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How To Shop for a Home 3D Printer

By Sean Charlesworth

3D printing's popularity continues to grow and more people are taking the plunge into this new consumer technology. Since we recently built the PrintrBot Simple, this is a good time to talk about the process and choices you have to make when shopping for a printer of your own.

3D printing's popularity continues to grow and more people are taking the plunge into this new consumer technology. With Will and Norm having built a Printrbot Simple for us, I thought it would be a good time to talk about buying your own printer. There are a many choices out there and it can be a lot of confusing misinformation which overwhelms you. It's not possible to cover all the printers out there, so we'll cover the basics and things to consider when buying a printer and places to look for information.

The Basics

As a refresher, let's walk through the fundamentals of a typical home 3D printer. Most are going to be Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) machines that use plastic filament pushed through a heated extruder which 'draws' onto a print bed, layer by layer until the model is finished. Many machines print with Polylactic Acid (PLA), a biodegradable, non-toxic plastic that produces nice, but semi-brittle prints. The other common plastic is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)--the same stuff LEGO is made from. ABS is a little trickier to print with and does produce some fumes but it's also more flexible and durable than PLA.

A higher-end choice but still in the realm of home printers are some SLA (Stereolithography) and DLP (Digital Light Processing) machines which print with liquid resin which is cured with light. They produce highly detailed prints but tend to cost more for both the printer and materials and we'll cover those in a later article.

Common Misconceptions about 3D Printing

Before you even begin the process of looking for a 3D printer to buy or build, you should know that 3D printing isn't everything the mainstream press make it out to be. It's still very much a maturing hobbyist technology, so you should go in with the proper expectations. Let's address some common misconceptions I've heard about today's 3D printers.

“It's easy! Just load a model and hit 'go'!” - I fully support anybody getting into 3D printing but in an effort to sell more machines companies are advertising that it 'just works'. While there have been a lot of advances in the last few years and machines are getting more foolproof and user-friendly this misconception has resulted in a lot of disappointed budding 3D printers. Be prepared for a learning curve, failed prints, ugly prints, mechanical failures, software bugs, etc.. I've seen too many people buy a printer only to be really disappointed when they realize there's a lot more involved than they thought. It's not always going to 'just work' and if you go in expecting this you'll have a better experience.

“I can make anything!” - Yes you can print a lot of different things but there are limitations to what can be printed and don't expect to be creating mechanical contraptions with out some 3D modeling skills and a firm understanding of design for 3D printing. Having said that, filament is relatively cheap so don't be afraid to print 10 different versions of something to get the hang of it. There's also a ton of awesome free things to print out from places like Thingiverse but I find that this can get boring after a while.

“PLA filament is the only way to go!” - There are lots of good reasons to print with corn-based PLA filament. It's biodegradable, it smells nice, it doesn't need a heated print bed and it does make very nice models. For many of these reasons a PLA printer is great for beginners and particularly children as the toxic factor and hot print bed is not an issue. Being biodegradable is one of the first things a printer manufacturer will mention about PLA as if they are out to save the planet. Honestly, I think the bigger factor in pushing PLA machines is they are cheaper to make and don't require quite as much tech support as an ABS machine. They don't need a heated print bed or the power supply to support it and it doesn't need an enclosed print chamber like ABS filament. PLA tends to be brittle and it doesn't like heat much, so if you leave a print in a hot car, it's going to get really droopy. ABS has give and flex to it, making it better for mechanical parts. I still like printing with PLA but the bulk of what I do is in ABS.

“I'm going to make tons of money with my printer!” - While there are plenty of people out there making money with their 3D printers, I wouldn't build your livelihood around it. For all the reasons mentioned above, it's often not that easy. While 3D printing is often referred to as 'rapid prototyping' it's not always fast and unless you have a printer farm, mass production is often not possible. I printed 100 of my iris boxes for the 2013 Maker Faire in NYC and while I did make a profit, the amount of printing time and assembly was not worth it.

What’s Your Angle?

Even the cheapest 3D printer is a sizable financial commitment so I would ask yourself what you want to get out of this. If you want to learn about how 3D printing works at a base level and really get your hands dirty, I'd recommend buying a kit. Not only is building your own machine cheaper, but it gives you a better understanding of how everything works and makes troubleshooting easier. There's usually an online community for any given kit which can be a valuable resource.

Check out Will and Norm building a Printrbot Simple to get an idea how involved this might be and if your comfortable. Assembly typically involves simple tools and maybe a soldering iron and patience. Often you can even view the assembly instructions online, ahead of time to help you make your decision.

Credit: PrintrBot

If you just want to mess around with 3D printing and have no exact plans for it you may want to get a smaller pre-assembled machine. It won't take up a lot of room, won't cost as much as a large machine and will still allow you to play around and try things out. By the time you decide you want to really get into 3D printing a bigger, better, cheaper machine will probably be out.

If you have serious plans to produce prints, whether for yourself or to sell, I would get a printer with the biggest print bed and features that you can afford. This will not only allow you to print big objects but lots of little ones at the same time. Having said that, I would be cautious of truly huge machines like the MakerBot Z18. I am somewhat skeptical that this machine can consistently produce large objects, since print failures happen on even the best machine. The bigger the print, the longer it takes and the better chance of something messing up.

What to Look For

PLA will work great for most prints and is definitely recommended, but if you want to do some hardcore mechanical stuff, like accessories for your bike I'd encourage you to get an ABS machine. In theory, any machine that prints PLA should be able to print ABS as well, but you really need a heated print bed (see below). A PLA machine should have a cooling fan mounted near the extruder - it helps produce nicer prints.

If you're buying an ABS machine you really need a heated print bed or the prints won't stick and tend to warp. An enclosed print chamber is harder to find but increases the success with ABS prints, particularly big ones as it keeps the model warm and reduces warping. Vice versa, any ABS machine should print PLA, but do your research. For example, my MakerBot 2X would not print PLA without further modifications due to the extruder design.

I would personally recommend, staying away from machines with filament cartridges - it's like overpaying for printer ink. Using a proprietary cartridge pretty much guarantees higher prices and limits you to only the materials and colors the manufacturer chooses to offer. There's plenty of good filament out there on a plain-old spool that will save you money. In addition, 3D printing is moving so fast that I can foresee companies quickly abandoning machines and or disappearing altogether which would render your machine useless without access to cartridges.

Be careful of Kickstarter machines that seem too good to be true.

Be careful of Kickstarter machines that seem too good to be true. If all you're seeing is a computer render of the machine, no example prints and no video of a machine actually printing - stay away - it's probably vaporware. An example of a good Kickstarter campaign is the Form 1 SLA printer. There's lots of information, the actual printer is presented as well as sample prints and video.

Modifications

If you get on the user forums for any given printer there will likely be a laundry list of updates and mods everyone insists you do. Usually these are valuable upgrades that will get your machine printing even better but I'd recommend playing with the stock printer and get it printing successfully first. If you start modding without trying things out you won't have a baseline to compare prints to. What does a stock print look like? Are the modded prints actually better? You need time to understand the process and how to tweak things before you start changing hardware and firmware. If you can't get a decent print out of the base setup, it's probably a printer you don't want anyway. A lot of mods are parts you actually print, so I would recommend always printing a duplicate so there's a backup in case of failure. We'll talk more about mods in a future article.

Our Recommendations

Airwolf AW3D HD2x, Credit: Airwolf

Airwolf3D

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about these guys but have not seen them in person. They have a few different printers available including a kit and support large print sizes and materials beyond ABS and PLA. Most have a heated print bed and some are even partially enclosed. I've also heard their customer support is very good. As a bonus you can hum the Airwolf theme song while printing.

Deezmaker Bukobot v2, Credit: Deezmaker

Deezmaker

They started one of the first actual 3D printing stores and makerspaces. I have seen these guys at Maker Faire and like their stuff. They do kits only and have a full size printer with heated print bed and successfully finished a Kickstarter for the Bukito portable unit that looks great. Nice prints and good support.

LulzBot TAZ, Credit: Lulzbot

LulzBot TAZ

Make Magazine really liked this open-source printer and it does look sweet. It has a gigantic heated print bed, although not enclosed so really big prints may be an issue. It has some of the best documentation and support out there.

MakerBot Replicator 2

MakerBot

MakerBot is by far the most common 3D printing machine you hear about and their business is booming. I'm a MakerBot owner and have the most experience with their products. They started out with DIY kits like the Cupcake and Thing-o-matic but moved to pre-built machines a few years ago. They have put out a lot of nice printers but I have to say that the last two generations have been problematic. I can definitely recommend the original Replicator 2 (confusing since the new version is just called the Replicator) - it's a solid PLA machine that is widely used and generally 'just works'. The bad news is that's it's been discontinued to push the next gen machines. I'd cautiously recommend the Replicator 2X as an ABS machine. I own a 2X and had a ton of problems with it initially but it was also the first run and I now have it printing really well. MakerBot has made improvements and it's better but don't expect to print PLA out of the box since further modifications are necessary.

MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen

Their new 5th gen machines are really sexy, have lots of cool features and can produce some very nice prints, but I have also seen evidence of a lot of firmware and hardware issues. They designed a new 'smart extruder' which is not user-servicable (you will have jams!) and I have seen many replacements being sent out and a hardware redesign in the middle of that. This generation has a lot of potential but it seems like they pushed it out the door before it was truly finished. MakerBot is by no means the only company guilty of this as it's happening across the board and not just with 3D printers. The good news is MakerBot seems to have very good customer service and generally take care of issues promptly and does make improvements.

Printrbot Plus

Printrbot

For the price, you can't go wrong with the Simple that we built or the even cheaper wooden version. It's a great learning tool for about as cheap as you can go. Kits are great if you want to save money and get your hands dirty. Some models are available pre-built and with heated print beds so ABS or PLA is ok. Takes a little more fiddling around than some printers.

Solidoodle 4

Solidoodle

I wasn't too impressed with Solidoodle and have heard mixed reviews but I saw version 4 at the 3D Printing Expo and it looks like a pretty nice machine. It has a heated and enclosed print bed so should print ABS or PLA nicely. The sample prints they had on hand looked good.

Top – Ultimaker 1 Kit Bottom – Uitimaker 2

Ultimaker

I have generally heard good things about Ultimaker and have been impressed by their machines and prints in person. They offer the Ultimaker 1 as a kit or assembled and the 2 is a really nice-looking pre-built machine. The Ultimaker uses a unique Bowden filament feeder which keeps the weight of the print head down and produces nice prints. The Ultimaker 2 has a heated print bed and is mostly enclosed so should do ABS as well as PLA. As a bonus, both are open-source!

UP Plus 2 (a.k.a. Afina H-Series)

A small, pre-built printer that puts out nice prints. Has a small, unenclosed, but heated print bed, so ABS and PLA is possible.

Not Recommended

CubePro TRIO

3D Systems CubePro

I just don't like this offering from 3D Systems, a big roller in 3D printing. It produces very nice prints but looks completely over-engineered and looses big points in my book for using proprietary print cartridges.

BotObjects ProDesk3D

BotObjects

Based on their website I was convinced this machine was vaporware. They claimed to be making a printer that uses six filaments to print in any color and a separate support material. I was surprised to see them at the 3D Printing Expo and the machine did not look bad and was printing in multiple colors by mixing filament through a crazy print head. I would wait to see where they go from here. The machine uses very tiny proprietary print cartridges with a complicated feed mechanism and I could see having a lot of print issues. I've also read of some bad experiences with the Kickstarter campaign.

XYZ Printing da Vinci

XYZ Printing

This is one to keep an eye on. A Taiwanese company that had a huge booth at the 3D Printing Expo with three different daVinci models. They looked nice, construction looked decent and they had enclosed, heated print beds but the quality of all their sample prints was terrible. Not a good sign, but I think it's worth keeping an eye on them.

Also, if I see one more goofy printer name with missing letters and random capitalization I'm going to scream.

More Resources

Now you have to go out on your own and do some research of your own--here are some places to start.

3D Printing for Dummies is nice for an overview from consumer to professional and even walks you through building a RepRap machine. This is best for those who want to into the nitty-gritty.

3ders.org has a wealth of 3D printing news.

Adafruit Industries is a great resource for hacking in general and they have a great learning section including 3D printing topics. We're big fans.

Google Groups has a forum for almost every printer out there. Good source of information.

Make magazine has put out an “Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing” for the last two years and is an excellent resource for printers, software, services, etc. They actually setup and do test prints on tons of printers - highly recommended as a first step.

Maker Faire is one of the best places to see a wide variety of printers in action and talk to users face to face. Sometimes it's even a good place to get a deal on a printer.

RepRap.org – if you want to go where it all started and build one from scratch.

I hope this answers some burning questions and aids in your search for a 3D printer. 3D printing technology is moving fast and is a bit overwhelming but is truly the wave of the future and worth the plunge. Post any further questions in the comments and I will do my best to answer them.

Full disclosure - my Octopod is featured in the 2012 Make Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing and 3D Printing for Dummies – I received no payment or royalties from either. I have also done freelance modeling for MakerBot.

Photos courtesy Sean Charlesworth unless specified.