So you heard about 3d printing, maybe you spent years reading news articles about the magic a 3d printer can produce or you’re someone who wants to build things. You have to choose your first printer. These days the waters are pretty deep which is both a blessing and a curse. We have just enough options to make competition, which makes it possible to see better printers being made. This can cause quite the headache for just about anyone that hasn’t spent some time researching whats available. Well this will be step one. In this article we will address the types of printers available and some of the companies that make them. We will also discuss your budget,knowledge,and mechanical skillsand see if we can’t find a printer that will fit in just about everyone’s maker space.
First we should ask some questions. Lets start with the obvious.
What can you afford? Buying a 3d printer is a lot like buying a car sometimes you can afford a new car and some times you can’t. So where does your budget sit.There are a lot of good printers in a wide range of prices and if you can afford it or don’t mind spending a little more you can get some quality printers but even in the high-end community there are some lemons and there is quite a few really good printers to be had in the sub 500$ market as well so don’t think that money is the only way to get good printers.
The next question you should ask is.
What do I know? So we have the money but what do we know about these printers. Depending on your answer you may or may not be stuck with just a few commercial printers. At least to start.This is also a good time to think about learning to 3d model if you don’t already but that’s something for another time. Right now lets focus on what makes them tick. Almost all the 3d printers on the market are the same inside and pretty simple as well. So once you know what makes them tick you can make a better decision on what you should buy. For the sake of time we will focus on the most abundant choice the FDM 3d printers. All the ultimaker’s,Prusa’s,Kossel’s and the like are FDM it just means they melt plastic and apply it one layer at a time. This means that for the most part they all operate the same as well. To do that they all use the same basic parts. A driver board,stepper motors,Extruder and build surface. The thing is most use the same exact parts but charge more for a fancier package or better tech support. So when you are shopping check the forums. A printer that costs thousands may have the exact same parts as one that is only 400. we would like to think that because it costs more it must be better but that is often not the case here. Keep that in mind when you open your wallet.
Ok well how do they work then? Much the same as your paper printer at home only with one more axis and less intelligence. Yes I just said these 3D printers are dumber than that Kodak printer sitting in the corner collecting dust. More on that in a minute. So the printer works by taking a file sending it to the 3d printers driver board either directly from your pc or through an SD card. From there the driver board heats up the extruder and the bed ( if it’s heated) and tells the stepper motors where to move and how much filament to extrude. Bear with me I have a point And that point is this. Only spend what you can justify on a 3d printer because it doesn’t matter what you buy they are all going to work just like that. There are some exceptions to the rule but most just don’t offer enough intelligent design to justify their hefty price tags and once you own a printer you can upgrade it yourself. Even those commercial printers are still improving. So unless you want all the bells and whistles or you actually want the security that buying tech support gives you Save some money and look into a kit. The thing is because they are dumb machines they are pron to errors. Your Kodak printer collecting dust has had years of innovation to make it print your pictures without any effort at all. Home 3D printers are still very young and they haven’t worked all the bugs out. Might as well skip the markup if you can and build your own.
Here is where we ask the final question:
How good are my mechanical Skills? Most kits these days build like a Lego set If you shop around you will find some quality kits under the 500$ that can be assembled in a day or two with basic tools,little knowledge and can give really great prints. The downside being that you will now have to assemble your own printer and do a little more calibration (Maybe) than if you had just bought one that was shipped in a box ready to print. I personally feel that everyone should start here regardless of where you sit. My reasoning is this by the time you have assembled the printer and successfully printed your first part,toy or test cube you will have a greater understanding and respect for these machines. You will also know just what to look for in the pricier models. Things like enclosed heating areas,heated beds,bed leveling features. All of which can be done on a kit printer as well. I’m not going to get into scratch building a 3d printer because that is a deep rabbit hole that unless you like puzzles, will only put a bad taste in your mouth. That being said you can build a ultimaker clone on less than a third the cost of the real one if you spend enough time planning and shopping for parts.
Now we will put it all together and do some shopping. There isn’t one printer that is better than every other but there are some that make printing a breeze and we will start there.
If you can afford it The Ultimaker 2 is just about the top of the FDM market. It will print PLA,ABS and even some exotics without batting an eye. The build size is respectable and the community is large so there is little to worry about. They are one of the large companies that are open source. Which has helped build a strong community of makers. As the choice for high-end this is what I would choose.
Maybe you would like something a little bigger.
The Gmax Printer is a great option in that same price range it’s great at big format prints. The downside is the open build area can lead to warping issues on abs if not looked after. This is more for prototyping large parts though so unless you plan to print large all the time I would give it a pass. I have seen detailed small prints done on them but they can be a little finicky on the smaller side. Over all a good printer but more for a serious maker. I would call this a second printer not a first.
Lets get to the meat and potatoes of the ready to print world. The every day workhorse’s that fit under or at the Thousand dollar range.
Wanhao has really stepped in with a quality set of machines ready from the box that don’t break the bank. They offer a printer in just about every dollar range and all of them give great prints. Over all if you plan to do lots of printing these machines have you covered. They print in just about every filament on the market and have a growing community. Plus for the cost of 1 ultimaker you can get 3 wanhao Duplicator 4s or close to 6 I3’s. No matter how you look at it that’s a great deal.
Now lets talk saving money and buying a kit. All of those printers operate the same and use the same major parts. What you are paying for is the R&D they put into an out of the box print ready machine and that’s nothing to be ashamed of they are all great printer that will give good out of the box results. But lets face facts if you could buy a super car for fifty thousand instead of two hundred thousand you would jump on the chance or at the very least ask why it’s so cheap. When they tell you it’s because they ship you the car in a box with instructions on how to build it yourself, well that’s when you have to decide. Am I skilled enough to build it or not. Now cars are much more complicated machines and unless you are a skilled mechanic it’s not a task for a beginner. The same isn’t true for 3d printers these days. It used to be you had to be able to code,solder,and assemble these machines but these days kits are to the point where you can buy one screw them together, level the bed and print right away. One such company making this happen is Folgertech. Not only do they offer a wide verity of machines,they are all extremely simple to assemble and very affordable.
I started with a kit because like a lot of us I just couldn’t afford the more expensive models. Mine however was from a Chinese source that had no support and little help in how to assemble the printer. In the end it worked out fine for me but that’s because I’m stubborn. Like a dog with a bone I wouldn’t let go tell it was finished and I eventually got it to print some pretty good prints. If I had it to do over again I would still buy a kit But it would be a Folgertech. They won’t print straight out of the box but you can be printing in the same afternoon with a couple of the models. That frame is very solid and easily assembled and you will notice it looks a lot like the gmax from earlier. That is because they are exactly the same. The Gmax is just scaled up. There are lots of kits on the market and it’s a good idea to look around but if there is a standard for kits Folgertech is it. Low cost,Solid design,easy assembly and a solid community.
The 3d printing waters are deep and getting deeper every day. We didn’t look at SLS or SLA printers because the only options are high-end or DIY and because the every day maker isn’t going to need one as a starter printer. You have so many more options and if you want you can compare them to this list. I made this list to give beginners a jumping off point and an idea of the costs and abilities of the printers they would buy. With 3D printers it’s more about how much work you want to put in. If the answer is little to none buy a ultimaker it will do just about all the work for you. Sure you will get a hiccup from time to time but odds are it is the filament and not the machine in that case. But if you are willing to put in effort or are just cheap like me a kit is really the way to go. Once you get it printing you can start upgrading. Maybe add that self leveling feature or an extra extruder. Most important is to do the research don’t just buy what everyone says to buy because in the end it’s what fits your needs that matters.