CoolTechStuff: Desktop Fabrication

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Larry Mortimer, AIA

Let’s take a look at the current state of Desktop Fabrication Machines. Prices have fallen and the choices have expanded.

What is Desktop Fabrication? Desktop fabrication is an additive or subtractive process used to create a 3D object with a small desktop machine. The additive machines consist of fused filament printers and stereolithography printers. CNC mills and laser cutters are the subtractive machines.

7Fused Filament Printers (FFP): These are the 3Dprinters that have been around for several years. They work by melting a plastic filament (usually ABS or PLA plastic) and depositing it in layers on a bed to create a 3D object. FFP printers are relatively inexpensive, quiet, and great for creating models and object prototypes. However the quality of their output can vary widely, and the output size is generally limited to around 200mm x 200mm x 200mm. These machines cost $350 to $3000 and up.

8Stereolithography Printers (SLA): SLA printers use a laser to harden light sensitive resin into the layers of a 3D model. SLA printers are quiet, but since they use liquid resin, the process is messier than the FFP printers. The output size is similar to the FFP printers but they produce much higher quality models. SLA printers cost $1,500 to $3,500 and up.

9CNC Mills: The CNC mill is simply a router attached to a machine that moves it precisely in the x, y, and z directions. CNC mills are great for engraving or cutting shapes out of flat stock and carving 3D shapes from thicker material. These machines can work with any material the router and bits are capable of cutting, such as wood, plastic or metal. CNC mills are noisy, and produce dust and debris, so you probably would not want one (even one with an enclosure) in your office. Prices start at $1,000 and go up from there.


Laser Cutters: Laser cutters have been around for a while but are just now getting affordable and available in desktop sizes. They cut or engrave just about any material such as wood, paper, plastic, metal, stone and glass by burning the material with a laser. These machines are quiet but they do produce fumes so you will want to include an exhaust or filter system. While you can find some machines for as little as $400, you should expect to pay $1,000 or more for a decent machine.

Conclusion: Desktop fabrication machines are increasingly becoming common tools for designers. In the past year prices have dropped significantly and the variety of choices have exploded. If you create models, do prototyping or just love to make things, you should take a look at these machines.

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