Consumables and “Inks” for 3D Printers

The consumables shelf at Tesseract Design - a substantial investment!

The consumables shelf at Tesseract Design – a substantial investment!

I’m always interested whenever 3D printing gets mentioned in the mainstream media. Often enough, the tenor of the article is a breathless description of some new application of 3D printing, which may or may not be feasible of even realistic. 3D printing is definitely a current biz/tech buzzword, and as such often gets bandied about by media outlets that don’t really understand the topic.

That’s why I was quite interested in an article that popped up on the 2/20/2014 edition of the CNN/Money website, entitled “3-D printing ‘ink’ is way too expensive.” Right away I was leery, as the author was leaning heavily on the “printing” meme, one which I think has contributed to a lot of misapprehension of how the technology works. For instance, I remember proudly showing my mom the 3D printer that I had spent many months assembling, and her first reaction was “Where does the paper go in?” So perhaps the term “3D printing” is a bit too much of shorthand, bit it definitely has more zing than the more accurate term, “additive manufacturing.” Let’s face it – that sounds boring, and isn’t particularly descriptive.

Despite the cringe-inducing headline, the article made  a really good point about the cost of plastic filament, the raw input to most of the consumer-level 3D printers out there. It’s expensive. I will typically buy “generic” filament for around $30 per kilogram. Larger printer manufacturers know they can really make a good profit by getting their 3D printer users to buy their filament at a substantial markup. For example, 3D Systems CubeX printers use proprietary cartridges that cost $99 for less than a kilogram of filament. There are apparently ways to fool the CubeX into working with generic filament, but by all reports it is a real pain in the keister. Similarly, Makerbot sells their filament for $48 per kilogram. The Makerbot filament spools tend to work better with my Replicator 2X – usually I can just put them on the external spool mounts, load the extruder and let ‘er rip. However, when I use the generic  filament it has a tendency to tangle, and I have to babysit the print job to make sure that the filament doesn’t get knotted up and jam. Is the 60% markup worth the time I don’t have to spend worrying about the generic filament getting tangled? Generally, no – although I do like to keep a few spools of the Makerbot filament on hand for the long or overnight jobs where I can’t check the printer every five minutes for tangles.

The manufacturers of the proprietary filament like to claim that their product is of higher quality and less susceptible to moisture issues than the generic brands. That may be so, but in my book it hardly justifies the large markup in cost. Overall, I’ve had just as much success printing with the generic filament than the proprietary stuff – provided it doesn’t tangle up.

Here’s the rub: even at $30 per kilogram, the generic filament is still overpriced. The raw plastic pellets used to make the filament typically costs about $2 to $5 per kilogram. That’s quite a difference compared to the spools of even the “cheap” filament. Surely, the extrusion process and associated quality control can’t justify the 1500% markup.

When I was a young and naive engineer,  I worked for a locally-grown tech company in their color printer division. This was before the widespread introduction of affordable color desktop printers, and this company had a lock on the high-end color printer market. One of their popular models was one that used a wax-ink technology, and it produced really good-looking color prints. I remember talking to one of the chemical engineers who developed the wax ink blocks, and was flabbergasted to learn that the company sold the replacement ink at a 3500% markup. When I expressed my surprise at this astonishing profit margin, he looked at me with the resigned look of experience counseling ignorance, shook his head and said, “It’s all about the consumables, kid.” He then went on to explain that the printers were sold below their cost in order to keep the profits from the ink high – this was my first exposure to the concept of the loss leader. Of course, anyone who has purchased a desktop color printer and subsequently had to replace the ink cartridges knows exactly what I’m talking about.

In these situations, it’s hard to feel like you’re not being totally ripped off. Fortunately, for the 3D printer world, the crowdfunding scene may provide a solution. There are a number of successful Kickstarter campaigns for DIY filament extruders , and they promise to be able to bring the cost of 3D printer filament down to a few dollars per kilogram. I definitely intend to keep an eye on these projects, and perhaps invest some time and money in getting one for Tesseract Design. Anything that can help bring down the cost of 3D printing – and make it more accessible – is something to be applauded.

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