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Part 3: How Much Does 3D Printing Cost?

In part two of “Introducing 3D printing in the classroom” we briefly introduced the topic of recovering the costs of 3D printing. In this article, we delve deeper into the costs associated with 3D printing, providing practical advice to help you estimate how much 3D printing will cost your school or university.

In this article, we’ll discuss the direct, initial costs such as the printer itself and the materials. However, it is also important to consider how these printers will be managed, supported and maintained. And, as this blog series has pointed out, a printer that cannot be accessed easily by the student is one that will soon be collecting dust. So, it’s best to combine a 3D printer with an effective print management system that allows the school to manage student access.

When it comes to 3D printing, the Education sector is different than a business and has unique needs. It is important to find a comprehensive solution that helps your school or university manage secure access to the printer as well as controlling and recouping 3D printing costs (via pay-to-print). So, let’s look closer at the costs involved in 3D printing.

What are the direct costs of 3D printing?

3D Printer
In many ways, the Education sector is unique. And when looking at specific printers, student safety takes first place. 3D printers have come down in cost and in part this has been a driver for schools and universities adopting the technology. There are different requirements for 3D printing depending on how it is being used; a hobbyist in their garage has fewer needs than a technical university prototyping electronics or a school using it as a teaching aid.

While exposed printers cost as little as $140, you should always consider the overall running cost, the impact on your IT administrators and features that will add up to the safeness of the printer. The price tag on the most renowned, enclosed desktop 3D printers suitable for the use in Education is roughly somewhere around $2000 to $3500 as of 2017.

3D printing materials are known as filaments. The price of filaments is determined by the type, quality, weight, diameter and color of the filament.

When costing materials for the year, you need to ask two key questions: How many projects a month will be printed? Will they be simple solids or more complex designs?

Filament costs can vary widely, ranging from $10 per spool to $160 per spool.  The cost depends on material type, quality weight, color and diameter. For most schools and universities, budgeting $60 per spool is sufficient. Buying a 3D printing solution that monitors usage will enable you to predict future 3D print costs and manage costs throughout the budget year.

The two most common materials are PLA and ABS. PLA (PolyLactic Acid) is a biodegradable plastic, whereas ABS (Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene) is an oil-based, tough plastic. PLA is advisable for education as it does not emit harmful toxins and is generally easier to work with.

Most 3D printers and 3D print solutions will provide information on the volume of material used (allowing the user to calculate the cost of printing the file) and the time it will take to print a specific file, Figure 1. This information will help the user decide if they want to go ahead and print now or change their design to reduce the cost of printing. There is also a 3D print management solution that helps you get the most out of your 3D print budget by allowing you to charge students upfront, via a pay-to-print system that is built into the print management software.

Figure 1 - Time and materials estimation

Note: If your school prefers a certain filament type then you need to consider this when buying your printer because most 3D printers will either use PLA or ABS but not both. Printers that can do both, are costlier. In part eight of this series we look at the importance of filaments. 

Modeling software
3D modeling software, also known as CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs, can cost into the hundreds or thousands of dollars with features for professional designers. However, for the novice there are free or low cost online tools. Here are a couple: TinkerCad, OpenSCAD, or AutoDesk’s Fusion 360. Many of these sites contain files that 3D enthusiasts have shared and can be a good starting point to try before investing in more costly CAD software. Knowing how to operate CAD software will dramatically expand the possibilities of 3D printing in your school or university because you will no longer rely or be limited to what other people have created or designed.

Indirect Costs

Maintenance & Service
As with 2D printers in your school, your 3D printer(s) will need to be maintained which requires specialist knowledge. In part two of this series we stated that if you already have a service agreement with a third party for your 2D print environment (your school’s IT department can answer this), then you are well positioned to add 3D printers. Service and management costs vary considerably depending on the number of printers, level of support required and frequency of servicing. If you have an agreement for your 2D print environment your provider should be able to provide you with an estimate to add 3D printer(s) into the agreement.

3D printers differ in the sturdiness of construction, ease of use, print volume, printing quality, available materials that the 3D printer will support and of course the customer support they provide. When choosing a printer, you should consider if your organization can manage to wait for 5 to 7 weeks before receiving a replacement part as well as relying only on remote support.

In part ten of this series we’ll discuss the considerations for managing and supporting your 3D printer. It will also offer guidance and advice to ensure your entire print environment is fully optimized.

Print Management Software
As already mentioned, education has specific 3D printing needs and so a print solution that helps you to meet these is essential. With a 3D printer solution that includes print management software, your school or university can provide secure access to students (and faculty), track & report usage and costs as well as provide the print-to-pay service from one platform, on one license for an affordable monthly fee. As your fleet of printers increases, you will also need a simple, cost effective management platform that works across your entire fleet of printers, both 3D and paper/copy devices.

The 3D Printing in Education 2016 Report Card (published in January 2017) reported that 77% of schools expect their use of 3D printing to increase. Being able to add printers to your existing print management platform means that you can expand your capabilities quickly and cost effectively.   

In part ten of this series we’ll discuss further the considerations for a solution that includes a print management and accounting features.

Administration Costs
Something that can be overlooked when considering 3D printing are the administrative costs. Whether it is your IT administrator or one of the teaching staff, you need to consider the cost of their time. This is difficult to estimate, however to minimize the time and effort spend administering your 3D printing solution look for one that offers the following features:


  • Reporting: 3D printing reports to help you make quick and accurate decisions based on hard facts.
  • Monitoring: 3D printer monitoring will highlight any issues across your fleet of printers, allowing you or your third-party service provider to react quickly and solve any potential problems.
  • Pull Printing: Pull printing means that you can print from any printer across the network which means no more queues.
  • User and Admin Notifications: With email notifications, the user or administrator are informed should there be an issue with the user’s print job or a printer.  This prevents bottlenecks as the user or administrator is informed and can act quickly to rectify the problem.
  • Simple, user friendly console:  Look for a solution that offers a simple user and admin console, something that everyone can easily use without the need for in-depth training. This means that everyone can start using the 3D printer(s) immediately and your chosen administrator is not distracted or frustrated by a complex management console.


Who can help me estimate our 3D printing costs?

It is highly recommended to involve your IT department when considering and purchasing your 3D printing solution. Using your IT department and existing service providers will greatly assist in finding the right solution to ensure that you are getting the ROI you expect from the 3D printing program including maximizing student access and managing costs.

Are there grants available for 3D printing?

Technology is highly valued in education. Some countries, districts or municipalities offer grants to encourage schools and universities to introduce technology into the classroom. 3D printing is proving a poplar investment where grants are available. Speak to your local education authority and find out if they can help fund a 3D printing initiative. You may have to submit a proposal or business case and this is where this blog series can help, specifically part four, “Building a Business Case for a 3D Printer.”

Learn more about 3D Printing in Education

Introducing 3D Printing into the Classroom is a series of articles designed to help educators and IT administrators in education understand 3D printing, how 3D printing can enhance the learning experience and the considerations about the 3D printing ecosystem. Understanding the 3D printing process, how the solution fits into the classroom and how costs, access and usage can be managed are elements of a successful 3D Printing Program.
In Part 4, we will help you offer guidance on “Building a Business Case for a 3D Printer”.

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