How to Pick Your Own 3D Printer

Posted By The Mrs. on June 23, 2015

How to Pick Your Own 3D Printer

Are you ready to own your own primitive replicator? Because it’s totally a thing. Right now the consumer market is exploding with options….most of which will cost you about the same as a new tv, and have specs that can be confusing with very little help on which one will work best for you.

And that’s why I’m writing this post today. The options can seem daunting, but by taking just a few major factors into consideration, you can easily narrow the field to the right tool for you.

  1. Use
  2. Price
  3. Assembly Required
  4. Maintenance
  5. Major Features
    1. Build Envelope
    2. Speed
    3. Resolution
    4. Cartridge vs Spool
    5. Heated Build Plate
    6. Self Leveling Bed
    7. Casing
    8. Single vs Dual Extrusion
  6. Printer Subtypes
  7. Modability
  8. Customer Support/Reputation

TL;DR? Here’s a link to a spreadsheet that breaks down the current consumer level products by major features and price point.

Those are the major pieces most people think about prior to making a purchase. While shopping I also built up a spreadsheet that organized the printers on the market in one place so that I could filter down to the options that worked for me. Here’s a link to that sheet if you’d prefer to just jump in.

Use

The first major consideration is the use that you are considering the printer for. While they can print a lot of things, there are some restrictions on the in home printers available today. For example, if you need to print something in pure gold, your best option will actually be going to a marketplace like Shapeways rather than trying to do it yourself, as the only printers that can handle that today cost upward of $14,000. Those are called Laser Sintering, and are also great for manufacturing car parts that are no longer sold.

However, if you need finely detailed and tiny pieces, that is best accomplished by the StereoLithographic printers. They are the ones that lift the print out of goop, quite similar to the way the new Terminators look, but with fewer laser eyes and more adorable knicknacks.

These printers are somewhat more affordable, typically running 2k to 10k. However, they also tend to be small and are generally pretty slow. The Carbon printer is the exception, but pricing isn’t yet available. So if this is the type of printer you’d like, my suggestion would be to wait 1-2 years as the prices are rapidly falling, and the technology is getting better at an incredible rate.

Which brings us to the most effective option for consumers in todays market, the Extrusion model printers. These primitive replicators(what up Trekkies?) are a great marriage of capability and cost for the average consumer. They can produce your childrens toys, home decor, or even lids and screws for a fraction of the cost, and have found an ecofriendly printing material in corn based PLA. The video below is a sped up video of one of these printers in action.

It’s also important to note that while the printer can technically only print in plastic, there are a number of fancy filaments like rubber, sandstone, wood and even Bronze and Copper that have enough of the other materials mixed in to behave much like them. Bronze and Copper in particular look amazing like actual bronze and copper statues, and even have the greater weight that you expect from high quality materials.

Printed with Copper Filament

Printed with Copper Filament on and Extrusion Style Printer

Since this is the printer type that most of us will be working with today, the rest of this post will focus on purchasing one of these printers in particular. If you’d like to know more about the other types, hit me up in the comments below and I’ll get a post written for those as well!

Price

This factor is the main reason I’ve narrowed the consideration list down to extrusion models only, all of the consumer priced models that have already launched are extrusion model printers. While you can still find extrusion printers for well over five grand, kits start as low as $300, and the median is somewhere in the 1-1.5k range. In researching to make my purchase I also found that price in this part of the market is most strongly correlated to just four major factors:

  1. Build Envelope- Larger printers cost more
  2. Kit vs Preassembled
  3. Resolution- The thinner the layers it can print the higher the price tag
  4. Addl Features- Dual Extrusion, Heated Build Plate, Enclosure, Self Leveling, all discussed in more detail below

There is one exception: Makerbot seems to be charging a premium for their name. Printers with similar features and quality will cost 25-50% less than what they charge. I think this may be due to their shift from consumer to the prosumer market.

Assembly Required

Right now 3D printers are a lot like home computers in the eighties. Some come ready to print right out of the box like the DaVinci and Ultimaker, and others are more like toys on christmas, ready once you connect a few things. In extreme cases some of them still require soldering for assembly, so if that isn’t something you’re comfortable with, avoid anything that says the word “kit”. Typically being a kit will knock $300-400 off of the price tag, and many printers can come preassembled or as part of a kit.

Main Features

There are a few differentiating features that have a major impact both on price and how easy it is to use your printer. If you can’t figure out why there is a price difference between two printers after reviewing these specs, the difference probably doesn’t matter and you should feel good about going for the less expensive of the two options. (This is a big reason why I felt great about my Creator Pro from Flashforge over a Makerbot printer, and I couldn’t be happier today)

Build Envelope

The build envelope is the biggest contributor to price, with most increases in price strongly relating to an increase in the build envelope. The build envelope refers to the amount of space in which a printer can print, ie, how large of a thing you can print in a single piece. This varies greatly, with older printrbots starting at 64 cubic inches and a $300 kit price tag and Rostock Max at the high end with 1,755 cubic inches and a $1k price tag for their kit.

Speed

3D printers in general are fairly slow without much variation in speed, and most don’t list speed on their spec sheets.  However the higher end printers(Ultimaker, Makerbot and Lulzbot) are starting to, as a differentiator. Speed is expressed in mm/s and is a function of nozzle width, filament properties, and stepper motor/cooling factors.

Resolution

Extrusion 3d printers print by laying down plastic a single layer at a time, you can think of them as robotic glue guns. The resolution refers to how thin a printer is capable of laying the plastic. The general standard in the market is a range of .1 mm – .3 mm, with some higher end printers claiming lower resolution than even .1mm.

From left to right the resolution decreases as the layer height increases from .1mm to .4mm Read more here: http://airwolf3d.com/wiki/slicing-1/

From left to right the resolution decreases as the layer height increases from .1mm to .4mm Read more here: http://airwolf3d.com/wiki/slicing-1/

Cartridge vs Spool

Because spool holders are generally pretty standardized a number of filament manufacturers have sprung up in addition to those that also make printers. They vary in quality and price, and many printer manufacturers get nervous about these filaments damaging the printers. They use this as a reason to justify requiring that you use their filaments, with enforcement methods varying from voiding a warranty to the printer shutting down and refusing to print if the correct cartridge isn’t inserted.

As a general rule, I recommend avoiding cartridge based printers. These printers generally restrict you to only printing with “cartridges” from the original manufacturer(solidoodle press being the exception), and therefore have higher ongoing cost. The benefit is that you don’t have to worry about tweaking things to find the best settings for your different filaments. The printer will already know the correct temp and extrusion speeds to get the best results.  This prevents clogs, stringiness, and a number of other headaches, but also prevents you from getting cheaper filament, or experimental filaments, like bronze, laywood or PVA(the water soluable filament).

The specifics on price…spools for standard filaments are generally sold by the kilogram(2.2 lbs) with cost running from $20 to $60+ on Amazon. That’s enough to print about 392 chess pieces, causing them to cost about $0.07 a piece. With cartridges, they tend to be sold with 600 grams(.6 kilograms) for $30+ a cartridge. So that would be 117 pieces at about $0.25 a piece.

My feelings on the issue aside, if the lower initial cost sounds like a better deal to you the DaVinci is a fairly inexpensive option that uses cartridges, and is liked by a number of people in the maker community. The Solidoodle Press also uses spools, but you should avoid that one due to severe quality and customer service issues.

Heated Print Bed(HPB)

One of the biggest reasons you’ll have a print fail is that it doesn’t stick to the bed like it should. This is generally due to the plastic pulling away from the bed as it cools, making it so that the extruder head can push it out of alignment or worse knock it off of the bed altogether. By heating the print bed the plastic stays melty longer and has a better opportunity to adhere.

Generally they’ll tell you that you only need this if you intend to print in the pain in the butt filament, ABS. This isn’t true. Even my PLA prints benefit from an increased bed temp. This is one upgrade you should not go without, especially since it’s usually only about $100 more to get it.

Examples of lifted corners. This issue is greatly reduced by the HBP.

Examples of lifted corners. This is just one issue that is greatly reduced by the HBP. Source: Zavax, making a heated build platform

Self Leveling Bed

3D printers do still require a slightly higher level of maintenance than your standard 2D printers. In addition to changing filament, you’ll need to be prepared to grease rods and maintain belts, calibrate extrusion, and most commonly, level the print bed. Leveling the print bed is something many people recommend doing every print. I typically do it once every 5-6 prints because it is a total pain in the petulla. Fortunately, some printers come with an auto-bed leveling feature. Most maintenance tasks just have to be done, but this is one that some printers will take care of for you. If this is a priority to you, the PrintrBot Metal Plus is in a reasonable price range and has this feature and most of the high end printers include it. Most higher end printers like the Taz and Ultimaker will also come with this feature ready to go!

Below is a video tutorial on how to do it manually, so you can judge* whether or not having it taken care of for you is worth the extra cost(generally increases cost by about $100-200):

*Having a printer without autoleveling, my recommendation is that, yes, yes it is worth it. Don’t ask the question, just drop the cash. For seriously.

Casing

Some printers have casing around them. Casing can be a good or bad thing, depending on your use case. The benefits of casing are that they help control temperature during the print, and keep out things like dust or pet hair. Temperature variability during a print causes warping and delamination. The main downside that they can make it more difficult to tinker on your printer, limiting the amount of room you have to work as you level the bed, or disassemble the print head. So if you intend to mod your printer at all, I would recommend something open like the Printrbot Metal Plus or the Taz.

That crack is an example of delamination. Delamination occurs either when print temp is too low, or the ambient temperature changes while printer. ABS is far more susceptible than PLA.

That crack is an example of delamination. Delamination occurs either when print temp is too low, or the ambient temperature changes while printer. ABS is far more susceptible than PLA.

Single/Dual Extrusion

A printer with dual extruders can use two filaments on the same print. While this allows for the printing of multiple colors in the same print, the more important use case is that it allows supports to be printed with water soluable filament. This reduces a significant portion of the post processing that you will need to do, because instead of having to break and sand off supports(and risk damaging the print in the process)  you’ll be able to simply leave the printed item in a bowl of water and come back to it with supports completely removed.

Dual extrusion generally adds to the cost significantly, and printing with a second extruder is somewhat more complicated.

An example of PVA supports Dissolving

An example of PVA supports Dissolving

Printer Subtypes

If you research long enough you’ll run into conversations about major differences between reprap and delta and some other type I’m sure I haven’t heard of yet. These subtypes typically refer to the way that the printer head moves during the print, and despite many many claims, the type doesn’t seem to indicate much of a difference in quality or durability. In general, pictures of prints from the printer seem to indicate resolution and nozzle width as better indicators of quality than how the printer moves the print while printing.

Customer Support/Reputation

This part will take a little research(and by that I mean reading some amazon reviews), but it’s a good idea to get a feel for the reputation and customer support available for your printer. For example, we were very close to going with a new Solidoodle. However, their reputation has rapidly declined over the past few generations. Though hard to find, the Solidoodle 2 is still considered to be a very reliable and moddable machine, while the 4 is considered to be very troublesome and not a great one to start with…and you don’t even want to talk about their last generation.

Some printers with excellent reputations at time of writing are Flashforge, Ultimaker, Lulzbot and Printrbot. Flashforge on Amazon in particular is noted as having a great starter printers, with an excellent manager, Tang who is on top of customer support like fur on a dog.

Modability

Extrusion printers have a number of things to potentially mod. In most cases mods are done to add to the featureset of the printer by installing things like heated build plates, or ducting to help airflow and reduce print warping. Fancier mods include things like new extrusion carriages, or the recently launched paste extruder mod for stepper printers. Some printers are very difficult to mod, like the DaVinci, a few, like the lulzbot TAZ were designed with modding in mind. If you think you’re going to want to do a lot of modding look for an open frame printer, as this will give you the best ability to work on it.

If this is your top priority, I recommend sincerely recommend the TAZ. Changing extruders with the TAZ doesn’t even require soldering, unlike many of the other printers on the market. It was designed with tinkerers in mind, and is one of the few who don’t void the warranty because you used experimental filament. A big plus in my book!

Why yes, that is a Star Wars logo 3d printed in icing. You'll want to be able to do the Paste Extruder mod for projects like that!

Why yes, that is a Star Wars logo 3d printed in icing. You’ll want to be able to switch to a Paste Extruder for projects like that! Source

Word of Caution, Kickstarters:

There have been, and continue to be a number of kickstarters for 3D printers of various types. However, the majority either never come to fruition. If you want to support a company that may try something novel, awesome. But don’t depend on a kickstarter, view it as a gamble. If you really want to plan on getting your product, instead buy a printer that has already launched and has excellent reviews. Most 3D printers can be purchased on Amazon, and that means some fairly reliable reviews to look through before making a decision.

What We Chose, and Why

After comparing spec sheets for weeks and developing a spreadsheet to help me track my options we selected the Flashforge Creator Pro, and overall I’m happy with the purchase. Our key factors were spool filaments, customer support/reputation, minimal assembly/tinkering, heated build plate, build area and casing. For what we were willing to pay we feel like we got an excellent value based on those factors…and over the past 5 months our choice has been justified many times over. <3

Runners up on our list were the Printrbot Metal Plus(not selected due to the lack of case and delayed ship date on Amazon) and the Lulzbot Taz(not selected due to lack of case and increased price tag, The Mini is also a great option). When other people ask me what they should buy, I generally talk to them about what they’re looking for for a few minutes, and then recommend one of those three.

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