In Focus

Fantastic Plastics: 3-D Printers for Your Home

For those ready to leap into the newest make-it-yourself technology, printers offer wide-ranging options for creating everything from iPhone cases to playable ocarinas.

Whether you’re interested in designing and printing custom candleholders, building a model car or simply producing a new toy for your toddler, there’s a 3-D printer for you, ready to do all this in the comfort of your home.

For those who haven’t latched onto the wonder of 3-D printing, in short, it’s a relatively new technology with limitless potential. Frank Spinelli, a test project leader for Consumer Reports, says the process is a bit like a glue gun (a glue gun on steroids, we might add) — plastic is melted and then printed in thin sheets or layers, which are built up into objects, like toys or jewelry.

You can use computer-aided design software to create your own objects, or websites like Thingiverse to choose from predesigned objects, which include everything from chess pieces to toy robots.

Some see 3-D printers as the future of creating everything from replacement parts on your home appliances to replacement organs for your body. But right now, the at-home market is mostly geared toward hobbyists who are using small models to design and print plastic objects, says Spinelli. It’s wise, he notes, to go into purchasing armed with a basic knowledge of the product.

There are many things to consider when looking at the 3-D printer marketplace, the first of which is printing materials. Most printers can print ABS and/or PLA plastics. Spinelli says PLA is less toxic and more eco-friendly, but ABS is a stronger material. Both are thermoplastics, which melt when heated and harden when cooled. PLA plastics are made from plant products. ABS plastics are petroleum-based.

Most printer manufacturers recommend that you buy cartridges of plastic from them, but there are more affordable options elsewhere in the marketplace. If you’re hoping to print in high volume, it might be worth considering a model that has less expensive cartridges, or one that allows you to purchase cartridges from third-party sources.

Another thing to consider is time. While some simple designs can print quickly, many take hours to complete. Some printers allow for quicker draft prints, and most allow users to tinker with density settings, so rather than printing a solid plastic object, they will allow you to print an item with a gridlike interior, saving on plastic and on print time.

Spinelli says that size is also a factor, as is the number of extruders or “jets” a printer has. While the size dictates how large of an object you can print, the jets dictate the number of colors you can use. More intricate models have two extruders, allowing you to print a two-colored object. Simpler models allow for only one-color designs, though users can typically pause a print and swap out filaments to achieve an object with more than one color.

Spinelli also advises that consumers consider resolution. Resolution dictates how thin the printer can print layers of plastic. Higher-resolution printers can print paper-thin layers, which allow for smooth, nearly seamless printed objects. Lower-resolution printers print thicker layers, and you can often see ridges or lines on the finished products.