Best Affordable 3D PrinterElectronics & Computers
QIDI Tech I – Editor’s Choice ($700)
Even in the early stages of 3D printing it is still obvious that some products seem nearly identical between manufacturers. The QIDI Tech I, owes much to the tech used by MakerBot. Several other manufacturers borrow from MakerBot as well, but in the end, QIDI Tech offers the best price and therefore earns the top spot with its combination of price and performance.
The big advantage of the QIDI Tech I is its dual filament feed, a comparative rarity in the under-$1,000 bracket. Using both ABS and PLA filament, results from both media produce fine results with little difference save for the characteristics of the plastics themselves.
Though topping the buying guide, there’s still room for improvement. The native documentation for the device is thin. This is countered by solid support through email, phone and Skype, usually within 24 hours. The knowledge of QIDI Tech’s support seems to excel among others, so it’s a shame they haven’t converted this into more expansive docs.
While t here are setup and calibration procedures that are critical to operation yet under-supported in docs, none are particularly difficult and in our experience, every 3D printer requires setup, calibration and then fine-tuning through trial and error. User reviews indicate a good level of out-of-box satisfaction.
The printing bed is another source of contention. The supplied plate really likes to hold on to its creations. Many otherwise satisfied users comment on the difficulty removing prints from the base plate. Adjusting temperature and preparing the plate in your preferred manner may minimize removal issues, but this design would benefit from a removable printing bed.
In terms of features for the price, the QIDI Tech I delivers, and while printed support is weak, live customer support certainly is not.
Dremel 3D20 ($725)
Popular with educational applications, the Idea Builder is a self-contained, safe unit, with an enclosed build area. No worries about little fingers getting into dangerous places. The Dremel name carries a great reputation with hobbyists, and a corporate infrastructure that provides great support, even for the emerging 3D technology.
However, a misplaced dependence on upselling holds the Idea Builder line back. These printers use PLA filament only, having no heated build platform. Dremel insists upon the use of their own proprietary PLA filament, on a hub that locks into the printer. Okay, that’s a great idea, but the filament isn’t up to snuff. It’s stringy and doesn’t extrude with the precision required for proper builds. What’s worse is that use of third party filament voids the user’s warranty.
Testing the printer with *gasp* outlaw PLA filament shows very clearly that the problem rests with the filament and not the printer. All build issues disappeared with the OEM filament. While this throws the warranty issue into play, the output of the Idea Builder with the supplied filament made the printer unusable.
While that in itself is rather condemning, the availability of PLA stock from other makers during testing proved one thing conclusively – this is a very good, easy to use device once the filament issue is resolved. It’s no wonder that the Dremel printers have a strong presence in schools. With its own software on board, the Idea Builder prints projects already loaded right out of the box.
The Idea Builder 3D40 model adds Wi-Fi and mobile support, but falls outside the under-$1,000 criteria for this buying guide. The 3D20 model is the Dremel entry level. If the company gets its filament formula into the right place, this is potentially an outstanding purchase. Currently, it’s a great printer, but with an asterisk. If you’re okay with risking the warranty issue, by all means, purchase third party filament and enjoy your machine.
Monoprice Select Mini 3D V2 / Malyan M200 (~$220)
The Monoprice Select Mini (Malyan M200) is a small, affordable tank that would be great for anyone’s introduction into 3D printing. This powerhouse is the perfect size in that it can easily fit the role of “desktop printer” without taking up too much space.
Most people have great out-of-box experiences, with very little work required to get their first print done. Many reviewers remark that you do have to relevel the bed before working as this printer does not have auto-leveling unlock some others on this list.
Due to its combination of price and power, this printer is a perfect printer for first-time 3D printing hobbyists.
Prusa i3 MK2S ($700)
Although this model is a bit pricier than most on this list, it still deserves to be placed up here. The Prusa i3 is a great printer with high build quality and competes well with most printers in the same price range. The Prusa i3 is one of those printers that is helping revolutionize 3D printing in these dark early days and will help create standards moving forward, for sure.
There really isn’t much bad to say about this printer, simply put. There were a few reviews of shipping damage in the pre-assembled printer, but that’s fairly hit or miss. This is truly a high quality 3D printer and has definitely earned its place in the top 10. Although the price might look a bit daunting for those just getting into printing, it is definitely one of the best competitors in the price range.
Wanhao Duplicator i3 V2.1 ($379)
The Duplicator i3 has great value for the price. Not only does it have very high build quality, but the pure capability of the printer absolutely blow many of its competitors in the same price range out of the water.
Not to mention the great community surrounding the Duplicator i3. For many hobbyists this should be crucial. Any time you have a question or need some sort of very niche support, the community around this printer is likely to be able to help.
Some reports mention that it can be difficult to learn how to change filament in the extruder but this can be overcome and overlooked with practiced and time. There are also varying reviews on noise levels coming from the power supply fan. While some think it’s too loud, others don’t even notice it, so your mileage may vary.
Makerfarm Pegasus 8” ($410)
Most users and reviews place the Makerfarm Pegasus 8” as a pretty solid kit. The Pegasus 8” has a good print area at 8”x8”x8” (hence the name). It has many useful features, like the auto-leveling and heated beds which help toward the overall user experience.
The biggest complaints that stop the Pegasus from being higher up are simply the fact that it needs to be built. For some, this isn’t an issue at all and is in fact a plus-side! Getting to mess around with this cool futuristic toy and see it going from parts to printing is fun and interesting. But others just want to use their printer as soon as they buy it, and not have to deal with the hassle of putting it together. Neither type of person is right or wrong, but this printer is definitely better off for the former type.
Overall, the affordable price in conjunction with all of the great features and excellent usability makes the Pegasus 8” a solid choice for anybody as a first or second printer.
Flashforge Finder ($500)
Unlike most of the printers that are being made in this “early age” of 3D printing, the Finder has been designed and built around delivering a great user experience through ease of use and a very helpful and responsive customer service center. One way that the Finder achieves its great user experience is by providing a small screen on the face of the printer to help the user navigate through its various functions. This easy to use and available printer is great for beginners because of these design considerations.
Although the Finder is a great printer in most aspects, there are a few things that keep it from being further up this list. First off, at 16.5” x 16.5” x 16.5” the Finder is huge. It definitely won’t be sitting on most people’s desktops.
Some users also report varying issues with the printer after a lot of usage. Most of the time these problems can be solved fairly easily by contacting the helpful customer support but other times one might end up having to replace the printer which is less than optimal in most cases.
Despite these few issues, the Finder is definitely a great printer and has earned its place on this list.
Flashforge Creator Pro ($900)
Another design based on MakerBot technology, the Creator Pro represents an upgrade to Flashforge’s entry level Creator. With dual extruders and an enclosed case, this is a printer with a pro look and feel to it. While out-of-box printing is often hit or miss, even with models designed for this, the test Creator Pro was up and running in under 30 minutes. Though based on the MakerBot Replicator, the Flashforge printer includes many of the refinements that the 3D community introduced for the Replicator, and delivered it at a price point below the MakerBot machine.
This is another 3D printer that handles exotic filaments as well as ABS and PLA. Output prints can be of superior quality, though it takes a number of adjustments in most cases to fine-tune some elements. The new version has a three-point bed leveler that’s much more natural than the previous design. Some supports are beefier and overall there’s just a feeling of improved solidity.
There are some annoying things, however, that keep all these pluses from scoring the Creator Pro higher on the list. One is an irritating issue with print heads hitting the printed work, usually the left extruder. It’s adjustable, but this is something that should be a no-brainer for a dual extruder machine.
Also, the print bed level seems critical for first layer adhesion. This may be a matter that other configuration settings could address, but online user reviews indicate this is a common problem. It seems to be a bigger issue with ABS than PLA, but the test unit had problems with both.
Flashforge has retained the old open source nature of early MakerBot machines, thus the Creator Pro is likely a tweaker’s delight. There’s also a good community online for MakerBot tech that applies to the Creator Pro. Be prepared to wrestle with a few basic printing issues before knocking out consistent prints. Also note that the users who are happy with the Creator Pro are really happy with it.
UP! Plus 2 ($800)
It’s immediately obvious that the build of the Plus 2 is a step above the norm for this guide. It’s the only 3D printer on the list that approaches a solid manufacturing feel. The construction is on the minimalistic side, but it’s easy to picture a row of these happily outputting 3D all day long. With some research, it is easy to find one of the Plus 2’s for much lower than the manufacturing price.
However, the minimum vertical resolution of the Plus 2 is 150 microns, the coarsest of our top models, and the moving build plate design – the extruder is stationary – is a mere 5.5 inches in all three axes.
A naggy detail – software isn’t included in the package, which includes the fully assembled Plus 2. Software requires a trip to the website and a download. For a machine that otherwise has a better chance than most of being a true out of box 3D unit, downloading software is something of a contrary point. This is where one can see the “early ages” of 3D printing coming out. Likewise, while the Plus 2 connects via USB, it does not include an SD slot. It’s for this reason that the otherwise excellent 3D printer places in the middle of the pack. Nonetheless, it’s definitely worthy of a place in the top ten.
Robo 3D R1 Plus ($770)
The Robo 3D R1 Plus is another 3D design that’s almost, but not quite, version 2 of an earlier build. One user review called the R1 Plus the “Mr. Fusion” of 3D printers, referencing “Back to the Future” and Doc’s from-the-future DeLorean power supply. That look is both playful and professional.
With one of the bigger print areas in our buying guide, the R1 Plus has a big following in the engineering field as a desktop printer, though the fans and open-sided design make for a cacophonous print experience. So, maybe not your main desktop, you know?
The selection of filaments for the R1 Plus is extensive. In particular, there’s a PLA filament called “magnetic iron” that really evokes a cast metal look to the builds. The R1 Plus handles ABS, PLA and exotic filaments without issue, for the most part.
What drops the Robo printer down the scale is the recurring number of online user review problems. There seems to be a greater than average occurrence of units damaged in shipping. Combining this with a widely disparate out of box experience and there are signs pointing to weak quality control prior to shipping. Some users experienced very good plug and play performance while others did not. The test unit had some loose and out of adjustment components, but these were obvious and easy to correct.
One interesting thing occurred without notice until after the first few prints. The X axis, which should be parallel to the print surface, was out of adjustment. However, the R1 Plus’s auto leveling corrected for the error and the print went as intended. Once the axis was fixed and the jobs printed again, the resulting prints seemed identical to the initial runs. Say what you want about the R1 Plus, the auto leveling works.
3D Printer Basics
It’s not difficult to foresee a time when manufacturers send a 3D printing file via email rather than stocking and shipping replacement parts. However, that doesn’t become practical until 3D printers have the same home presence as 2D inkjet and laser printers currently enjoy. In the meantime, costs and technology may well place 3D printers in regional service centers, once printing robust spare parts becomes practical.
While it’s not there yet, it’s definitely on its way. With the movement to enhance STEM learning in schools – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math – the idea of 3D printing in general and familiarity with how they work crosses these disciplines in precisely the way STEM advocates want to see. The secret is, of course, exposing oneself and one’s children to new and exciting ways to use this knowledge and skill and motivate users with what the technology can do, perhaps even more-so than what it already does.
Fused Deposition Modeling
Printers that serve the consumer 3D market use a method of printing called “fused deposition modeling,” or FDM for short. It’s not really a hard process to grasp, since it has much that’s comparable to regular 2D computer printers than many already own. Tell a person that a 3D print head simply retraces its steps and adds more ink on top of previous layers and presto – they have the concept.
While simple in essence, 3D FDM printers solve a number of problems to achieve this. First of all, the technology depends on a medium that can be melted, extruded and hardened in a precise manner. While FDM printer can accomplish amazing detail, printing tolerances don’t reach a level of precision that’s fine enough for many uses.
Then come the limits of the print media itself. Plastics are the material of choice here, due to common availability and the characteristics that lend themselves to heated extrusion.
3D Printer Filaments
ABS – or Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene – is an oil-based polymer common in everything from car plastics to children’s toys. Well-suited to extrusion, it’s a natural choice for 3D printing applications. One drawback, however, is its chemical odor. While not toxic at levels common with 3D printing, it may be irritating to some and so a well-ventilated room is a good idea.
Its optimal printing temperature of 230 to 250 degrees Celsius makes it a good choice for objects that may be used in warm areas or exposed to sunlight, since it doesn’t start to melt until about 210 to 240 degrees Celsius. Even its slumping temperature – the point at which ABS products start to deform – is around 110 Celsius, or around 230 degrees Fahrenheit. ABS is the most durable common FDM 3D printing medium.
Polylactic Acid, or PLA, is a biopolymer. That is, it is made from plant-based sources, such as corn and sugarcane. Because of this, its fumes are not only not irritating, but in fact they’re a bit sweet, a far cry from the chemical smell of ABS.
PLA is, though, not as robust or permanent as ABS. Part of that comes from the biodegradability of the materials used to make it. The other is from its lower temperature tolerances. PLA prints at 190-220 degrees Celsius, melts at 160 to 190 degrees and slumps at about 70 degrees Celsius – a mere 158 degrees Fahrenheit. A figurine made of PLA, sitting on the dash of a car parked in Albuquerque in August will probably be a sweet-smelling sticky medallion in 30 minutes. However, not everything you print is meant to last forever, and some users like the idea of working with an environmentally friendly 3D printing medium.
Over 30 other formulations of filament exist. While some 3D printer manufacturers try to limit you to products they distribute, most do not and encourage experimentation. While we can’t review all filament types in this article, here are five you should try when expanding the scope of your 3D printing operations.
Wood: particles of wood saturated in filament resin give a natural material look to 3D builds. Because the particles have already soaked up the resin, staining isn’t an effective option, but when you need a plastic that doesn’t look like plastic, this may be the answer.
Nylon: this is a tricky material to use for 3D printing, since it naturally doesn’t stick to much and requires very high extruder temperatures. However, there are special nylon hybrids available that act more like conventional 3D filaments, so the option is out there.
Bronze: Mixing bronze particles with filament resin gives a convincing metal effect that even tarnishes over time. Heavier than average, you’re also able to polish it, giving a glamor beyond the usual plastic look of 3D builds.
Iron: adding iron to filaments works in much the same way as bronze, but with different visual effects, including rust. Building a dystopian city diorama? The gunmetal gray of this filament may give the perfect look. Since it’s iron, magnets will interact with it. Be prepared to replace nozzles, though. This filament is more abrasive and will wear down printer tips.
Carbon Black: while not ready to print circuit boards, as its conductivity is limited, filaments made with carbon black do exhibit some electrical properties. What’s more, these adhere to regular PLA filaments so those with dual extruders could mix and match layers, offering some conductivity between insulating layers.