The Joys of 3D Printing – The Costs!

Well, I got a fantastic Christmas present – a 3D printer.  Its an Elegoo Mars Pro (around £200), and I have been having the most tremendous fun with it since.  It has been a very steep learning curve though, and you have to be very careful – you are working with very dangerous chemicals if you are working with a resin printer.  Since I felt I had to start almost from scratch and work out a heck of a lot of the safety process and techniques around the printer itself, I thought it might be worth noting down (and updating) what I learnt.  This is all about SLA Resin Printers – I haven’t tried any filament printers.

First off, if you think 3D printing is a good way of getting cheap models?  Forget it, really.  It is not.  There are a lot of costs even in successful prints beyond just the raw materials.  3D printing is tremendously fun, and lets you create miniatures no one else in the world owns.  But it is a hobby in its own right at this point, and isn’t cheap.

Why?  Well, every time you do a print, you’ll need to handle partially cured resin.  Vinyl or Latex gloves won’t work – you’ll need Nitrile gloves.  At around £20 for 100, thats 40p for 2 for every print used up. (Note – this is at the start of 2021 when gloves have gone up in price quite a lot – you used to be able to bulk buy much cheaper).

Every time you do a print, you’ll need the resin to actually print with!  That’s around £40 for 1kg of resin.  You’ll be able to print quite a lot for that, of course!  A normal single mini will be just a few grams, maybe 20?  But you will have failed prints, and every print needs supports.  Its still not a lot per mini, but it does clock up!

Every time you do a print, you’ll need to clean the resin.  You can get water washable resin (which is a bit dearer itself).  Most resin requires cleaning with alcohol.  Which you’ll need to buy and look after safely.  More cost.  If you use water washable resin – the water can’t go down the plug.  You need to store all the water, and cure that either in natural sunlight outside or with UV lights, then filter out the resin for disposal in a bin before pouring the water away.  So that’s a big selection of large transparent tubs and filters.  Alcohol (IPA normally) can’t go down the plug either, but its normally easier to just evaporate that off outside.

But the costs don’t end there!  The resin tanks use a transparent piece of plastic at the base (known as FEP) that allows the screen to shine UV light through.  This gets worn and damaged over time and has to be replaced.  Fortunately, you can replace just this film – but its not easy to do right, and of course you have to buy the film! (£20 for 5 sheets).  Its not needed often, but it something you really need to have on hand!

And the screen itself burns out!  I have one of the older style printers that doesn’t use a mono screen.  The estimate is 150 hours of reliable printing from a screen, which is a disposable part.  That sounds like loads.  A high quality large print can take 15 hours (of which not all is screen time, of course, but moving build plates up and down too).  3 months printing if you are lucky – and that’s certainly all that’s guaranteed on the £27 parts.  Newer printers use mono screens which do generally last much longer – but will still burn out and will need to be replaced.

And finally, of course, there’s your own time and risk!  You’ll be working with hazardous chemicals – its not too risky if you are careful, but it is still a risk to your health.  A decent organic chemical rated mask is recommended, and they aren’t cheap.  Every print will take hours.  You’ll be spending electricity on the printer.  You’ll have to spend your time prepping the images on a computer (and you’ll need the PC or Mac to handle the 3d studio preparation).  All of your time spent cleaning the print, curing the print (you’ll probably need either a UV light and turntable, or a dedicated cleaning and curing booth), and at the end of it you’ll have a model you’ll probably need to assemble – just starting at the point you got home from the shops.

It may sound as if I’m very down on the whole process, and nothing could be further from the truth.  I AM ENAMOURED!!!  But it is a new hobby in its own right, and the costs and time you need to put in are something to be aware of.  It’s not like buying a paper printer, and having it work after turning it on.  You need to spend a lot of time on safety, on computer programs planning the print, in 3d software designing models, cleaning and safely disposing of resin.  If you go into this expecting to click a button and get cheap minis, you will be throwing your money away.

If you want to see something you put together on a screen appear magically in real life, then everything I’ve just mentioned is totally worth it.

My next article will probably be focussed on safety, and the steps and processes I’m doing to keep myself safe while doing these prints.