So you’re thinking about buying a 3D printer. Congratulations! You are making a great choice. But wait – before you hit the “buy” button on that brand new expensive Makerbot, read this post, because I’m going to walk you through the different 3D printers to help you figure out which one is right for you.
The first thing you need to know is that there are three major types of 3D printing processes; FDM, which I will talk much more extensively about; SLA, which uses cured resin to create 3D objects; and SLS, which is like SLA, but can be used with many more materials. SLA and SLS aren’t generally used for desktop 3D printers, so I won’t be describing them in-depth.
FDM printing is the most common 3D printing process, and is used in almost all desktop 3D printers, except a few, most notably any of Formlabs’s printers (www.formlabs.com). In an FDM machine (like the Makerbot or Printrbot, as well as many others), plastic is melted to create a 3D object. There are two types of FDM plastics that are most commonly used for 3D printing: PLA (polylactic acid), and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). Both generally come in a large spool that is either one or two kilograms, and the filament looks like spaghetti. Filament comes in either 1.75mm diameter or 3mm diameter sizes, and is about $30 per roll. The 3mm filament strand is about half as long as the 1.75mm strand, but is thicker than the 1.75mm filament. Both sizes are produced because different extruders accept different diameters of filament.
About the materials themselves, PLA prints with more detail than ABS, and doesn’t release a smelly fume like ABS does. However, ABS is much stronger than PLA, and is used very commonly for non-3D printing purposes. It is generally a matter of personal preference which type of filament you use, but I prefer PLA, because it prints at a lower temperature than ABS, puts out less fumes than ABS, and doesn’t require a heated build plate.
So, once you start printing with this plastic, it gets pushed through a very hot extruder. Extruders, or hot ends, as they are sometimes referred to, get heated up to about 200-250°C. The plastic is pushed through by a motor, and when the whole extruder moves around the build plate of the 3D printer, it “prints” the plastic, somewhat like a 2D printer, but the difference is that 3D printers print multiple layers. After this first layer is complete, the extruder moves up a fraction of a millimeter and makes another layer. This process is repeated over and over until the full object is created.
Now that you know a bit more about the process of FDM printing, we can start talking about the different 3D printer companies. Among the most common are Makerbot, Printrbot, Makergear, Flashforge, Ultimaker, Afinia, Formlabs (which is SLA, not FDM), and the RepRap project, which isn’t really a company, but a community. In this article, I will talk about each printer company’s pros and cons, and why each one may or may not be the printer for you.
Makerbot (a company based in New York) offers high-quality 3D printers that cost about $2000 or $3000, which is a little bit high for desktop 3D printers. Only the Replicator 2X offers a heated build platform, which is necessary to 3D print with ABS, but their software and LCD panel make it easy for even the most beginner makers to begin building complex models in minutes. I know this sounds like an ad, but seriously, if you’re looking for a great 3D printing experience and are willing to pay a bit of a premium for it, Makerbot may be the company for you. I would recommend the Replicator 2, because I have heard that some people are unhappy with Makerbot’s new “smart extruder” system. One last note – if you are thinking about a Makerbot Mini, I would recommend something else. Its 4x4 inch build plate is pretty small, and it comes with a premium price tag (unworthy in my opinion) for something so small.
Printrbot has recently converted all of their 3D printer designs to metal, which makes them extremely durable. Also, for less than half of the price of a Makerbot (their Simple Metal, the 3D printer that I have, starts at only $599), they are a great choice if you want to spend only a bit more time setting up your 3D printer but you want to shell out a lot less cash. Personally, I have had mine for about a year, and since I set it up, I haven’t had any major problems with it. I couldn’t be happier with my purchase!
Makergear’s printer is known well around the 3D printing community for very high quality prints for a bit of a premium price, starting at $1475 for a kit model. Their software can take some time to get used to, but once you are set up, you won’t regret the great print quality. It has a heated bed, so ABS is a possibility, but it is a bit noisy, so you may want to stay away from it if you live with someone who is sensitive to loud or irregular noises.
I haven’t had much experience with the Creator Pro, but from what I hear, it seems to be a great 3D printer. It has a heated bed, so you can print with ABS, and it has two extruders (or a “dual extruder” as it’s called in the 3D printing world). This means that you can print in two colors at once. It starts at $1200, but it comes built into an enclosure which makes it quieter as well as helps keep the ABS fumes out of the air (if you choose to print in ABS). Overall, it’s a great printer at a pretty conservative price and is great for intermediate users.
Ultimaker’s newest addition to their product line is the Ultimaker 2. It has an amazing print resolution of 20 microns (or 0.02mm per layer) which is five times more accurate than most other desktop 3D printers. It features a heated bed and a large print volume (if you want even more height for your 3D prints, you can check out the Ultimaker 2 Extended), and has an LCD display like the Makerbot for easier operation. Ultimaker’s software, Cura, is widely praised by 3D printing experts for its ease of use by beginners, but it has many options for 3D printing veterans as well. I have personally used it, and it is a great piece of software. It is also free, which makes it even better. The Ultimaker 2 starts at $2500, which is a bit expensive, but it is easy for beginners to use, which makes it well worth the cost for beginners. Also, once you become more knowledgeable, there are many more options available to better the quality of your prints.
The UP Plus 2 is a great option for beginners, and it is pretty much plug and play, which means you should have no trouble getting great prints going in no time. It has an average build plate, at almost 6x6 inches, which is fine for most prints, and it has very consistently great quality. However, Afinia’s customer support isn’t something to write home about. The UP Plus 2 is a great choice for schools because students can tinker with it to get optimal print quality, but it is also easy for teachers to set up so they can be printing immediately. Unfortunately, the UP Plus 2 starts at $1299, which is expensive for this printer’s specifications, but that price can be justified by its ease of use.
“RepRap” means that the 3D printer contains parts that are themselves made on 3D printers. One of the most common types of RepRap 3D printers is the Prusa i3. The Prusa is made of a laser-cut wood frame and 3D printed parts, so it isn’t particularly durable. Also, it is difficult to assemble. I previously owned a Prusa i3, but after a year of frustration and problems, I got rid of it. This isn’t to say that RepRaps aren’t good printers, though. They are great for experts who will enjoy tinkering with their printer and being able to customize and hack anything they want. It’s hard to talk about the specs of a RepRap though, because they are all so different, and that is why people love them. They are also generally less expensive than other 3D printers, so if you are willing to put a lot of time into your printer, and want a very customizable experience, a RepRap may well be the way to go. But for beginners, other printers are much better options.
As a reminder, this printer uses SLA technology, not FDM. While the Formlabs Form 2 comes at a steep price ($3500) it features SLA technology, which uses a laser to cure a vat of resin to build a 3D model. It doesn’t use filament like FDM printers do, and the resin for it is $100 per bottle, but the print quality is far and away the best of any desktop-class 3D printer. Unfortunately, once the piece comes out of the printer, it needs to be manually finished with special chemicals, but after finishing, the part’s layers are almost undistinguishable from each other. The Form 2 also looks great on any desk, and has a display on the front to control it. It is best for experts, as it can be difficult to get it working and it has an average sized build plate for FDM printers, even though it is SLA. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that it isn’t so reliable, and prints take a long time to complete, but its software and precision make up for that. In summary, it’s a great printer for precision and small parts, and is best used by pros.
So that’s a general overview of each type of printer. If you are a beginner and want to dip your toes into the world of 3D printing, but you don’t want to take many hours to learn everything about your printer, then you would be best suited with a Makerbot, Ultimaker, or Afinia, as long as you are okay with spending more money than you would for the average printer. If you are intermediate and want to tinker with your printer, but don’t know everything or don’t want to deal with more problems (like I did), then a Printrbot, Flashforge, or Makergear M2 is the printer for you. These printers are average to moderately expensive, but they are a great combination of ease of use and choices for more high-level users. If you are willing to nose-dive into 3D printing, or you are already an expert, a RepRap might be your thing. Building a 3D printer is a lot of fun, and even if it takes a while before your printer is up and running, it is definitely worth the wait for all the experience you will get by tinkering with it. For the experts who want very high quality custom 3D parts, but don’t mind waiting for them and finishing them in chemicals, the Formlabs Form 2 or Form 1+ is the printer for you.
I hope that this article has helped you narrow down your choice of a 3D printer, and made the 3D printing world seem less complicated. For more information on most of the 3D printers featured here, visit https://www.3dhubs.com/best-3d-printer-guide. I used this guide to help me with this post, and I was impressed by the information in it. As far as choosing a printer goes, I know it can seem difficult now, but in a year or two, revisit this post and I’m sure you’ll be surprised at what you know.
In fact, it won’t be too long before you are helping someone else choose a 3D printer!
My name is Zachary and I am a 15 year old maker. Over the past three years, I have been learning all that I can about 3D printing. I own a Printrbot Simple Metal, and I previously owned a RepRap Prusa i3. About six months ago, I found NI-O Toys at a 3D Printer Meetup Group. Since then, I have been printing their toys, and I currently have printed their monster and a toy car (my builds are on the NI-O website). This is my first blog post, and I really enjoyed writing it! If you want to get in touch with me, please talk to someone from NI-O Toys.