A guide to choosing the right 3D printer: What matters and what doesn’t

ChoicesShopping for a 3D printer, especially your first one, is a daunting experience. A quick search of Amazon shows more than fifty different models available from dozens of manufacturers. Prices range from $300 to upwards of $10,000. Some look completely alike while others seem to have nothing in common. And all come with a long list of specifications that may or may not mean anything to you.

In this article, we’ll attempt to sort this out and provide some guidance on how to choose the perfect 3D printer for you.

The Most Important Consideration: You

Before diving into features and functionality, it’s critical to think about two things: Who you are, and what you plan to do with your 3D printer.

The fundamental question of who you are has been plaguing philosophers and psychiatrists for ages. Luckily though, we’re not suggesting years of psychotherapy. For purposes of buying the right 3D printer, you just need to assess your technical prowess and your interest in getting under the hood to modify, repair and tweak your device.

The biggest mistake people make in choosing a 3D printer is following the advice of super-geeky makers who love their WizBot 4000 (I just made that name up, so don’t bother shopping for it), when in fact the buyer doesn’t have the patience or the desire to assemble and customize their printer. They just want something that prints cool stuff without a lot of hassle.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with either type of person. This is a judgment-free zone! The important thing is to understand who you are, listen to advice from many sources, and filter that advice accordingly.

What type of user are you?Now that you know who you are, consider what you plan to do with your 3D printer. Do you want to experiment with lots of different materials and models? Do you have a specific thing you are looking to build? Are you buying the printer for others to use at your school or library? Is this something you’ll use at work for rapid prototyping of new products in your workplace?

For the reviews we write at AxisGeek, we’ve identified five user personas: The Casual Hobbyist, the Enthusiast, the Educator, the Semi-Professional and the Pragmatist. You may not fit perfectly into one of these categories, but it’s a good start.

Features and Functionality

With that in mind, let’s look at some key aspects of 3D printers and discuss which ones matter and which don’t.

Kits versus fully assembled units

A good place to start is whether you want to assemble your 3D printer, or whether you want to take something out of the box and plug it in. Some models are available in both options, while many are only available as a fully assembled unit.

Does it matter?

Yes, this is an important one to get right. You may look at a kit as a good way to save money, but you should only go that route if you are in no hurry to get up and running, and if you have a desire to understand every aspect of your device. If you do want to go deep with 3D printing, assembling your own product is a great way to start. However, if you are more of a casual hobbyist then getting a kit may leave you frustrated and impatient for results.

Build EnvelopeBuild Envelope

All 3D printers will specify their build envelope, which is the largest size object that can be built. The build envelope will generally be stated in terms of X, Y and Z axis lengths. Whatever you want to create must fit into a box of that size.

Does it matter?

Not as much as you might think. While we tend to think bigger is always better, unless you are planning to make a very specific part of a specific size then you shouldn’t get overly hung up on this. As you become proficient with 3D printing, you will find creative ways of breaking larger designs into pieces and joining them together after printing. Another thing to consider is that larger (especially taller) models are more likely to have issues with warping and deformation.

Open Source vs. Proprietary

Some 3D printers will tout the fact that they are open source, while others don’t mention this term at all. In context of 3D printers, open source means that the device generally supports the principle of using common components and designs that come from the 3D printer community.

This is good in many ways, because it means that you can swap out components on your machine if you desire and you’re not locked in to using supplies such as filament from a particular vendor. However, open source does not always mean better. Companies in all industries develop some great innovations, and have a vested interest in keeping that technology proprietary.

Does it matter?

If you are an enthusiast who will want to modify or otherwise tinker with your 3D printer, then support for open source principles should be a high priority. Even if you’re more of a casual user, we recommend being cautious about 3D printers that use proprietary filament cartridges in particular. Buying one of these printers will essentially lock you in to paying a premium for filament.

Print Quality

YodaMost 3D printers will provide specifications for layer thickness (minimum and maximum), nozzle diameter and axis positioning accuracy (generally one number for the X and Y axis and another, smaller number for the Z axis). The smaller these numbers are, the more precise your output will be.

Having said that, there are other factors that also affect the quality of your output. Most of these things you can control through various settings on your printer or in your software. But a few are features that you may want to consider:

  • Is the print bed heated? A heated print bed will help prevent parts from warping.
  • Is the printer compartment enclosed? An enclosed compartment will help to maintain a consistent temperature while the part is being built, and eliminate drafts.
  • The construction of the printer. 3D printers that are made of metal with a rigid structure and solid print bed support are more likely to provide a stable foundation that enables quality output.

Does it matter?

You will have to decide how important print quality is to you. You will not find a lot of variation in the specifications for layer thickness, nozzle diameter and axis positioning accuracy. It’s more important to look at other factors like the construction of the device and whether the print bed is heated. Feedback from long-time users of the device is invaluable to understand what type of print quality can be achieved, and how much effort it takes to achieve it.

Print Bed

Print bedWe’ve already touched on the importance of a heated print bed to improve the quality of your output. But there are other aspects of the print bed to consider as well.

First, what material is the print bed made of? Print beds may be made of glass, metal, acrylic or other materials. Glass is great for heating and generally holds its shape, but is prone to breakage. Metal can be heated but can also warp. Acrylic can’t be heated and is also prone to warping.

Second, how do you level the print bed? Starting out each print with a level bed is absolutely essential. For many 3D printers, the level process is challenging and requires experience to get it right. Others have adopted an automated or semi-automated leveling approach.

Does it matter?

Because the print bed is such a critical part of the 3D printer, it’s important to look closely at this. We would argue that a heated print bed is essential for nearly any buyer, ideally made of glass. Auto-leveling is a great feature to have, especially for the casual hobbyist, but you may end up spending a bit more for this.

Filament Types Supported

It is possible to 3D print using many different types of material. Most common are ABS and PLA, but some 3D printers can support a wide variety of materials such as nylon, flexible filaments, wood-based and many more. A complete guide to filament types is beyond the scope of this article, but here is a good one.

The ability to support more exotic filament types is really a function of two things:

  1. A hot end (the part of the extruder that heats and melts the filament for extrusion) that is made of metal and has a wide temperature range.
  2. A heated bed with adjustable temperature.

While the 3D printer may not specify exactly which materials are supported, understanding these two features will get you there.

Does it matter?

This really depends on what you want out of your 3D printer. For most casual users looking to create knick-knacks, PLA and ABS should suffice. But it can be a lot of fun to experiment with other materials, so keep that in mind.

Number of Extruders

The extruder is the part of the 3D printer that takes raw filament in one end, melts it, and then feeds it out to build your part. Most 3D printers for the home user have a single extruder. A few have a second extruder so that you can use two different filaments at the same time.

There are two primary benefits of a dual extruder approach. The most basic is the ability to create parts with two different colored materials. The second is that, when creating more complex parts that require a supporting structure, using a separate material will make it easier to remove that supporting structure once your print is complete.

Does it matter?

A dual extruder machine may be nice to have, but you should be able to get by without it unless you are making complex parts or two-color output is critical to you.

Software

There are three software functions related to 3D printing. One is to design 3D parts, often referred to as CAD (Computer Aided Design). The second is to prepare your part for printing. You may hear this referred to as slicer software. The third is software that actually controls the printer. In many cases, the slicer and control software are part of a single package.

3D printers rarely include CAD software, except in some cases as part of a promotional deal. In most cases, the device will come with some type of slicer and control software.

Does it matter?

To be honest, not a lot. In most cases, the basic slicer/control software that comes with the 3D printer is just that: basic. It will work, but it won’t be the easiest to use or provide the most advanced features. Enthusiasts will want to download something full-featured like Cura or budget extra for an even more advanced application like Simplify3D.

LCDUser Interface and Connectivity

To 3D print something you need a way to get your file to the device, a way to control the device and (hopefully) a way to monitor your progress. The method for doing these things varies widely from one 3D printer to another.

In terms of connectivity, nearly all have USB. Most are equipped with an SD card slot. A few have Wi-Fi or hardwired Ethernet connections. For user interface, a few have a full-color touchscreen that can be used to completely control the printer. Many have a small LCD display that provides some limited monitoring information. And some have no interface at all.

Does it matter?

There are two elements to consider here. One is user-friendliness. Having a nice, full-featured interface and simple connectivity via USB or Wi-Fi is helpful if that is important to you. Second is whether having your 3D printer tethered to your computer is acceptable to you. Without a way of controlling and monitoring the print from the device, you will need to have your PC and 3D printer connected for the duration of a print, which can be many hours.

Enclosed vs. Open Print Area

Many 3D printers have a clear, Plexiglass enclosure surrounding the print area while others don’t. For models that aren’t enclosed, you can often buy an enclosure from a third party. If this does matter to you, be sure to budget accordingly.

Does it matter?

Earlier we talked about the importance of consistent temperature for quality prints. Having an enclosed build space can help with this, although it’s probably not critical as long as your device is in a warm, draft-free area.

More importantly for educators or those with small children or pets around, an enclosure can help keep curious hands and paws away. Hot ends are call hot ends for a reason – they get really hot!

Scanning

A few 3D printers are billed as “all in one” devices that can perform 3D scans of objects as well. These devices use lasers to scan an object and create a 3D mesh file that can be used as a starting point for a model.

Does it matter?

This might be useful if you plan to create models from existing objects. However, you’ll pay a premium for this functionality, and you could just as easily buy a dedicated 3D scanner that might provide better results.

Other things that matter

That covers the key features and functions you should think about. But what about the less tangible aspects of owning a 3D printer? Here are some intangibles that matter the most, again depending on who you are and what you’re looking to do.

Company reputation

New 3D printer companies are popping up every day. Not all of these companies will survive. Some will get bought by other companies and others will simply go under and disappear from the market landscape.

If you are a self-sufficient 3D printing guru, this may not matter to you. It might be worth buying the latest, cool device even if the company may not be around in a few months.

However, most of us will need support and we’ll want to know that our vendor will be there for us. So it’s worth checking the vendor’s track record before making a significant investment in their technology.

Support

On a related note, because 3D printing is still a relatively immature technology it’s very likely you will need support at one point or another. To solve a tricky 3D printing problem or to diagnose a device that’s not working, you will want to turn to online user forums and perhaps contact the vendor.

It is worthwhile checking out a vendor’s user forums to see how active they are. Also, reviews like ours can give you some insights into the vendor’s support experience. Things like responsiveness, helpfulness, whether support is coming from a domestic or foreign location, can all help to determine whether a vendor will provide the level of support you desire.

Ease of use

We’ve covered some aspects that affect ease of use, such as the interface to the device. But it’s worth mentioning again more broadly. Some 3D printers put a heavy emphasis on ease of use while others don’t. This doesn’t make one type better than another. Again, it’s important to consider your own abilities and willingness to learn before making your decision.

Total Cost of Ownership

Price is obviously a key consideration, and only you know what your budget is. The point here is to consider other expenses you will incur to use your 3D printer. Some examples:

  • Does your chosen 3D printer not have an LCD screen? If you want to add one, you will want to budget for the parts needed.
  • Is the included software too basic for your needs? You may want to plan on $150 for a package like Simplify 3D.
  • Does your printer require the use of proprietary filament? Plan on spending around twice as much for filament.
  • Will the device require other modifications? Be sure and understand what those are and the cost of parts.

Okay, so which printer should I buy?

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! It’s a lot to think about, we know. At this point you may just want someone to tell you what to buy.

We are working on more complete buyer guides, but for now here are a few 3D models to consider for each type of user.

For the Casual Hobbyist

You are excited about the possibilities of 3D printing, but you are a busy person. 3D printing is something you view as fun but not all-consuming. You want something that doesn’t require hours to set up or to maintain. The parts you plan to produce are for fun.

For the casual hobbyist, here are some 3D printers to consider:

LulzBot Mini

A high performance desktop 3D printer engineered to be easy to use. Even better, the LulzBot Mini is Open Source Hardware, certified by the Free Software Foundation for respecting your freedom.

$1,250

Dremel Idea Builder

The Dremel 3D40 Idea Builder is the next generation Idea Builder that continues the Dremel heritage of reliability and ease-of-use while bringing the convenience of Wi-Fi connectivity and mobile interaction to the world of 3D building.

$1,299

XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0

A solid choice for the casual hobbyist’s first foray into 3D printing. Inexpensive and ready to go, the Da Vinci 1.0 is a durable, reliable 3D printer with some nice features not found in other devices at this price point.

$499.99

For the Enthusiast

You have a passion for 3D printing. In fact, this is probably not the first 3D printer you’ve owned. You want to roll up your sleeves and dive in, and you’re not intimidated by the thought of customizing or repairing your device.

If this sounds like you, here are some 3D printers to consider:

MakerGear M2

The MakerGear M2 is an extremely well built, solid and reliable 3D printer. The M2 produces consistently high quality prints without hours of calibration and tweaking. Support, both from the company and the user community, is outstanding.

$1,825

FlashForge Creator Pro

The New, FlashForge Creator Pro replaces the popular Creator X in the FlashForge lineup of dual extruders 3D printers. It boasts the same proven design, sturdy metal frame, optimized build platform, and more.

$999

Robo 3D R1 Plus

There is a lot to like about the Robo 3D R1 Plus. It offers a large print envelope and some advanced features at a reasonable price.

$799.99

For the Educator

You are buying a 3D printer (or a few 3D printers) for use in a classroom or lab. You’ll have many people using the device, some technically comfortable and some not. You want something that will provide valuable learning opportunities, but is also extremely safe.

For the Educator, here are some 3D printers to consider:

Dremel Idea Builder

The Dremel 3D40 Idea Builder is the next generation Idea Builder that continues the Dremel heritage of reliability and ease-of-use while bringing the convenience of Wi-Fi connectivity and mobile interaction to the world of 3D building.

$1,299

LulzBot Mini

A high performance desktop 3D printer engineered to be easy to use. Even better, the LulzBot Mini is Open Source Hardware, certified by the Free Software Foundation for respecting your freedom.

$1,250

HICTOP Prusa i3

The HICTOP Prusa i3 is a great device for those who want to build and understand every aspect of their 3D printer. It produces exceptional quality output at a very low price point.

$379.90

For the Semi-Professional

You’ve seen an opportunity for 3D printing to help in the workplace by quickly building prototypes or even production parts on a small scale. You need something reliable that will produce quality parts.

If that sounds like you, here are some 3D printers to consider:

Ultimaker 2+ 3D Printer

The Ultimaker 2+ is easy and reliable, updated for the best experience in 3D printing. Featuring a swappable nozzle extruder capable of an amazing 20 micron layer resolution, 12.5 micron XY precision, and 5 micron Z precision, the Ultimaker 2+ is the best consumer 3D printer available today.

$2,499

MakerGear M2

The MakerGear M2 is an extremely well built, solid and reliable 3D printer. The M2 produces consistently high quality prints without hours of calibration and tweaking. Support, both from the company and the user community, is outstanding.

$1,825

Formlabs Form 2

The most advanced desktop 3D printer ever created. Large prints, incredible resolution. Laser-sharp prints with stunning surface finish.

$3,499

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