The Economics of 3D Printing

The finished Eevee, resting on a crafting table. (Original model by 7Fish on Thingiverse.)

In preparation for the holidays, I have been 3D printing (and crocheting) like a madman. Right now I am printing what will eventually be an 8-inch tall Eevee, a Pokemon.

But is 3D printing worth the cost?

My very rough, back of the envelope calculation after about a year of printing is that if you have enough things you want to print, then 3D printing is easily worthwhile.

A spool of PLA printer filament + shipping runs about $25. You can get more expensive filaments, or you can get the cheaper ones and paint them. I paint. (I’ve run the numbers on recycling waste filament/making your own, but filament is cheap enough that it isn’t worth it unless you’re running a really big operation.)

I usually print toys or educational items like Neanderthal skulls for my kids. I’m not sure exactly how many prints you can get off a single spool of filament–it depends on what you’re printing, how much infill you use, how many supports you need, etc–but I haven’t run out of any of my spools, yet.

Here is a nice set of hominid skull (reproductions) being sold for $368 (on sale! Normally $472!) It’s not clear exactly what the dimensions on these are, but let’s assume they’re full size. Given how much I’ve printed so far without running out, I could probably print at least two skulls per spool, for a printing cost of <$75.

That works out to almost $100 of savings per spool of home-printed skulls.

Of course, that’s because someone is massively over-charging for skulls, and besides, how many skulls does the average person want hanging around their home?

Here is a FunkoPop Eevee, similar to the one I am printing right now, for $11. The material on these is probably a little nicer than PLA (which is pretty rigid), but mine will be twice as tall and less than half the price.

If toys are too silly for your tastes (perhaps because you don’t have kids,) rest assured that you can print many tools and technical items, and the cost is still quite low compared to buying to buying them.

The sheer variety of 3D printers available on Amazon these days is overwhelming–Resin printer for $250? Troxny for $240? I know nothing about these brands because I don’t own one, but they have good reviews. While the highest quality printers still cost over $1000, I think it is safe to say that you can get a good printer for $500 or less, and if you are the sort of person who would otherwise buy (or sell) the things you can print with it, you can easily make back the cost.

The biggest expense in 3D printing is, surprisingly, not the machine or the filament, but your time. Printers are fiddly machines and there’s a fair amount of trouble shooting. (I recommend getting one with the auto-bed-leveling feature.) Getting prints to stick well enough that they don’t come off the plate while printing, but not so well that you can’t get them off after printing, is tricky.

20191217_114248 The printer needs supervision while printing because sometimes prints come off the plate anyway, filament starts going everywhere, and the machine has to be shut down. And sometimes the nozzle gets clogged and needs cleaning.

So it’s probably best to get a 3D printer only if that sounds like the sort of thing you’d enjoy.

Here’s a side view of Eevee so you can see its tail.

7 thoughts on “The Economics of 3D Printing

  1. I’ve actually worked on industrial 3D printing. Fascinating technology, and possibly soon mandatory technology, if the secrets of welding are forgotten.

    Shower thought: The “hobby mentality” of doing work for fun preserves skills that would otherwise be lost to time and thus enhances a tribe’s fitness.

    Liked by 1 person

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