given specification in the physical properties of the parts produced, more parts can be made to pass spec – and essentially more parts can be produced more quickly and at a lower price. But you’re sacrificing part quality. And for something as precise as a 3D printer, when you’re stacking part upon part with lose specifications, you’re going to run into issues.
And this is exactly what I’ve found reviewing the cheapest 3D printers. Some people speak only of how amazing these printers are, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that many people run into issues quickly. This is because these printers sacrifice too much quality to hit the price-points that they want to hit. You might get a lucky printer where the parts all happen to be well built and don’t deviate too far from spec… or, you might not. And when you buy, say, a cheap Chinese 3D printer off AliExpress, you’re really rolling the dice. And if you run into a problem, well, good luck trying to fix it down the line.
Speaking of… because the quality of some parts is consistently low on some of these cheap printers, communities have jumped up to improve them. There are websites dedicated to many of the more popular cheap 3D printers, to help you replace the poorly-performing components with better ones. A better power supply, a better rail system, a better cooler, a better extruder, better motors, and… by the time you’ve done all that, you’ve spent so much time waiting for parts to arrive that it probably would have been easier to build a better kit — and probably for a similar price, by the time you’re done with all of the ‘optional’ upgrades.
So the cheap kits in the €150-€400 range don’t make sense, at least to me, for my use case. Then there’s the €400-€700 range of better quality printers, but these are usually small in build volume. Indeed, it’s only above these price points that the 3D printers reach a point where the features, build sizes, and quality points make sense for me.
Given my financial situation though, a 3D printer in the €2000-€6000 range just isn’t feasible. I doubt it ever will be. And there comes a point, in my humble opinion, that you’re paying out of the wazzoo for features that don’t warrant these massive price hikes. Most of these systems are sold exclusively as prebuilts as well, and cannot be serviced manually. That might work if you’re running a company or you’re made of money, and can afford the requisite service contracts… but neither of those cases apply to me…
So, where does that leave us? The €1000 price point. Which, yes, that’s exactly the price point the Prusa i3 MK3S hits. And lucky for me, they offer a kit that’s even cheaper as well, at €770.
I’ve spent some time looking into many of the 3D printers on the market, and there are other reasons that the Prusa i3 MK3S is one of the better purchases. For example, they bulk order all of the major components, and I’m sure they aren’t always shipped well. Beautifully, the people at Prusa test all of the individual components before repackaging them into the kit, in a way that prevents them from damage in transit. And from what I’ve seen of Prusa’s support, if something does go wrong, a replacement part is only a simple contact of customer support away, and often at no additional cost. This is only possible because of their margin and bulk orders allow them to do so. Yes, you pay a small premium… but you get something for that in terms of costumer service.
You could probably order many of the components found in the Prusa i3 MK3S yourself, for less than what you’d pay for the kit. But these parts have to come from all over the world. If you’d ordered these parts yourself, you might have to send back some, perhaps multiple times, before getting one that isn’t broken somehow. This will cost that much more time and money to resolve.
Knowing that you have the exact parts, built to tight specifications, getting a full-size full-color step-by-step build manual and access to a customer service point are why these kits make a lot of sense, both from a convenience and economical perspective.
And that’s why I chose to buy the Prusa i3 MK3S kit. It hits just the right combination of price point, build quality, feature set, and convenience. For me, anyway. YMMV.
Of course, now I have to actually put the damned thing together, which is probably going to take me a while… we’re also going to have to add a new wall socket upstairs to get a grounded socket, because none of the sockets upstairs are currently grounded (and due to its use of a Y-capacitor line filter, the 3D printer requires one), and I’ll probably need to build a desk or cabinet for the printer to sit in or on… but I’ll worry about that later.
You know, later. When I might have money again.
Because I’m definitely broke for now. x)