Additive manufacturing – more popularly known as three-dimensional, or 3D, printing – is seen by some as potentially the start of the third industrial revolution. The printers we look at here are somewhat more modest in their ambitions. Using plastics, 3D printers have only recently become affordable for home use.
One of the keys to moving the field forward is the acceptance of the technology to the point that consumers are not only aware of the capabilities of 3D printing, but also drive applications, through demand or through their own innovation. Either way, this means 3D printers in the home and in common use.
Evaluating affordability is always a tricky question with newer technology, since the value proposition varies widely between users. The printers chosen for this buying guide started with a $1,000 cap, largely to make sure there was a range of capability that accurately represented what home-sized 3D printing could do. The surprising find was that models priced as low as the $300 range could produce results in much the same quality as the higher priced units.
All units represented here use plastic filaments, either ABS or PLA (more on that below). These aren’t the only ways to print in 3D. They are, however, the easiest and most reliable for consumer units. Some printers can use any compatible filament stock while others recommend their own proprietary products. As with inkjet printers, the real cost of use may ultimately be the price of the printing medium.
The chart below summarizes our findings, while each review elaborates on the strengths and weaknesses of each model. There’s a sense with these reviews that matches the early days of 2D printers, when features and specifications varied widely. Today, of course, even the cheapest 2D printers come with a level of performance that once only the priciest models offered. Since it’s the early days for home-based 3D printing, expect to see improved features, better performance and lower prices over the next few years.
Should you wait until the price/value equation improves further? A strong case for a “no” answer points to the long learning curve that accompanies working in three dimensions. While it’s likely applications will ease this moving forward, designing 3D objects can be challenging for many. Staying ahead of the curve may well mean taking a dive into the deep end now.
|3D Printer||Materials||Nozzles||Build Volume (inches)||Resolution||Price|
|QIDI TECH I||ABS/PLA||2||8.8 x 5.9 x 5.9||100 microns||~700$|
|Geeetech Delta Mini G2s||ABS/PLA||2||Diameter: 7 Height: 8||100 microns||~340$|
|Dremel 3D20||PLA||1||9 x 5.9 x 5.5||100 microns||~725$|
|UP! Plus 2||ABS/PLA||1||5.3 x 5.5 x 5.5||150 microns||~800$|
|Flashforge Creator Pro||ABS/PLA||2||5.5 x 5.5 x 5.5||100 microns||~900$|
|Robo 3D R1 Plus||ABS/PLA||1||10 x 9 x 8||100 microns||~770$|
|Printrbot Simple Metal||PLA||1||6 x 6 x 6||100 microns||~650$|
|M3D Micro||ABS/PLA||1||4.5 x 4.5 x 4.5||50 microns||~300$|
|XYZprinting Da Vinci 1.0||ABS/PLA||1||7.8 x 7.8 x 7.8||100 microns||~640$|
|HICTOP Prusa I3||ABS/PLA||1||10.6 x 8.3 x 7.7||100 microns||~300$|
Affordable 3D Printer Reviews
1. QIDI TECH I – Editor’s Pick
With 3D printer technology in its early stages for the consumer market, one thing that’s noticeable in even the early stages of shopping is that some products seem nearly identical between manufacturers. The Editor’s Pick, 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 top spot on its combination of price and performance.
The big advantage of the QIDI TECH I is its dual filament feed, one of only three on our list and 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 rank up there, so it’s a shame they haven’t converted this into more expansive docs.
While there 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 is not. Concern about buying from a Chinese supplier is not proving to be an issue with QIDI TECH, and their 3D printer tops the pack.
2. Geeetech Delta Mini G2s
Given that the development of the 3D printer field is somewhat akin to life in the wild west, many 3D printing enthusiasts realize they’re on the frontier. The Delta Mini G2s may be the choice for those unafraid to adjust, optimize and upgrade. This is a Rostock-style 3D design. Instead of a printing field using length, width and height, the Delta Mini G2s uses a cylindrical building platform. Its maximum diameter of 7 inches. Using the Pythagorean Theorem, the largest square build possible will be about 5 inches. Whether this is a practical limitation depends on what the printer is used to build. It may not be a problem for some, but it’s worth noting that it could be a factor when comparing to other models.
There’s much more assembly required than for the QIDI TECH I, but the Delta Mini G2s is the most affordable dual filament printer. That put it near the top, but the smaller maximum sizes and more intense user experience bump it down from top spot. Your mileage may well vary, as some hobbyists look at the assembly and enhancement steps as key to enjoying the process.
Once assembled and calibrated, the Delta Mini G2s proves effective and versatile, once the builder adapts to the cylindrical way of thinking. The upgrades on this model include metal and laser-cut acrylic construction for stability and dimensional control. The auto calibration and auto leveling features worked fine on the test unit, but there is evidence of a different experience for many users. Since it’s not conclusive in online reviews that these comments apply to the G2s upgrade, this issue is listed here for informational purposes. The test unit did not show problems with either feature.
The same holds true for missing parts. Seeing only the test printer, which came fully equipped, there is no hint of problems, but scanning online user reviews shows a statistically significant number of comments about missing parts. Again, printer version can’t be confirmed, so there is evidence that, if a problem previously existed, it’s been rectified in the meantime. Based on test experience, the Delta Mini G2s earns its place in the #2 spot.
3. Dremel 3D20 Idea Builder 3D Printer
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.
4. UP! Plus 2
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 minimalist side, but it’s easy to picture a row of these happily outputting 3D all day long. Checking the manufacturer’s site, the suggested price is about $500 higher than the actual price you can find it for.
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. Only the M3D Micro is smaller, but it’s designed to be smaller and it’s nearly one-third the price.
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. 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 fully worthy of a place in the top ten.
5. Flashforge Creator Pro
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 than 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, 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 it’s not an unusual 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.
6. Robo 3D R1 Plus
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’s the look, which 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 number and recurrence 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.
7. Printrbot Simple Metal
A common quirk in the 3D printing world is that models and revisions often have very similar names, and it’s tricky to determine which printer is which. In Printrbot’s case, the Simple and the 2016 Simple are different models. The Simple, the older model, still lists for sale, though Printrbot’s web page has no description or specs, while the newer model does. Shows where the company’s efforts point, but the older model can be had for half the price and refurbished models are out there.
The Simple is another of those printers that someone with modding tendencies may enjoy, although this machine now comes fully assembled and, in theory, ready to go. Some users report good out of box function. The test unit required some setup, but nothing out of the ordinary. With both a two-axis moving extruder and a single axis printing bed, the Simple has a smallish 6-by-6-by-6 build area, rather small for a printer of its size. This can be upgraded.
The standard version does not have a heated bed, and therefore is essentially limited to printing with PLA. ABS will not stick in place adequately without the heated bed, so there’s another upgrade before the Simple comes up to the standard of most of the higher ranked printers. The Printrbot Simple ships only with a roll of PLA filament, so the intent of this printer, without upgrades, is clear.
While the device can lay down 100 micron layers, with PLA, any overhang usually shows curl. Again though, more advanced tweaking may address this. Using a thicker layer resolution improved performance, but of course at the cost of a less smooth print.
If size isn’t a factor and you like to tinker, this could be your 3D printer.
8. M3D Micro
The consumerization of 3D printers is still some distance from the mainstream, when anyone can buy a device, bring it home and produce usable results from the start, as we do with 2D paper printers. When it arrives, however, it may resemble the M3D Micro. The company’s design plan for the Micro aims for true plug and play directly out of the box. No problems emerged in testing and user reviews tips in favor of trouble-free start up, but there’s enough dissent to indicate M3D hasn’t got there yet.
The Micro has much to offer, however. As its name implies, this is a small printer, in both size and budget, coming in under $500 with refurbished units shaving another $150 off of that. As well, the Micro offers the tightest layer resolution in this buying guide, capable of putting down 50 micron layers. While the print bed is also the smallest on the list, measuring 4.5 inches on all axes, users report good results slicing designs in software and assembling these after printing.
Although it’s open-sided, the Micro goes about its work in relative quiet. Several users report near-24/7 operation of their Micros with few problems. The printer handles ABS, PLA and exotic filaments, accepting half-pound filament reels in a compartment under the printing bed, or using larger reels externally. There’s no requirement to use a proprietary filament.
However, the Micro does not feature a heated printing bed, so without faithful use of the auto leveling function and printer bed preparation, there could be a print object adhesion issue. There’s plenty of chatter about this in online reviews. However, these comments are a reasonable fraction of the glowing reviews and should be balanced accordingly. In test conditions, evaluations come quickly, usually without extensive long-term testing, so while product reviews can be handy, user reviews also provide valuable insight, in moderation. Indications are, despite the limitations of its size, the M3D Micro earns its place in the top ten.
9. XYZprinting Da Vinci 1.0
The da Vinci 1.0 is another 3D printer that aims for a complete consumer experience. How they go about it leaves a bad taste for many users. Filament comes in easily loaded cartridges that have a surprise in the form of a microchip that essentially limits the printer to XZYprinting’s cartridges. While it’s possible to reload these cartridges, it takes more work to reset the chips, which artificially create a single-use state for the filament container itself.
This isn’t shocking when considering similar tricks existing in the 2D inkjet world. Add-on sales could potentially outstrip printer revenues in 3D as well, since a happy user buys a printer once and filament any number of times. The 3D printer community is largely a tech-savvy bunch, and they’re much more vocal about this perceived manipulation. This goes a little beyond Dremel’s void warranty threat for using third-party filament. It keeps the da Vinci 1.0 from placing higher in the buying guide.
Apart from the filament issue, this is another name-confused 3D device. There are at least three models carrying da Vinci 1 as part of their names. The model listed here is the da Vinci 1.0, not the da Vinci Jr. 1.0, da Vinci 1.0 AiO, da Vinci 1.1 Plus, etc. Then there’s the da Vinci 2.0s and their variations.
The da Vinci 1.0 isn’t the cleanest printer in the group, leaving some plastic flare, particularly on the base level. Able to handle ABS and PLA filament, there isn’t a big issue with printer bed hold issues when following XYZprinting’s procedure. Output, speed and noise level tested reasonably well.
User opinion is, however, another matter. It’s not any one issue that crops up in online reviews. Rather, it’s the quantity of negative reviews. With 3D printers, users who are over-matched by the technical knowledge required for operation often take out their frustrations in reviews. These are easy to spot. Long on vitriol and short on details, one can feel sorry for the printer falling into unworthy hands.
The da Vinci 1.0, on the other hand, has substantially more negative reviews than positives. Some satisfied users even comment on this and wonder about it against their experience. Many mention that they’re happy that they overcame their impression the bad reviews left. While online user reviews require shakers worth of salt grains individually, patterns and trends shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.
Once again, testing did not uncover any lesser than average performance by the da Vinci 1.0. It placed near the bottom due to the filament cartridges, which do have several work-arounds for users who are interested in digging. The basics of 3D printing exist here. As with others on the list, there may be some work to do before you’re completely satisfied.
10. HICTOP Prusa I3
Unlike the da Vinci 1.0, which fell to its place on the buying guide list, the HICTOP Prusa I3 got added due to its nature. It’s the only printer on the list that comes entirely disassembled. This is essentially a $1,000-plus printer in an affordable kit. For users who want a complete immersion in 3D printing technology, this may be the way to go.
However, HICTOP doesn’t make it an easy lesson. Assembly instructions are hard to decipher, incomplete in some cases and inaccurate in others. It’s not unworkable, though, not on the level of legendarily bad Swedish furniture instructions. Some basic skills with tools and electrical connections will aid the builder. No degree in engineering is needed, though many engineers likely find this kit fascinating.
That’s where the appeal in the Prusa I3 exists. When putting together a 3D printer from scratch, the inherent lessons of the process embed themselves in the builder, giving a completeness of understanding that outstrips a device that works right out of the box. There’s nothing wrong with that detachment. After all, there are likely few virtuoso concert pianists who have built their own instrument. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily affect results, but it can sure help the process of understanding what’s needed to gain those results.
This also makes the Prusa I3 something of an orange among apples in this buyer’s guide. It’s not the only 3D printer DIY kit out there. It may not even be the best of the bunch. However, including a kit is necessary if only to inform those who had no idea that 3D printing in kit form was even a thing.
Expectations are also different in that results do depend on the builder. Anyone with reasonable intelligence and a degree of patience can build the Prusa I3. If that’s not you, no worries, there are lots of options. If it is you, the HICTOP Prusa I3 is the real thing, and it’s very satisfying as an assembly job even before your first 3D print.
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 ink jet 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 on the way. With the movement on 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 moreso 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 sugar cane. 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 Celcius – 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.
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