3D By John Thatch / March 18, 2017 Share 0 Tweet Pin 0 Share 0 You don’t have to go back too far to find a time when 3D printers were merely a fantasy, with replicators best left to the Star Trek universe. And just as quickly, they went from imaginary to real, then from gigantic machines restricted to rich tech companies to what’s available now for your own home. In fact, 3D printing in the home is evolving at such a speed that it can be difficult to keep up with what’s available on the market and what would be the best printer for your needs. Whether building a prototype for your designs, a maquette for your sculpture, replacement parts for your stop-motion animation, or even just playing around, a 3D printer can open up immense possibilities. While they’re not quite at replicator levels (please don’t eat anything you print, even if it looks super delicious) the precision available has improved so much over the years. Because they’re not “make anything” tools yet, it’s important to consider a range of factors when selecting the best printer for you. How to Choose Tech: FDM or SLA Current 3D printers typically fall into one of two categories: Fused Deposition Modeling printers (FDM) or Stereolithography (SLA). Each uses an entirely different technology to print your designs in 3D. FDM printers take a plastic filament (usually spooled on top of the printer like an extension cord), melt it through a pen-like extruder, and build your design in layers with the melted plastic. SLA printers also build layer-by-layer, but with a liquid resin that requires UV light to cure to a hardened state. The light is beamed with a laser or projector to compose the layers. Unlike the FDM printers, these build from top to bottom, lifting the solid layer of resin up and then building the next one below it. Aside from a completely different method of production, there are some key differences to consider between these two methods. FDM printers will not be nearly as precise as SLA printers. For that precision, however, there is a cost: not only are the resins in SLA far more expensive than the spools of filament for an FDM, but you also will have a lot more cleanup to do with SLA printers so that your final product can be handled and comes out nicely. You also need to frequently replace the resin containers, adding more to the cost. Supports and other imperfections would likely need to be trimmed from both of these. These differences lead directly to application purposes. An FDM is great for quick prototyping, or when a perfectly precise model is not necessary. SLA would be best for creating more precise surfaces, best for casting molds. In both cases, your product will not be perfectly strong, so unless you’ve got a NASA-grade printer like they plan to use on the ISS, don’t expect extremely strong items. Build volume The size of the printer determines how big a model you can make. Remember that these are sold to fit in your home, but the sizes of what can be produced will still vary. Materials used in the print With an FDM, the materials used to make the filament can range from a biodegradable polymer made of polylactic acid (PLA) to more flexible acyrlonitrite-butadiene styrene (ABS) which is oil-based and much more expensive for that strength. Both have pros and cons. ABS may be more prone to warping, but PLA can clog the nozzle. However, if you want to sand and reshape your product, PLA could be better. You can also have filaments of a variety of other materials from copper to wood-based, but remember that some printers force you to buy only their proprietary materials, limiting your selection. For SLA printers, you’re likely limited to the proprietary resins for that particular printer. Most have very few options. Speed This is improving over time, but regardless of your choice, your printing will probably be quite slow for now. In some models, you can sacrifice resolution by printing thicker layers, thus reducing the printing time. If speed is important to you, check to see how fast each layer is produced—most can do around 100mm/s. Top Beginner 3D Printers Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s look at some actual printers. The following are exclusively FDM printers (because of cost) and are all available for under 800 USD. 1. Prusa i3 MK2 It’s hard not to love open-source design, and Prusa is truly living that 3D printing philosophy. This printer is named after the original designer, Josef Prusa. Of all FDMs on this list, this is easily the most well-respected and best value available. What makes the Prusa i3 so good? It’s easy to use, and does not require a whole lot of calibration. It also has a strong, all-metal nozzle, so it can handle PLA or ABS or just about any filament you want to feed it. The quality is also very consistent, and with a smaller, .25mm nozzle available, you can improve that resolution even more. It’s not perfect—if your design has dramatic overhangs, it could cause some failures. But for this price, it’s near enough to perfect. It has a reasonably large build volume at 250 x 210 x 200 mm, and quite high resolution with layers of as little as 50 microns. With open source software and simple USB and SD card connectivity, it can only get better as developers continue to work on the firmware and software. This is the best entry point for a professional 3D printer. In fact, you would probably be happy with this printer even if you’re experienced in 3D printing—it’s that good. 2. QIDI Tech 1 The QIDI Tech 1 is a close second for combining value and performance. It can also print with both PLA and ABS. It has dual extruders for faster printing and simple, community-friendly software. It connects via USB and SD card. As for its specs, it has a build volume of 250 x 150 x 150 mm, resolution of about 100 microns and a nozzle diameter of .4mm. It’s both smaller and lower resolution than the Prusa above, but it still packs a punch. A high-heat resistant metal platform helps have stronger supports that are easy to remove from the final product. Though it matches price with the Prusa, it’s still a fine printer for its value. 3. Ord Bot Hadron Another open-source printer, this one uses “Makerslide” rails to move the printing surface around which improves the printing time and makes the whole device rather sturdy. However, despite the open-source nature, the community and customer support are both lacking. The Hadron is really fast thanks to the bearings in the rails, producing 400 mm/s. On the other hand, it is a little smaller than the preceding two, with a build volume of 190 x 190 x 150 mm. The resolution stays on par with a minimum layer height of 100 microns. You can connect via USB. This is a nice, reliable printer that can be easily modified to suit your needs. Over time, that sturdiness could go a long way for your dollar. 4. XYZprinting da Vinci micro For the true beginners, the price point of XYZprinting’s da Vinci micro provides some serious accessibility. And even at that cost, you’re still getting a decent printer with a 100 micron resolution. The software works well (improved from the previous da Vinci Mini) and it’s easy to use. It works best with PLA filament There are a few drawbacks with a printer this cheap. One problem is its size—with a build volume of only 150 x 150 x 150 mm. It also can be difficult to remove your designs from the printing bed after you’re done. This is a great entry into the 3D printing world for less than half of the above and only a tiny fraction of the printers in the Pro list below. 5. Flash Forge Finder The Finder is another strong entry-level 3D printer. It has a slide-in build plate so that you can easily remove your finished designs and produces nice quality prints. One of the nicest things about this printer is its connectivity. Instead of simply USB, the Finder can connect via Wifi. The quality you’ll get here outdoes the da Vinci, even if its build volume is even smaller (140 x 140 x 140 mm). There may be some startup issues to get this one going—including difficulty getting your design to stick to the plate, and some less than clear instructions—but ultimately there is a lot of value here. This is another good entry-level choice. Top Pro 3D Printers 1. LulzBot TAZ 6 For both ease of use and quality, this FDM printer is hard to match. With a minimum layer thickness of 75 microns, a huge build volume of 280 x 280 x 250 mm, and self-leveling and self-cleaning features, the specs alone make this a competent printer. But it’s the simplicity that puts this at the top of the Pro list. It is reliable, can be started up and printing quickly, and the automatic self-leveling all combine for a hassle-free printing experience. You can set this up in less than an hour and with its open-source framework, you can use almost any 3D printing program to slice up your design. If that weren’t enough, this is probably the highest quality FDM printer available. The LulzBot is a fantastic choice for the serious enthusiast. 2. Formlabs Form 2 With the Formlabs Form 2 we have the only SLA printer on the list, mostly because they either cost far more than anything that could be considered “consumer” level or they aren’t up to the quality standards. The Form 2, however, can handle the challenge. The precision here in unmatched by any of the FDMs on the list, with a minimum layer height of only 25 microns. This SLA uses lasers (instead of the more expensive projectors) to cure the resin. It connects via USB, Wifi, or Ethernet, making it even easier to use. Yes, it’s pricey, and there will be some post-production cleanup required on your finished piece, but this is not for the casual entrant into the 3D printing world, but for professionals who want that added quality. The build volume here is 145 x 145 x 170 mm, so a little smaller than most on this half of the list. With the Form 2, you get enormous quality but at a much higher entry and usage cost. 3. Zortrax M200 The Zortrax M200 is also a great option for FDM. This printer is also rather easy to use, with automated bed-leveling. To prevent warping, the bed uses a perforated design, which makes it excellent for ABS filament even though it can print in other materials too. You don’t need to be too technically inclined to get high quality prints from the M200. It has a decent build volume of 200 x 200 x 185 mm, a minimum layer height of 90 microns, and an XY precision of only 1.5 microns. A slow heat-up time before printing (10-20 minutes) and reports of some customer service problems could dampen an otherwise excellent printer, but if you’re patient, this is a solid choice. It’s reasonably affordable for easy-to-start printing. 4. Makergear M2 The M2 is MakerGear’s fifth generation printer and it shows. Not only is it well built, but it also has exceptional print quality and reliability. With a build volume of 203 x 254 x 203 mm, interchangeable nozzles, and a minimum layer height of only 25 microns, this printer seems to have it all. The only major drawback is that it’s not very easy to use. Still, with strong customer support at Makergear, if you can handle some bumps getting it well-calibrated, then you’ll have one of the best printers available. The price is steep but the quality matches even much more expensive printers. 5. FlashForge Creator Pro The FlashForge Creator Pro rounds out this list as a solid, quality printer that could seem a bit past its prime. With a build volume of 145 x 225 x 150 and solid print quality and a bit lower resolution with a minimum layer height of 100 microns, other printers out-do these specs. However, a large fan base proves that this printer is reliable and easy to use.