My answer is usually along the lines of “I’m not sure and I’m not worried because I’m going to make it anyway”.
This is a good question and my answer is honest and true, but I realised recently that my answer simply isn’t good enough. It’s at around this time that I received a comment on my Beginners Series Page relating to 3D printer running costs. If I may quote part of the comment:
“I am researching printers and their various features and functions and have found plenty of suppliers who don’t seem to have a clue about printing supply costs relating to quantity on a reel or weight or either and offer little assistance. The one thing you don’t mention is how much does it cost you to run your printer and by this I mean electricity used per hour. It is impossible for me as a budding business owner to put a cost on my item if the makers can’t tell me how much power it uses. I have a kilowatt hour meter to test it but don’t have anything to test it on and I refuse to take anything on faith from these folks since they’ve not been overly helpful on all other questions I’ve asked to date.”
To quote part of my reply:
“I’ve never worked out or tried to find out how much the electricity costs are, because I’ve figure that it’s negligible compared the other resources required, time currently being the biggest resource used in 3D printing. But I should, so maybe I’ll write a blog post soon about the true running costs of a 3D printer. I’ve not yet seen such information published and I think people will certainly find it interesting.”
To address this question I started by purchasing some accurate kitchen scales. Based on the weight of an object and the cost of the filament (plastic) per kg it’s easy to work out the material costs.
This was a good start, but I then started to think about other costs like electricity, equipment depreciation, software, repairs, 3D Printer Upgrades, consumables and of course the cost of all those 3D printing failures.
As you can imagine, working out the true cost of running a desktop 3D printer at home could be tricky, but I like a challenge and as far as I know, this common question remains unanswered. Up until now that is.
Those Forbidden Assumptions
As a Software Engineer by trade, I’ve always been taught never to make assumptions as they’re often wrong and the answer can usually be found if we ask the right people.
However, for the purposes of answering this complex question of cost, I believe I have to break this rule. There are so many variables involved in 3D printing that I cannot possibly consider every scenario, using every type of printer, with every setup, every type of filament, every electricity tariff, etc, etc.
So, what I intend to do is to use a typical scenario for someone using a common desktop FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) 3D printer at home.
The 100 grams will also include any Supports and Rafts which were cleaned off during finishing, as these weren’t free and took time and filament to print.
I’ll use a MakerBot Replicator 2 printer. Simply because they are a very typical and common 3D printer for use at home and I have one of these myself.
As many home users already own a computer of some sort, I don’t think I should factor that in as an additional cost to 3D printing, so we can assume you already have a computer.
In each section as I describe each cost in detail you’ll see the other assumptions I’m making. Just remember that whatever setup you use, you’ll be able to use this as a good guide to what those ‘things’ are really costing you to print, even if you use slightly different equipment, setup or filaments.
Before I delve into specific costs, in the interests of simplicity I won’t include all my calculations in this article text. I’ll also use UK £ Sterling as the currency as I live in the UK. Just multiply by 1.56 (at the time of writing this) if you wish to convert to US dollars.
Ok, so lets start with filament…
In the old days cheap filaments were abundant and were often of very questionable quality. They sometimes contained impurities (even tiny ball bearings so I’ve heard) and their diameter was ‘varied’ to say the least.
Buying cheap filament isn’t such a problem nowadays but I still think cutting costs here is false economy. To be more specific, if you save money on filaments your rate of failed prints will increase and so will your overall costs… oh and your stress levels will increase too.
So for my calculations I’ve taken the average price of the ColorFabb and RoboSavvy filaments I use. Both are good quality and I have had no issues with either. With shipping costs I’ll add £4 per kg, which takes us to £34.19 per kg for filament. For our 100 gram object I make that…
Filament £3.42 (52.48% of total print cost)
3D Printer Depreciation
This is an easy one to forget, but unless you are very lucky your 3D printer wasn’t free and you have to factor in the purchase and depreciation costs into everything you make.
I averaged some prices for my MakerBot Replicator 2 from various places in the UK and the US.
I came up with a purchase price of £1576, also similar to What My Printer Actually Cost in the UK.
Most financial people will calculate depreciation using the assumption that a piece of equipment will be used for five years. I think this is reasonable for a 3D printer.
Even though it’ll be well out of date in less than that, I don’t think many home users will be happy to throw it away any earlier after such a large capital outlay to purchase it.
The next assumption is a big one and will vary wildly between users. Assuming users have a full time job too, but still love 3D printing then I’ve used an average of 2 hours a day of printing time.
This gives us a lifetime of 3650 hours before we throw our printer away. I also think this is reasonable, especially if we maintain and Repair our 3D Printer and factor in those costs. Yes, I’ve considered all that too as you’ll see later.
There are other equipment costs (like a toolbox and contents) but most of these will last a very long time making their depreciation costs negligible. I do consider consumables later though.
So if our 3D printer costing £1576 has a 3650 hour lifetime and our print takes 5 hours I make that…
3D Printer Depreciation: £2.16 (33.14% of total print cost)
I consider consumables to be things like blue tape, Teflon grease, modelling knife blades and any products used for finishing, like dry brushing, sanding, polishing (ie bronzeFill Filament) and painting.
Again these costs per item are very small and very difficult to calculate, so for our purposes I’ve use the tiny figure of…
Consumables: £0.10 (1.53% of total print costs)
3D printer energy consumption is a very interesting subject. This is partly because so many people are worried about how much a 3D printer costs to run and partly because the cost is actually tiny.
So tiny in fact that I worked out that the power meter I purchased specifically for this blog post cost only a little less than the energy usage of my 3D printer in it’s entire estimated 5 year lifetime!
Let me elaborate. UK daytime energy costs on my tariff are less than £0.16 per kWh. When I tested my Replicator 2 on some typical (there’s that word again) 3D prints it used on average around 50 Watts (0.05 kWh for a 1 hour print).
Remember if you use your printer at night, at least in the UK, electricity costs are significantly less at night. Demand at night is much lower so costs plummet and I guess this is the same in many countries.
Anyway, I have to assume that most people will print in the day and for our 5 hour print I make that a tiny figure of…
Electricity Usage: £0.04 (0.6% of total print costs)
Repairs and Upgrades
It’s an unfortunate fact that your beloved printer will at some point break and always during an important 20+ hour print.
Soon after purchasing it you’ll also become annoyed at the Tacky Spool Holder and the manufacturer supplied acrylic build plate that was never flat, even on the day you bought it.
Repairs and upgrades will happen and depending on the luck of the draw costs vary. For my calculations I’ve added about 10% of the purchase costs over the lifetime of my printer, which is what I predict for myself. For our 5 hour print job that brings us to a cost of…
Repairs and Upgrades: £0.21 (3.15% of total print costs)
This is a very informative sub header, which answers the question of software costs straight away. Yes you can buy some super expensive CAD packages and maybe you have bought Simplify 3D (I’ve heard it’s so good I might buy it myself).
However, the fact of the matter is that Mr Typical loves ‘free’ and with software you don’t have to spend a penny. Your printer will no doubt arrive with free software, you can use 123D Design or Tinkercad for Your 3D Designs and 123D Catch for your 3D scans.
What I’m trying to say is that if you wish, your software costs can be…
Software: £0.00 (0% of total print costs)
The Value of Your Time
I’m afraid this one is impossible to calculate. How much we value our time varies so wildly between different people in different situations.
It’s only easy if you run a business and you have a specific hourly rate for your time. It’s likely that you love 3D printing so much you’d do it for nothing, so for home users I’ll have to leave this one at zero and let you add it yourself if you wish.
Just add any design time, setup, cleaning and finishing time to the total cost if you wish. Not the 5 hours worth for the print time, unless you plan to sit watching your 3D printer do it’s thing for the whole time. So, for our purposes we have to add…
Your Time: £0.00 (0% of total print costs)
The Price of Failure
Remember those Wonderful Failed Prints? There were probably more in the early days before you discovered supports, rafts, good filament and how to level your build plate correctly.
After having my printer for around 6 months at the time of writing this (seems like much longer) I think I have about 10% failure rate. This sounds like a lot, but considering design errors, prototypes and simply not liking what I’ve made (as well as the print process itself failing) it’s pretty realistic.
So based on the total of the costs so far… give me one second to consult my calculator… ok, 10% of £5.93 brings us to…
Failures: £0.59 (9.09% of total print costs)
Total 3D Printing Cost
Lets add all these up (even though I already just added most up to calculate the failure costs).
This is how much it costs Mr Typical to print a 100 gram object that takes 5 hours…
£6.52 (100% of total print costs, obviously)
Whether that’s more or less than you thought I’m not sure, but feel free to let me know in the comments below.
I think the fact that we’re considering pretty much everything, not just material costs, it’s quite reasonable. If you use a low infill (5% for example) a 100 gram object can be quite a good size (bigger than the average fist) and most items will actually be smaller and cost you a lot less than that.
Also consider how much you could charge someone for a custom object that size, maybe ten times that cost or more?
If you really want to Make Your 3D printer Pay for Itself stick with printing customised items, because although there’s more effort in designing them, you can charge so much more for them.
Cost Saving Tips
If the overall cost of printing our 100 gram object really did scare you, there are some ways you can cut costs. As with most things it’s best to pick the low hanging fruit first (I love that phrase).
That’s why I included all those percentages alongside the individual costs. The biggest percentages are the things you should concentrate on first because they’ll give you the most value for your efforts.
For example, on a Replicator 2 you can turn off the sound, turn off the LEDs, turn off Heat Hold and reduce your printing temperatures. These will all cut energy costs.
However, as energy usage is only a tiny 0.6% of the total print costs, you won’t be able to see your print and you’ll have more failures if you drop the temperature too low it really isn’t worth it.
So look to address those big percentages, like filament (52.48%), printer depreciation (33.14%) and failures (9.09%):
- Use as little infill as you can and don’t use supports or rafts unless you really need to. Note: some people are now developing “Smart Supports” which use less material than traditional supports. These tips alone could slash your overall costs.
- Buy a Cheaper Printer Like a Printrbot, which are great little printers. You can also Build Your Own 3D Printer from a Kit which will save even more money. Again, these tips will slash your overall costs.
- Learning to print well first time will reduce your failed print rate and reduce your costs too. That’s one of the main reasons I created my 3D Printing Beginner Series.
These are the areas to concentrate on. They will give you the greatest value if you want to reduce costs sensibly (by ‘sensibly’ I mean don’t buy a poor quality printer or super cheap filament).
3D Printing Cost Calculator
Lastly, I’ve been meaning to create a 3D printing cost calculator for quite a while now. Well, I finally did it.
I use very similar calculations to what I’ve used above but tried to simplify things a little and tweaked some equations. Just a few quick notes about it though.
- By default it will use the same values as I’ve used above and calculate the same result (give or take a penny or two for rounding and equation tweaks). When you calculate the costs it saves your values so when you re-visit it next time it will re-load your last values automatically.
- Resetting all values to default values does just that. It will change all the values back to what I’ve used above in my example 3D print and save them when you re-calculate, so use it carefully.
- The notes in brackets, e.g. (£/kWh) specify UK pounds sterling, but it will work just fine if you use whatever currency you like, US dollars for example.
- This cost calculator was originally inline inside this blog post, but due to it’s popularity I have moved it to a faster and slicker Dedicated Cost Calculator Web App. As I intend to improve it based on your feedback it may not always look exactly like this image. Click the above link or the image below to try it now…
This cost calculator is currently a Beta test version so feel free to have a play around with it and let me know if you have any issues or suggestions for it. If it proves to be popular I plan to improve it dramatically, so let me know whether you like it or not.
Please leave a Comment then Like and Share this post if you found it useful. As you can appreciate it took me a fair amount of time, research and programming effort to produce. If you’d like to learn more about 3D printing, please Download my FREE Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook, it’s packed full of useful, interesting, free information.
Thanks so much for your time. Whatever you value your time at I sure do appreciate it.
Happy 3D printing.