It’s nearing the start of University sessions for many students, some of whom may be contemplating using a 3D printer – in their dormitory room.
I’m wondering whether this is a sensible idea or not, and thought I’d discuss some of the issues that would inevitably come up if such a move were taken.
The scenario would be that a student living in a college residence or dormitory, perhaps with roommates, should attempt to operate a 3D printer.
There are some valid reasons for doing so: project work in several disciplines, including engineering, architecture, interior design, fine arts and others may indeed benefit from the ability to operate one’s own 3D printer. The idea would be to spend a few hundred bucks and have a personal 3D printer available for such uses 24×7.
But would this really work? Let’s examine some of the challenges:
3D printers can be noisy, and this could be quite distracting to cranky roommates who may feel that sleeping is a desirable activity at night. The whirring of stepper motors is rarely constant, so the noise, particularly if close by, could be quite disruptive. Note, however, that some more expensive desktop 3D printers are somewhat quieter in operation, but in my experience you really do want to hear the machine – when it doesn’t sound right, there is something terribly wrong and you must intervene quickly.
Certain materials, particularly ABS thermoplastic filament and many resins, if you’re considering using a resin machine, may emit noxious odors, some of which may even be toxic. Unless you have sufficient ventilation (which means far more than simply opening a window), you should not consider these materials. Even common PLA emits odors, and although pleasant, are really not something you should be constantly breathing – which you will do when sleeping while printing. Again, some more expensive machines do include air filtration systems, but they really aren’t as good as they should be.
Your 3D printer will of course require electrical power, and plenty of it for long periods of time. In some campus situations there may be limitations on power, or even interruptions. You should review your place of accommodation’s policies on power use. You may require a fancy uninterruptible power supply in some situations.
Many dorm rooms are rather small, and you should consider exactly where this machine will be positioned. Do you have sufficient table space for accommodating the 3D printer? Should you purchase a smaller version? Would that still meet your needs? You’ll also need at least an equivalently sized workspace where you can post-process prints, store tools and supplies, and a handy trash can for all the debris generated.
As desktop 3D printers operate, their mechanical systems will swiftly move to and fro, generating a fair amount of momentum for the device. If it’s not very securely positioned on a particularly solid table, you will encounter substantial vibrations that will be at least annoying (especially if loose stuff is being shaken and could fall down), or damaging if the print quality is compromised by all the shaking. Get a very solid table.
Aside from storing the materials, which should be in sealed bags with desiccants to eliminate moisture, you will have to procure the spools of thermoplastic (or resin). Are you able to order and receive deliveries of this material? What are your campus policies on delivery? Do you have to send them elsewhere and pick them up?
Some poorly designed 3D printers are actually a bit dangerous. One model in particular has been responsible for several fires, where the thermal controls somehow didn’t catch and massive damage resulted. I would definitely avoid any machine of such reputation or even similar styles of machines for this reason. Remember, a dorm is a habitation containing dozens or hundreds of people; you cannot put them at risk. Check into insurance for your 3D printer and you may be surprised.
Does your target machine have the ability to produce prints of quality sufficient for your purposes? If it does not, then what’s the point of attempting to operate one? You can’t simply by “any” 3D printer and hope to get great results; there are countless different models with different capabilities. Choose the right tool for the job.
If you’ve operated a 3D printer before, fine, but if you have not, you should consider the effort required to become competent on any particular machine. It’s often a period of months before a new operator truly knows what they are doing with a machine. You have to go through multiple bad experiences to learn the ropes. If this is the case, how much project work will you really get done? Perhaps get one the summer before and train on it earlier.
While 3D printers inevitably come equipped with operational software, they do not come with 3D CAD tools that can be used to design printable 3D models. These tools are of highly varying pricing, ranging from free to ridiculous, and target many different design domains. They are all challenging to learn. If you don’t already have the right software and skills, you won’t be designing much for 3D printing. On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to learn.
Finally, there is the cost factor. For many students who are cash-strapped, cost may appear to be the major or even only factor worth evaluating. That is not a good plan. In 3D printing, as in other disciplines, you get what you pay for, and the lower cost machines that you believe you could afford may actually run afoul of all of the above. Your roommates, project team co-members and others will not be happy. My advice is to spend sufficiently to get the job done properly or don’t bother.
But if you don’t buy a 3D printer, what can you do instead to obtain parts and art? There are three approaches.
One is to see if your campus includes a 3D print center that you can make use of. Many now do, and some are even free to use. Check around and see if this is an option in your situation.
A second approach is to locate a nearby makerspace, where there would likely be some 3D printers available for use. It’s also possible they may be of the more expensive variety where you could obtain higher quality prints.
A final option is to use a 3D print service. There are several oriented towards consumers (and students), like Sculpteo, Shapeways, i.Materialise and even 3D Hubs. While these may cost a bit more on a per-print basis, they don’t require any cost for obtaining machines, training or explaining to your roommates or landlord.
Personally, I’d take the last option, as it would be easiest to use and provide the best results. But if your budget is low, then the other options should be considered.