A Google search for "3-D Printing" returned a huge variety of resources dedicated to 3-D printing. Probably the most useful site was reprap.org. After going through this site, it became pretty clear that the primary tools of the maker-apprentice are the 3-D printer and the software.
The choice of printers falls roughly into two categories: buy or build. Many firms are offering solutions that are supposed to work out of the box. All you have to do is set up the printer, boot up the software and you're in up and running.
Since I'm a tinkerer and I enjoy building things, I dismissed the idea of buying a ready-made printer out of hand. For the do-it-yourself type, reprap.org had information on how to build your own printer. The bottom of the page stated:
"If you are new to RepRap, you should probably start with a Prusa Mendel (if you want big build volume or Huxley (if you want a small machine).
BTW a "RepRap" is a machine that can make a significant fraction of its own parts. In essence the machine can reproduce itself to a large extent.
So I chose to build the Prusa Mendel. Note that since I made this choice a few months ago, a newer design called the Prusa i3 (iteration 3) has emerged which addresses some of the Prusa Mendel's shortcomings, but introduces quite a few new challenges.
The list of parts and directions for building a Prusa Mendel are available on reprap.org. The parts can be grouped roughly into these categories:
- Printed Parts
- Fastener (includes zip ties)
- Rod (smooth or threaded)
- Stepper Motor
- Electronics + Sensors
- Heated Bed
- Extruder Assembly
There are two approaches to building a Prusa Mendel: (1) buy all of the parts separately (2) buy a ready-to-assemble kit. I was pretty intimidated by all of the various parts and tools required. I'm sure that I would have learned more by buying all of the parts separately, but being new to 3-D printing I was wary of the risks of things simply not working. So I started looking around for a kit.
The reprap.org site makes it fairly easy to find all of the vendors selling kits in any given country. When I was doing this research in January/February 2013, I believe the list had just one vendor selling Prusa Mendel kits in the US which was EasyRepRap. At the time of writing this blog entry, there are seven vendors listed. The problem I found with the EasyRepRap kit was that it does not include the printed parts. This made it necessary to order them separately or find someone to print them for me. I didn't want to do this because I was afraid that something just wouldn't fit. So I kept looking.
Luckily I found an outfit called NWRepRap which sells what appeared to be a high quality Prusa Mendel kit with all necessary parts except for the computer to run the design software and the necessary tools. The NWRepRap web site contained links to a series of videos that show how to assemble the kit step-by-step. I felt that these videos were a huge selling point because they showed each step of the process very clearly.
The 25 videos were created by a gentleman that identifies himself as Aaron Dale. The videos are generally under 10 in length each. Aaron speaks slowly and clearly with a folksy mid-western accent. The camera looks down onto Aaron's workbench and records all of the action from above. You never really see Aaron's face, all you see is two arms working to assemble the kit. A couple times we see the back of Aaron's head when he leans into the shot.
For some reason Aaron tries to create distance between himself and NWRepRap by saying things like "this kit comes from NWRepRap", but don't be fooled by this - Aaron appears to be running NWRepRap because he has answered all emails that I sent to NWRepRap and signed his name to the note that was included inside the kit.
So having chosen to build instead of buy and to use a kit instead of procuring the individual parts, I placed the order for the kit. Two weeks later it arrived at my front door...