Desktop publishing is the established metaphor for desktop manufacturing: A 3D printer is like a paper printer, in that it takes digital information and makes it real. A 3D scanner is like a paper scanner in that it takes real information and makes it digital. From a mechanical perspective, neither a 3D printer nor a 3D scanner is much more complicated than its 2D analog. If, or most likely, when desktop manufacturing takes off among mainstream consumers, 3D printers and scanners may eventually be available at prices on par with paper printers and scanners today.
But we’re not there yet. Right now, if you want to get a 3D printer in your workshop for less than $5,000, you’ll be buying it, or the parts for it, from a relatively small company. To save money, you’ll probably be building some or all of the machine yourself, from parts supplied in a kit or sourced independently by you, based on open-source parts lists (though there is usually little to be gained by doing it in this way). Unless you are one of a few intrepid explorers, your hobby-class 3D printer will almost certainly be of the “fused deposition modeling” (FDM) type, in which parts are built up layer-by-layer from a thin bead of molten plastic extruded by a nozzle (or “hot end”) that is, in principle, very much like a hot glue gun.
If you’re planning on getting a 3D printer for yourself, the decisions about what to buy, and who buy from, can be daunting. If you’re trying to buy a gift for a 3D printing enthusiast, and don’t necessarily share his or her passion for the subject, the choices can be downright overwhelming, not to mention expensive. Fortunately, there are quality gift options short of buying a whole printer, and we’ve listed some great ones below, from lowest to highest price. On the other hand, if you’re ready to take the plunge and buy a whole printer, our preferred makes and models are listed at the end of the guide, again in order of increasing price.
Let’s get to it.
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Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on code.org, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.