Feb 14, 2017 | By Tess

If you’ve been looking for definitive proof that your desktop 3D printer saves you money (to tell your skeptical friends!), or have been wondering whether it’s worth it to invest in your own 3D printer, a new study coming out of Michigan Technological University says that 3D printing at home does indeed save you money.

The study, conducted by Associate Professor Joshua Pearce, was initiated to determine whether having a 3D printer operating in-house is actually effective, and even beneficial, for the user’s bank account. For those who are already assured that their 3D printer does save them money (along with a degree of manufacturing autonomy), the study is still worth checking out if you want to see just how much you might be saving.

According to Pearce’s study, consumers who use an in-house desktop 3D printer (even consumers who may not be altogether familiar with the technology) can expect to make the cost of the 3D printer back within six months and are even likely to earn a nearly 1,000% return on their investment over a five-year period. Not too bad, huh?

To obtain the findings he did, Pearce asked materials science and engineering undergraduate Emily Petersen to use a 3D printer. Petersen, who had never operated a 3D printer before, was given a new Lulzbot Mini 3D printer, a relatively low-cost ($1,250) desktop FDM printer with high-resolution capabilities that is compatible with open-source hardware and software.

Lulzbot Mini 3D printer

“I’d never been up close and personal with a 3D printer before,” said the student. “And the few printers I had seen were industrial ones. I thought learning to operate the printer was going to take me forever, but I was relieved when it turned out to be so easy.”

Once the 3D printer was up and running, Petersen set about finding 26 3D printable models from 3D model search engine Yeggi. Her task was to 3D print 26 popular models that could be used on an everyday basis (such as a planter, camera mounts, cell phone case, etc). Once the printing was done (and all aspects of each print were meticulously noted), Petersen and Pearce set about determining the economic footprint of the prints.

Pearce determined that by calculating the cost of 26 prints, they could estimate 3D printer use over a six-month period (meaning that the user would be 3D printing one item a week). During the printing process, the energy used to print each item, as well as the print time and plastic consumption all contributed to the cost estimate for each print. PLA was used for all the objects.

Example of a 3D printed camera mount

To compare the cost of homemade 3D printed items to their store-bought counterparts, Pearce operated on an item-by-item basis which compared the homemade piece to two store-bought versions: one lower cost and one higher cost. For instance, the 3D printed phone case was compared to both a more expensive, “high-end” case, as well as to a popular inexpensive model. Using this method, Pearce found that the 3D printed objects offered savings of about 93% compared to their low-cost counterparts, and 98.65% compared to the high-cost versions.

“With the low-cost estimates, the printer pays for itself in three years and all the costs associated with printing—such as the price of plastic and electricity—are not only earned back, but provide a 25 percent return on investment. After five years, it’s more than 100 percent,” Pearce explained. “With the high-cost estimates, the printer pays for itself within six months. And after five years, you’ve not only recouped all the costs associated with printing, you’ve saved more than $12,000.”

Of course, it should be noted that Petersen did not 3D print any especially complicated pieces, though she was still impressed by how easy it was to begin using the technology. “I’m an engineering student, but I was new to this type of hands-on troubleshooting. The fact that I was able to troubleshoot any issues I had and produce 26 items relatively easily is a testament to how accessible this technology is to the average American consumer,” she commented.

The aim of the study, besides putting 3D printer savings into figures, was to show that desktop 3D printing at home can be accessible and can be used in a productive and efficient way. With more and more free downloadable 3D models being uploaded to platforms like Thingiverse and Pinshape, the scope for at-home 3D printing is only set to grow.



Posted in Statistics



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Bob wrote at 2/20/2017 10:29:57 PM:

Weird...I've had my sub-1000$ printer for almost two years, and probably did not generate more than 100$ worth of useful items. The only case were it was really cost saving is when we printed an engineered part for an experimental test bench instead of having it machined...Not your average consumer stuff! This study is way too optimistic. Who has 2400$/year to buy plastic things? Especially plastic things that can be replaced with brittle PLA.

Wes wrote at 2/20/2017 7:27:05 PM:

I would like to see what items the average person is going to print, to pay for the printer in savings, even over 3 years. Now myself, I am working on custom, niche toys that I plan to sell as kits. So, I can make the printer "pay" for itself. Now, all my hours involved on the designs, that may take a bit longer. But, it is for a hobby collection.

Tim wrote at 2/16/2017 8:18:54 AM:

My daughter's 2014 science fair project was on this very topic and was titled "Will 3D Printing Replace Major Retailers?", and it performed a cost comparison between I think 10 store bought items versus comparably 3D printed items. The same metrics were used (power consumption, material, and printer cost). She did not account for the effort to setup the printer to do the prints as she figured it was a wash in comparison to performing online shopping or having to drive to a retailer. An added benefit she highlighted was as Heath noted, the ability to specifically tailor the product to your exact needs (assuming not too complex for the average user). But the overall takeaway was that while yes, comparable products may be significantly cheaper, the printer was not always the right solution because of inferior build quality compared to an injected moulded product. So availability and uniqueness need to be considered.

Heath Oldenberg wrote at 2/15/2017 2:43:33 PM:

Another factor that the article misses is that the user gains the ability to innovate for their exact needs. A cup holder adapter for a certain make of car, to hold a Red Bull can perfectly, isn't available on the market, but simple to design in free online software like TinkerCAD. Thereby allowing specific needs that aren't feasible for mass production and retail chaining, to be instead created and used as needed. Very hard to place the value on that capability!

Emily wrote at 2/15/2017 2:57:18 AM:

Certainly printer error could lower savings, however the savings calculated in the study are conservative. Comparable, commercially available alternative products on the low-price range were truly "low cost," coming almost entirely from Walmart. Furthermore, the value of at-home 3D printing is far greater than purely financial. This mode of manufacturing not only contributes to conscious consumerism, but it lends to the growing trend of personalization and customization of products. It also expands the market to a new customer demographic by demonstrating that the technology is not out of reach to non-technical users.

Scrooge McDuck wrote at 2/15/2017 2:25:47 AM:

Hi Robin, I think you missed the point - 3D printers are no longer lousy - they can make quality consumer products as well as luxury items that you may be interested in. The savings are created by assuming that you are offsetting a purchase - not that you are printing random stuff you didn't want. The average consumer spends thousands on such real products every year. Now the little people can enjoy the same luxury items as the rich and famous....only they can custom make products for themselves. -- SM

Robin Leech wrote at 2/15/2017 1:44:46 AM:

This shows 3D printing CAN save you money, but there's too many variables to know if it will in your case. If the printer is lousy or for some other reason is prone to mistakes (maybe someone bumps into it for example) you could wind up with failed prints that lower savings. If their estimates are based on MSRP of overpriced items, then this also means their "low cost" phone case could still be 10x the cost of one you would buy. It may also be of inferior integrity (layers separating etc.) so that you need a new one a week later. Finally when it comes to items like phone and camera cases, those are non-essentials. So in those cases you're not really saving money if the alternative was to just not have one. You're instead spending more on crappy home-made non-essentials you'd be fine without.

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