So, I have found it imperative to do my best to explore various options to find the optimal price/performance in a 3D printer that satisfies the needs of both parents and educators.
My criteria for evaluation is based on having watched consumer 3D printing develop since its RepRap infancy, having had 6 3D printers covering four different models in my home over the last four years and having now worked directly with more that 30 3D printers spanning 6 educational sites for the last 3 years.
So, the 3D printers that have risen to the top for more in-depth evaluation might surprise many people. It might also be surprising that the two top candidates are at extreme polar opposites when it comes to the reasons why they are of interest to me. At one end of the spectrum is the tiny M3D Micro and at the other end of the spectrum is the JellyBox, a kit printer that is virtually completely unknown at the moment.
While I won't go into depth on either printer in this post, I would like to introduce my two top contenders.
When we think of equipment for education, we usually think of tough, robust and indestructible. The M3D Micro is admittedly quite the opposite. It is small, lightly built and can be easily tossed by a four year old. So, why does it intrigue me as possibly an excellent educational tool for both home and the classroom?
Price is one factor. It can be purchased for as little as $349. But, that, alone, was not enough to make it stand apart. The da Vinci Jr is also $349 and probably has a more rugged design. It is the extremely compact footprint of the M3D Micro that appeals to me... as well as it's low noise factor.
It's hard to teach in a room with the noise of multiple 3D printers drowning out conversation. By all accounts, the M3D is quiet. Plus, the small size of the M3D Micro allows teachers to securely stack and store the printers away. And, for some schools, including those with which I'm involved, that is a critical consideration.
The option of being able to store and use reels of filament internally, under the print table, really makes for a quick transition from secure storage to classroom printing. While there are differences of opinion as to whether the internal filament loading is as effective as the external filament method, the very fact that it is even possible is a serious plus for this small printer.
And, as for the fact that the reels only hold 250 feet, I also consider that a plus. They are only $14-$18 dollars. But, the small reels mean that less filament is exposed to the air and damaging moisture. I cannot tell you how many half-used reels of filament had to be discarded due to moisture in the atmosphere when I had the RapMan 3.2. And, in an educational setting where printing is infrequent, the problem is amplified.
I have not used an M3D Micro as yet. I hope to make a visit to their factory that, like myself, is in Maryland sometime in the very near future so that I can further explore the printer and explore its potential in much greater detail. But, so far, I like what I see from a price/performance point of view.
If you have never heard about the JellyBox, don't worry. Only a handfull of people have. In fact, this kit printer manufactured in Bluegrass, Virgina by iMade3D is still in it's pre-production and testing phase.
A little history is in order....
Shortly after I declared that 3D printer kits were dead, I was approached by a long-time friend and businessman who was interested in 3D printing. It turned out that he was a disgusted by the lack of quality of several kits he had attempted to build and use and wanted to probe my reaction to his idea of wanting to create his own 3D printer kit. Frankly, I told him, based on my own frustrations with the "build experience" that I wasn't interested because building took a lot of the responsibility for the ultimate quality out of the kit manufacturer's hands. From this discussion came the idea that iMade3D would not sell kits. They would sell a mentored build experience where attendees would have factory experts help them build a 3D Printer in a single day. At the end of the day, the attendees would be able to take home a completed and working 3D printer.
To make a long story short, he embarked on that journey with the goal of creating a 3D printer kit that could not only be put together in a single day; but, be made with the highest quality parts. Their first effort was a traditional aluminum frame kit and it came close to meeting that goal. The build was first tested by a dozen people in the YouthQuest 3D ThinkLink Lab where we videotaped the entire process for post-evaluation.
Out of that experience, a remarkable thing happened. A completely new and revolutionary idea was born. They designed a printer frame of laser cut acrylic held together with zip ties!!! Here is Filip Goc, of the father-son design team, introducing the JellyBox.
(Note the mountains of Virginia in the background. Bluegrass is tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains near West Virginia, a beautiful place to manufacture 3D printers.)
I have been involved in 4 test build sessions and have watched the process be refined to the point where we are committed to having our cadets build 4 of them in our next Immersion Class in August.
Here is the second video which Filip mentioned which explain some of the features...
It may be held together with zip ties; but, I can tell you from first hand experience that it prints better than our $5,000+ printers! But, the real reason for my putting this printer at the top of my educational printer list is that it is designed to be put together at the beginning of the school year by the students, who print with it for the entire class session and then simply clip the zip ties to take it apart so that next year's students can also benefit by the build and use experience. Thus, it is probably the first 3D printer kit specifically designed for multiple build experiences. It's a remarkable idea built with uncompromising quality.
And, this glowing assessment is coming from someone that had previously only associated kit printers with frustration and poor quality!
Unlike the M3D, which I have yet to fully embrace, pending more experience, I can whole-heartedly assure you that I am going to devote a lot of energy toward promoting the JellyBox. In fact, have become a part of their team as an advisor. It's actually fun to build and a joy to use.
But, it is not a kit nor business plan based on a mass-market strategy. Supplies will only be available as the demands of quality dictate.
So there you have it. On one end of the spectrum is a small consumer printer with a very appealing price/performance ratio that meets some of the unique requirements of the classroom. And, on the other an absolutely solid 3D printer that not only prints better than any other 3D FDM printer with which I have experience; but, can be built and rebuilt year after year, giving students a comprehensive 3D printing experience.