So you’ve decided that you want a home/desktop 3D printer. But like the early days of personal computers, there’s been an explosion of different 3D printers out on the market. There’s about 120 different desktop 3D printers available in 2013. Until the market decides on clear winners, there will be more to come.
Which 3D printer should you buy? That mostly depends on why you’re buying one and your budget.
Since there’s different printers all the time, any review or recommendation given here would quickly be outdated. It’s better to learn what you need to know about buying a 3D printer, learn some tips, and make your decision based on that.
To start, there’s really only four things you need to consider:
- Am I going to have more fun building the printer, or printing things?
- What’s my budget?
- How consistent is the printer, and what’s the quality of the prints?
- How fast can my printer print? (while keeping quality of prints up and costs down)
Tinkerer or Designer?
There are many different reasons to get a 3D printer, but currently, those with 3D printers largely fall into two groups decided by a single question:
Do you want to tinker with the hardware, or are you more interested in printing things you or other people designed?
Some people are drawn to 3D printing because they like hardware or mechanical machines and would like to build their own from scratch, from kits, or design one of their own. For them, the fun of it all is the actually building of the machine. Many of the kit-based 3D printersare also open source, meaning the design and the bill of materials is available for you to make changes to the design and contribute changes back. To save on costs, it’s also possible to source the materials yourself through online suppliers, such as McMaster-Carr, Amazon Supply, and eBay.
If you fall into this group, it’s best to focus on printers that come as kits, low cost, with a relatively large community to ask questions when you run into snags. Hang out at various 3D printing communities on google groups or google plus, and see what 3D printers people are talking about.
Other people are drawn to 3D printing because the ability to build anything they can imagine–or better yet, things that other people imagine. For them, the fun is to explore what you’d be able to print with a 3D printer. Some people print functional art and desktop ornaments. Other people use it to prototype board game pieces, hardware enclosures, or product concepts. And yet other people print functional objects to fix and solve their problems around the house.
If you fall into this group, it’s best to focus ease of use, consistency and speed of prints. This will mean you buy pre-assembled 3D printers, with some semblance of customer support.
What’s your budget?
The cost you’re willing to pay for a 3D printer will figure heavily into what kind of printer you will buy. As a rule of thumb, kit-based printers are cheaper than pre-assembled printers, and self-sourced printers are cheaper than kit-based printers. However, there are solid pre-assembled printers available for $500 to $800.
As of 2013, you should be able to get a good pre-assembled printer with for around $1500 or less. For $2000+ printers, look for something that makes it stand out from the sub $2000 printers. Examples are one or more of the following: solid metal frames, a flat build platform, speed of print, belt-less drives, straight metal guides, easy to use software.
Consistency of Print
There’s many things that factor into ease of use (the software for one). However, consistency of the print is one of the biggest contributing factors. Early desktop 3D printers had easily failed prints, and there’s nothing more frustrating than restarting a print. As of 2013, failed prints are far more rare, but they still do happen, largely due to the design of the printer.
First factor in consistency is the flatness and the levelness of the build platform. 3D printers regularly print at layer heights of 0.1mm, which means that if there’s warping in the build platform of more than 0.1mm, the first layer isn’t going to stick well in different places. Then, it’s likely going to peel off and warp the print, or worse, get knocked off the platform. The best way to discover if a printer has this issue is to view their community or support forums, and see how many people complain about it, and how the company responded to it.
Secondly, all desktop (as well as most commercial printers) 3D printers are open feedback systems, meaning there’s no feedback back to the onboard computer where the toolhead is once the computer issues the command to move to a position. The ability to travel to the same point in 3D space consistently therefore depends on a combination of stepper motors, a solid frame, drive systems, and the overall design of the printer.
Printers with a solid metal frame will tend to vibrate less when printing at high speeds, so there will be less resonating waves that show up in the prints. Printers with a direct drive system or leadscrew drive system, as opposed to a belt and pulley drive system tend to have backlash when changing directions, and hence a more accurate X-Y resolution. (To be fair, leadscrews also have a bit of backlash).
Generally, there are two measures of print speed. There’s the print speed–how fast the toolhead moves when it’s laying down plastic. And there’s the travel speed–how fast the toolhead moves when it’s moving between printing areas without laying down plastic.
Many 3D printers now employ acceleration/deceleration firmware on the toolheads to achieve higher print speeds. The toolhead’s path often consists of abruptly changing directions, and without acceleration, it would shake the 3D printer apart at high speeds. For example, the Makerbot Replicator’s official print speed is 40 mm/s, but I’ve been able to run it at 80 mm/s with acceleration without a decrease in print quality.
Delta printers are based on pick and place robot designs that tend to have really fast performance. The Rostock Max (kit: $999) clocks in at 300 mm/s, and as evident by pick and place machines, they can only get faster. The first delta printer to arrive on the scene with a significant following is the Original Rostock by Johann Rocholl. His next iteration is the Kossel.
Secondary considerations, but still worth thinking about
Free as in Freedom
Decades of closedness and sitting on patents by commercial 3D printing companies haven’t seen much progress in the desktop 3D printing space. As a result, many in the 3D printing community value openness and the sharing of ideas, progress, and credit. If this is a value you share, you might want to buy 3D printers that support it.
Lulzbot AO-10x series is based on the MendelMax, which in turn is based off of RepRap family of machines. They’re open about their support for the open source 3D printing community, especially after Makerbot closed the source of their new Replicator 2 when their previous printers have been open source. The community has had nothing but good things to say about the company’s customer support, and involvement in the community.
The community around a 3D printer is also important, especially if you’re building it from a kit. For any printer you’re about to buy, see if you can find an active community discussing the printer and whether the company has a good customer support system in place.
Layer Height and Print Resolution
There’s a large misconception on the resolution needed for an object to be useful. Some people imagine something wouldn’t be useful or beautiful unless an object looks like injection molded parts. That’s simply not true.
Today’s desktop printers can easily achieve 100-150 microns layer heights. While the grain of the print is still visible, it feels like running your fingers up a stack of fine paper. Hobbyists have also been able to achieve 20 micron prints. The orange thing you see on the left side of the picture is someone’s thumb. However with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers, the higher the resolution of the print, the more time the print will take to finish.
There’s a a couple stereolithography (SL) desktop printer on the market right now. One is the Form One, and the other is the B9Creator. Its resolution is unmatched by FDM machines, but it requires a post-processing step to harden the print.
The build volume is a specs often touted in the marketing materials of various 3D printers, but in reality, beyond a certain size, it’s a feature with diminishing returns.
The advantage of having a huge build volume is that you can print large parts without having to digitally cleave the model. In addition, you can also print lots of different parts at once.
Since most 3D printed parts of any significant size takes hours to print, most people print medium sized objects. Given that your build platform can accommodate most objects, beyond a certain size (200mm x 200mm) it a feature with diminishing returns.
Types of materials
For desktop printers, there’s only a few plastics in use, ABS and PLA. Most 3D printers use filament spools that are interchangeable. The only exception is the Cubify Cube from 3D Systems, which require special Cubify only cartridges, even though it’s still ABS. So unless you have a Cubify printer, there’s no lock-in of plastic filament between different printers. So unlike inkjet printers, the materials is relatively cheap. ABS and PLA plastic filament is around $30-$50/kg, which will probably last you two months even if you print regularly. I personally have found Octave Filament to be a good source for filament, and they also sell through Amazon.
The cost in 3D printing is not the materials, but the time it takes to print things. Weighed against your budget, you should try to get the fastest printer you can afford.
Method of printing
Almost all desktop 3D printers are FDM printers. This is because the patent for FDM printers has expired in 2009. Notable exceptions are Form One SL printer and the PDWR powder-based printer. Unless you specifically need an SL or powder-based printer, most desktop printers are FDM printers.
Where to go from here?
By now, you should know what to look for in a 3D printer. Further references to help guide your decision is, The Ultimate Guide To 3D Printing. It costs money, but well worth the money for their in-depth reviews. You would also do well to check out Engadget’s buying guide if you’re still reading this in 2013.
And here is a few lists of 3D printers:
- 3D printer list
- Table of 3D printers at SilkApp
- 3Ders.org price comparison
- Toptenreviews of 3D printers
Good luck in your search for a 3D printer, and lemme know if this guide helped at all.
I found this post from the Invention Studio in Georgia tech, where they operate a small farm of 3D printers. They inadvertently have reviews of all the printers they operate for reliability. So far, the LulzBots AO-10x comes out on top for them.