I will answer the purchase question first and then describe my experiences which have lead to the conclusion in another post. This may seem a bit backwards but the explanation is long and is not necessary if you are happy to learn from my mistakes.
Of all the options available right now, and there are many, I would choose a Mendal90 kit from Chris Palmer. The complete kit including everything to build the machine is £499 plus shipping. If I could afford it this is what I would buy myself to replace my current machine.
This is a Fused deposition modelling (FDM) printer similar to my Prusa Reprap but better engineered to produce repeatable results without the numerous issues of the other models. In Europe I would also recommend faberdashery as a materials source as their product is first rate every time.
Yes the kit requires some assembly but the commonly available commercial printers either cost many times more to deliver equivalent results, use an SLS or other print strategy requiring very expensive consumables or are from a company with dubious track record with the community.
If forced to recommend one, the 3DTouch from Bits From Bytes is not awful, but really do not be afraid of the kit, you will learn more about how it all fits together and save lots of money for your materials.
shapeways and the like use (and have price tags to match) The output will have clear "layering" and some objects simply cannot be created using the FDM process.
I guess what I am saying is do not expect a thousand pound machine to produce output that looks like that of a hundred thousand pound printer. To be clear you will not be printing complex moving machines on an FDM process more simple things that need assembly.
Having said that I have some pretty good results my favourite has to be the working recorder though, I might have said the whistles except my sons have them and they are way too loud.
You will spend a lot of time designing your things in 3D CAD packages and fair warning they all SUCK and I mean really, really badly. Add to that all the rest of the tools in the workflow are also iffy and I do wonder how anyone every gets anything printed.
My (open source) workflow is:
- 3D CAD with OpenSCAD
- STL file
- meshlab to clean up the STL
- slic3r to create a toolpath
- Gcode file
- printrun to run the gcode on the printer.
Which is probably a case of "least bad" tool selection though I warn you now that OpenSCAD is effectively a bad editor (I wish I could use emacs) for a 3D solid macro language with visualisation attached and definitely not a graphical tool.