Building a 3D printer for $100, should schools do this to save money? … probably not

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I have heard a number of schools talk about these very cheap iPrusa based kits as an option for cheap hardware in schools. While mine is now working okay and prints look good, it is still a tinkering hobby rather than something I would like to rely upon. Knowing our 3D printing loads at school now that have grown since we started a year ago, I think it wouldn’t be a practical solution unless you want to spend more time adjusting and scraping than actually printing student work. The short answer to the question in the title is ‘no, you get what you pay for’ but the longer answer below is that there is loads of value in this project for students if they are building one themselves.

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Going back to the start of this I did not have many expectations when the box arrived from China. Total amount paid was a few dollars over $100 US. Actually the quality of materials seemed pretty good, everything was there that should be and the instruction booklet had actual pictures in it. I set aside an evening and figured by the next day I’d have a line of vases and small Star Wars models done. It didn’t quite work out like that and it actually takes quite a bit of time to make sure everything is carefully tightened and aligned as it goes together. The first roadblock I hit also came that evening at around 2:00 am when I over-tightened a little metal throat that the print filament goes down before being heated, it snapped. A bit annoyed I called it a night and ordered a couple of new metal throats the next day. A week later they came and sure enough I snapped both of them as well.

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We talk to the kids quite a lot about learning through making mistakes and what I had learned was that this tiny bit of metal was delicate and also that I did not like the way it attached on this print head. It prompted me to learn more about print heads and as it turns out this one was the cheapest and least reliable you can get. So I found instructions for fitting a different print head that included better heat dissipation and didn’t have an annoying little metal throat for me to break again. The needed parts took a couple of weeks to arrive and then a couple more before I had time to fit them and finish the project.

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Finally it was all together. The wiring was quite straight forward, although not for anti-wire neat freaks. Running a few little tests moving the print head presented the next problem. It seems one of the vertical screw threads was bent, again something quite common from what I read. A bit of disassembly and beating with a mallet got it a little straighter and some slight adjustments to the acrylic frame had it moving up and down correctly. It was now ready to print.

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The first print was a little flat star wars rebel sign. It came out okay but appeared rough in a few places. I followed up with a mini-Charmander, he also had rough patches. I went right through the software and settings to look for problems and couldn’t find any. Eventually and kind of by accident I tried a different roll of filament from one of our school 3D printers. The solution was again it seems down to getting what you pay for. The red filament that came with the printer was clearly a little bit low quality. Filament for your 3D printer should be a certain diameter, the cheap roll did not keep a consistent diameter along it’s length so sometimes more filament came out and sometimes less leading to the roughness. Printing on the higher quality filament was great and prints looked as good as any we have had from our more expensive printers at school.

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What I learned is that building a 3D printer is not that difficult but there is plenty of mistake making and learning to be had in the process. Therefore I am now planning to build another (different stlye) 3D printer with a group of students as an extra curricular activity. I think they’ll learn a lot and have something kinda cool from it at the end. Will it be as good as our $2000 Up Box printers? No way near, but that’s not why I want them to build it. The learning is in the making, not in the using of the product.