When Is It Practical to 3D Print Something Rather than Buy It?

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One of the many benefits that is often associated to 3D printing is that you have the ability to 3D print a thing that you otherwise would have bought from the store. While this certainly sounds nifty, 3D printing just about every single thing you need is impractical and impossible.

If you own a 3D printer, this is a question you probably ask yourself a lot – should you just 3D print something instead of buying it? The answer isn’t straightforward, of course. Here are a few things to consider.



The first question to ask is – how many pieces of any given thing do you need? If you need a bulk order, then it might be more practical to just buy it from a supplier that can provide the item in bulk. Traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding are much more economical for producing a high volume of orders. This means that each piece becomes cheaper the more of it is produced.

3D printing may also have this advantage, but is much less pronounced. Even if you 3D print a hundred pieces of the same thing, the per-piece price may still be similar to the price if you 3D printed it only once.

Simply put, 3D printing an item offers a more compelling argument if you only need a single piece of that item. If you need a hundred or more, you should consider buying it instead from a large-scale manufacturer.

Time and effort

3D printing anything, no matter how simple, takes time and effort. Simple designs can take up about an hour. There is always the risk of something going wrong during a 3D printing project, which might mean that you will have to start over from scratch.

There is also significant effort involved in maintaining a 3D printer and setting it up for a job. You will need to check the gears for lubrication, check that belts are taut, clean the build plate, and level the print bed.

If you can buy something directly, then it’s just a matter of either going to the store or ordering it online. You might need to wait a few days to a few weeks for online orders, but there is barely any work that needs to be done on your end.

If you’re very busy and have little time to spare, then 3D printing a part that you can just buy might not be the best decision. However, 3D printing could be the better option for those who are more conscious about their spending.

Material limitations


Even if you have a 3D printer at home, the reality is that you can’t 3D print every single thing that you will need. Desktop-based 3D printers use either filament or resin as raw material. Even with the best 3D printers, these materials have limitations in terms of appearance and other mechanical properties.

3D printed objects are not exactly known for being very strong or thermally resistant. If you need a part that will be subjected to extreme temperatures, pressures, or mechanicals stress, then it might be best to buy it from an official manufacturer.

There is also the matter of the material itself. Though there is now a huge range of filaments and resins that are used for 3D printing, these are still plastics. If you need anything made of metal, wood, or ceramics, then you have no choice but to buy it from a craftsman or company that specializes in such materials. You’re also more likely to e

It bears mentioning that there are now 3D printers that can use more heavy-duty materials like metal or ceramics. However, these are high-end equipment that only the most specialized companies use.

Design limitations

One of the chief benefits of 3D printing is that it offers unprecedented design freedom. If you just need to make a single piece of any design, then 3D printing is probably your most practical option. In contrast, parts made via traditional manufacturing only become less expensive with higher volumes.

3D printing has proven to be a game-changer for people who are looking for spare or replacement parts that are no longer in production. In these cases, being able to 3D print a part allows them to continue using a specific household appliance or equipment for longer. There are lots of free 3D models available online for obsolete replacement parts.

3D printing also provides opportunities for the customization or personalization of products. There is now a fairly huge market for personalized jewelry, cellphone cases, lithographs, and design pieces. Some collectors of figurines have also turned to 3D printing to help them make their own figures that are cheaper and are more customizable.

You can further leverage on this advantage if you know how to do 3D modeling. A simple but specific part, such as a broken hinge for a container, can be designed from scratch in a 3D modeling program in just a few minutes.

Special cases


There are a couple of specific cases where owning a 3D printer could really come in handy. When it comes to functional parts, the point isn’t always to 3D print the parts because it’s cheaper. 3D printing is particularly useful when you need custom parts that either are no longer in production or cannot be bought individually.

3D printing also excels in producing functional parts that are structurally or aesthetically simple. These include hinges, brackets, and hooks among others. These are cheap and take less time to 3D print than going on a trip to the store.

3D printing is also a great alternative manufacturing technique for more creative pursuits. This is particularly true for those who are skilled in 3D modeling or sculpting. If you’re a fan of a specific comic, TV show, or video game, you can make your own souvenirs, figures, or display items based from them. 3D printing has also been a new avenue for displaying artistic flair, as evidenced by a few exhibits that focus on 3D printed artwork.

In any case, maximizing the potential of 3D printing involves recognizing its unique strengths – design freedom, flexibility, and practicality for one-off parts. 3D printed parts may not always be the cheapest or the quickest to make, but they may be the only option for parts that you cannot just buy from the store.

Final thoughts

Beyond just a hobby, 3D printing could actually turn out to be useful technology to have around the house. If a part breaks off a dishwasher, you just might be able to 3D print a replacement in just a few hours. This is certainly easier than having to call up the manufacturer and possibly receive the replacement part in a week or two.

One thing that owners of 3D printers need to know is that a 3D printed part may not always be more practical compared to mass-produced parts, both in terms of time and money. Designing a part takes time and skill, and you may have to spend ample filament for failed prints. In contrast, injection molded parts are very inexpensive and likely are of better quality.

However, you will be thankful for your 3D printer when you need a part that you just can’t buy off the shelf. This is where 3D printing truly excels – manufacturing a custom part in the comfort of your home, even when it’s a part that you can’t buy from somewhere else.

Warning; 3D printers should never be left unattended. They can pose a firesafety hazard.