I read a question I have seen often. It goes something like this, “What is the difference between the ‘DIY 3D Printer, Self Assembly for $275’ and the ‘Commercial 3D Printer at $1500-$2500’ – which should I buy?”

Since the question came up on a kit-plane forum, I realized the answer was not unlike everything that goes into choosing ‘kits vs manufactured airplane’ and why some kit planes have sold thousands while others have only a handful of flying examples.

So, I wrote this answer and you can read the rest of this post and substitute “plane” with “3D printer” and it all works.

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“Are you a builder or a buyer?” “Do you want the experience of scratch building a kit? want a kit that has been tested, refined, and tries to eliminate common mistakes and difficulties?” The different kits have different levels of refinement and accuracy. (In the kit airplane market, people familiar with Van Aircraft can look at how kits have evolved from the original RV-3 to the most recent RV-14.)

There are good kit planes. There are low cost kit planes. There are affordable manufactured planes (but not new ones). There are more expensive manufactured planes. (There are also really expensive planes). There are lots of combinations of all of these.

Some kit planes are better than others. Some have better quality parts. Some have better instructions. Some have better support.

Where things gets really fuzzy is when the kit is based on a design that is open source and has not patent protection. Lots of suppliers can sell a kit based on an open source design and use the same name. (In the case of 3D printers, “Kossel” and “Prusa” are two popular open source designs.)

Imagine if Vans Aircraft open sourced their plans and did not hold patents. Twenty companies could offer their own “RV DIY Self Assembly kit plane”. There would be some budget versions that were actually from other countries where labor or materials are very cheap and quality control is weak and telephone and email support is non-existent. Fit and finish of parts may be lacking and the quality of the raw materials may not meet established standards.

For every person who says “I bought a kit and it’s been great”, you will be able to find a person who says “I bought a kit and it’s been a headache” … and you will find a person who says “I bought a kit and after some work and upgrades, its pretty good”.

There are several good kits and manufactured planes on the market. If you want to build and tinker and learn a lot about how things work, then many of the low cost kits are an option. If you want to save some money and be pretty sure you will complete a reliable plane, then a reputable kit is a better option. If you want to “just go” then there are a number of affordable complete manufactured planes available. If you want to have a plane with lots of capability – some you may or may not utilize – then there are a number of higher priced options.

Full disclosure:

I started with one of those $280 DIY printers. I still have it. After assembling it and replacing some low quality parts, and lots of hours tweaking it. And upgrading various systems, It’s not a bad printer. I have about $550 into it along with an accumulated 400 hours of assembly, learning, internet searches (because the supplier provided no useful support), debugging, parts replacement, and tuning. From time to time, I will use it to print a project. After some tweaking, updates, and adjustments, I will usually get a decent print. For simple and small parts, it’s “pretty good”.

I also have a complete manufactured 3D printer. I have spend about 10 hours total on tuning and adjustments and the manufacture was quick to answer questions and provide guides. I can turn it on and throw a print at it. It doesn’t need tweaking or testing when I switch materials. “It just works”. I trust it to be successful when I load a 19 hour print consisting of multiple interlocking parts. It is well built, has very good support, and a good, active, and helpful community forum.

I have a friend who has one of those $400 manufactured printers. It has serviced his needs well and he’s been happy with the purchase and the results.