Have yourself a maker little Christmas
Buying a 3D printer in September ought to be an omen for Christmas souvenirs to come.
So, in September I’ve bought a rather inexpensive Anet A8 Plus 3D printer in kit form from Aliexpress. After a few weeks tinkering with it, testing some designs and the mandatory benchy boat, my wife and I set our sights on what could we mass-print to offer family and close friends. We’ve tested some articulated Santas and reindeers, but ultimately settled on an illuminated Christmas tree, which actually consists of two parts: a base, for battery and LED, and a top, which is the tree itself.
The things on Thingiverse from which I started are the Parametric LED Tea Light and Christmas Tree Lights. The tree top was the easy one — there’s only one little trick, which is to print it in vase mode. In Ultimaker Cura, is the Spiralize Outer Contour setting in Special Modes. I also enlarged it a little, around 130% or something.
The bottom part needed some adjustments in Tinkercad to fit the battery holders and buttons I had (although later I purchased slightly different buttons which ended up being too loose).
Then, I bumped up the quality to 0.1mm on each piece and started pumping out trees at the staggering speed of a complete tree every four hours. The top took 1h50 and the bottom 2h10.
My wife would chop off the adhesion brims from the pieces. Then, it was all a matter of fitting the battery holder, button, LED and a little piece of wire, four drops of solder and we were done for the base. A small test phase, four drops of superglue between top and bottom, and the tree was complete.
I had to order the little parts from Amazon — and of they came from China, which was an adventure of it’s own, with less than two months until the holidays.
So, our shopping cart looked like this:
- 1kg Translucid filament from BQ: 14.90€
- 50 × RGB LED: 4.10€
- 40 × CR2032 battery holder: 10.22€
- 60 × SPDT Mini switch: 3.60€
- 40 × CR2032 batteries: 32.00€
- UHU super glue (3 x 1g tubes): 3.79€
We’ve made 35 trees in total.
How much did it cost?
Well… it depends.
If we consider that every leftover is garbage, then it’s an easy calculation to make: (14.90 + 4.10 + 10.22 + 3.60 + 32.00 + 3.79) ÷ 35 = 1.96€ a piece.
However, the leftovers will probably be used further down the road, most notably about half of the 1kg spool of filament. Putting together all the proportional prices: (7.45 + 2.87 + 8.94 + 2.10 + 28.00 + 3.79) ÷ 35 = 1.52€ a piece.
What about electricity?
In Portugal, electricity is around 15 cents the kWh. My Anet A8 Plus has a 250W power supply. Let’s assume it really consumes 250W/h all the time it’s printing (it really doesn’t): with 4 hours a tree, that’s 1kWh. Or 15 cents a tree.
What about work?
My wife took about 5 minutes to take off brims and another 5 for final assembly. I took 10 minutes to solder the components and test. That’s 20 minutes per tree. Assuming a 5€/h for each of us — which is about the average salary in Portugal — that’s 3.33€ for every tree.
Well… I didn’t want this article to turn into an economics manifesto, but we can see that labor was actually the biggest cost, as it usually is with handmade stuff. Maybe we could shave some time here and there — not printing adhesion brims (if the printer was better calibrated), faster soldering with more practice, but it would always represent at least half of the final gross value.
So… one could make a living selling christmas souvenirs?
Not a chance. With a gross cost of around 1.75€, plus 4.00€ for a decent pay, plus taxes, that would put every tree in the 8 to 10 euro range. Nobody would buy a plastic souvenir that expensive, at least not at a rate high enough to make a living.
- Quality. Probably I would print at least the base at a lower quality. The 0.2 and even the 0.3 would be good enough. That would’ve dropped time below half (for the base).
- Get the parts first. I started pumping out trees before I had the battery holders, the buttons and the LEDs. The buttons posed a problem on arrival, because they were way smaller than the one I had and tested. They ended up somewhat loose, and we screwed three trees trying to fix it with a drop of superglue bellow the button — the glue infiltrated the inside of the buttons and the levers got stuck. Forever.
- Plan ahead and start early. 3D printing is slow! We started between month and a half to two months before the holidays and almost didn’t make it with trees for everyone. I actually printed the last two trees on December 23rd.
- Stress test one of your first builds. At least one of the trees, that we know of, got stuck on a single color after a while. I suspect the auto RGB controller inside the LED got damaged, which is not unexpected for such a low price item.
- Practice more. I was severely rusted on soldering technique. My first builds took a long time and ended up with large blobs of solder. I shouldn’t let a skill fade away like that. No only that, I was cocky: I said to myself along the planning phase “it’s four drops of solder, it can’t be that hard”. It was.