When it comes to 3D printing, the most expensive part of the system is the electronics.
Makerbot wants $370 for their Gen4 electronics. With their Gen6 stepper extruder (and the driver for it) costing $165, and a set of X-Y-Z motors costing $105, that puts the complete cost of electronics at around $640. I figure this is a good upper bound on what 3D printer electronics should cost since Makerbot’s electronics are probably the most professional and full-featured. I’m not going to include a heated bed in this comparison because it’s not strictly necessary to get started, it’s just a performance upgrade.
Obviously, when there are complete 3D printer kits starting at $500, $640 for just the electronics is unacceptable for my purposes.
The confounding thing is that when you move away from Makerbot (and complete kits in general) you start to have to source from multiple vendors. There is not, as yet, a clearing house for open-source 3D printer components. Sellers tend to focus on one or two options. Additionally, they tend to be located in Europe, so that whole “You want HOW MUCH for shipping?!?” thing gets reversed.
RAMPS and Gen6 are mid-range in terms of
performance flexibility and cost. So, you know, whatever. All the electronics kits I know of use pretty much (if not exactly) the same stepper drivers, and they all use USB, and these days they all have an SD-card option, so unless one of them tends to spit out errors more often they all have the same 3D printing performance.
Sanguinololu seems to be the strongest attempt to whittle the electronics down to just the bare necessities. eMakerShop sells the whole thing (including drivers & firmware tested) for about $170 shipped, they want $95 for the motors (shipped) and $75 for the extruder (shipped). That all comes to around $340. Solidoodle sells the whole thing (without drivers) for $105 (shipped), but doesn’t sell anything else. LulzBot can make up the difference with four Pololus for $65, four motors for $75, and a 12V 25A 300W power supply for $35. They have a hot end that they want $75 for. That all comes to around $350.
There are rumors of people pushing the electronics cost even lower. For example, something called GenL offloads most of the computation to the host computer by using more USB bandwidth. Another example is Repic by Mark Feldman, but I can’t find much information about it.
As you can see, the electronics is the most expensive part of the printer and the stepper motor/driver combination is the most expensive part of the electronics. The need for four bi-polar steppers and four microstepping drivers demands $120 minimum. You might be able to get that down under $100 if you get really lucky on sales or start salvaging parts. The biggest barrier is that these particular parts can’t be made much cheaper. The Sanguinololu board can be brought down to around $60 if you buy the bare PCB, then the components, then burn the bootloader with something you already had (or maybe you can find a chip that’s already burned). But the motors and driver prices aren’t going anywhere.
Some blue-sky ideas for lowering the cost even further involve basically starting from scratch and creating a new family of electronics. The primary reason steppers are so popular is that they don’t require any feedback for accurate positioning. It’s possible that coupling a feedback mechanism (linear resistor, optical encoder, whatever) with a standard DC motor to create a servo would be cheaper. It would also be possible to simulate the entire electronics board on an FPGA for a one-chip solution; just a PCB with the FPGA, its interface, and a bunch of transistors for amplification. Maybe the motors, and their complicated drivers, could be replaced with solenoids and some clockwork. Running all the high-power functions off of AC (out of the wall) might eliminate the need for a power supply (get logic power from the USB).