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Shopping Guide for Best 3D Printers

Printing at home used to only be 2D. In fact, most people probably think of 2D printing as simply, “printing.” Using a word processor or a photo editor, your printer would produce a document, a few photos, or a spreadsheet on a piece of paper. The idea of ordering up a three dimensional object via your computer was only a possibility in science fiction.

Now though, you can bring 3D printing technology to your home. Although at the consumer level this remains a rather niche activity, more and more 3D printers are available every month, giving hobbyists plenty of choices for exploring an exciting, new capability.

You can create some very cool things with a 3D printer. Need a hard-to-find part for an antique car? Want to make a personalized organizer for brushes, tools, or all those things that accumulate on your desk at work? Or perhaps you want to prototype a new toy or household item you’ve envisioned? With a 3D printer, you can bring your creations to life.

When starting with 3D printing, create simple objects such as cubes to learn how your printer runs, and to work out the kinks.

Finding just the right 3D printer requires some research on your part. At BestReviews, we work to provide readers with the trustworthy information they need to make a wise purchase in any product category, including 3D printing.

Understand that we never accept free samples from manufacturers. This means you can trust that our selections and product reviews remain free of bias.

If you’re ready to purchase your own printer, check out the matrix above for our recommended models.

To learn more about comparing 3D printers, continue on to the shopping guide, below.

EXPERT TIP

If you’re worried about noise, look for a 3D printer that offers a completely enclosed design to cut down on the sound generated.


Staff  | BestReviews

3D Printing Explained

3D printing involves a vastly different process than printing on a piece of paper with an inkjet printer. A 3D-printed object is exactly that — a three dimensional, physical object. Most consumer-grade 3D printers produce objects in various forms of plastic. However, other printers can create objects from a wider variety of materials, including metals, wood, concrete, and even chocolate or confectioners sugar.

The first step in 3D printing is creation of a model. This can be done with software, or through the use of a 3D scanner. (There are also plenty of places to simply download 3D models online.) The 3D printer brings the models come to life, building an actual object from the computer drawing.

Large manufacturing companies have used 3D modeling and printing for a few decades. But as the price of 3D printing has dropped, and the technology has evolved, manufacturers now sell smaller printers for use at home.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

LulzBot TAZ 6

Features and Advantages

Customers are loyal to the LulzBot brand name with good reason. Its 3D printers consistently rank near the top of the market. The latest LulzBot model, the TAZ 6, successfully builds on past models while maintaining a lot of the features that customers want to see. Visually, the TAZ 6 carries the industrial design from past models in the LulzBot family, which, frankly, looks extremely cool. It can be purchased as an out-of-the-box device, but you do have the option of building your own TAZ 6 machine, as the plans are available online. The improvements in the TAZ 6 include an easier setup process and faster printing than previous versions. Perhaps our favorite feature on the TAZ 6 involves the automatic cleaning of the printhead, which removes any materials that may be stuck, allowing for more success when printing. Another feature we love is the ease with which you can swap out tool heads for specialized 3D printing jobs.

Types of 3D Printers

Three major types of 3D printers are available today, though only two of those are typically affordable for home us. Each type has a few pros and cons, as we’ll discuss next.

Types of 3D printers

FDM

FDM, short for Fused Deposition Modeling, is the most common type of desktop 3D printer. The FDM printer uses a spool of filament, typically plastic, as the print material. The filament is melted in an extruder, then deposited onto the print bed, layer by layer. The layers fuse as they cool. FDM printers work faster than other 3D printer types and cost less than other types. However, this type of printer requires regular maintenance and frequent cleaning. The extruder can clog, especially when using a specialty filament, so some knowledge is needed for occasional repair.

FOR YOUR SAFETY

Follow any other specific maintenance tasks that are listed in your 3D printer’s user guide.

Types of 3D printers

SLA

SLA, short for Stereolithography, works in a very different manner. Instead of the melted filament of an FDM printer, a reservoir of liquid resin is used to create 3D objects. The SLA printer uses an ultraviolet light to harden the resin in precise spots, producing one layer after another. SLA printers work well for creating very high-specification designs because of the thinness in the layers. However, the final liquid resin objects have a brittle consistency. You also will experience a lot of messy leftover material with this type of 3D printer.

Types of 3D printers

SLS

SLS, or Laser Sintering, makes use of a powdered material to create the 3D objects. A laser heats the powder to make it solid. Very few SLS printers are offered at an affordable price point, so you won’t find a lot of SLS 3D printers in use in homes. These printers are extremely precise, allowing for high-level models.

EXPERT TIP

3D printer filament can degrade if exposed to high levels of humidity in the air, so it’s best to store your filament in an enclosed container.


Staff  | BestReviews

Out-of-the-Box Printers vs. Kits

3D printing can be a lot of fun, but it also may involve a lot of time and troubleshooting. If you don’t enjoy the challenges of a fledgling technology, 3D printing might not be for you. But if you enjoy the ups and downs of learning a new skill, playing with technology, and learning from your mistakes, you’ll almost certainly love 3D printing.

Comparison

Out-of-the-Box Printers

New to 3D printing entirely, or simply have no interest in electronic assembly? Look for a machine that has been assembled at the factory and will be ready to use out-of-the-box, with simple software included. You may have to do a bit of calibration and troubleshooting from time to time, but this type of machine will be easiest to use.

Run calibration tests on your 3D printer regularly to ensure the unit will give you the best possible performance.

Staff
BestReviews
Comparison

Kit Printers

Some 3D printing enthusiasts are also electronics hobbyists – people who like to play with tech devices, and don’t mind challenging tasks. Look for a 3D printing kit, which has some automatic features. You will need assemble the machine yourself, but all the parts will be in the kit. Kits can be significantly less expensive than out-of-the-box printers. However, such machines are not perfect. You’ll still need to do calibrations and troubleshooting on a regular basis.

Comparison

Full Assembly

If you enjoy tinkering with machines, you have the option of building a 3D printer from scratch. You can purchase individual parts and construct your own machine at whatever size you like. Only people who have experience with machine building and 3D printing should attempt this process. There will be frustrations along the way, so just be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

XYZprinting Da Vinci 1.0

Design and Versatility

The enclosed design of the unit is one of the first things people notice about the XYZprinting Da Vinci 3D printer. Not only does this make it look like a more professional machine, but it brings about two other important benefits. First, it's safer. 3D printers heat material to nearly 250° Celsius, and the heated bed can reach over 100° Celsius. Anything that keeps your hands out of the way while the printer works is a good idea! Second, the Da Vinci maintains a stable operating temperature, preventing fluctuations that could ruin your work. In general, owners respect the design of this product. It also rates highly in terms of ease of use.  At a speed of 150 mm/s, the Da Vinci ranks a little better than the average printer. Some potential buyers will see this as significant because all consumer 3D printers are a bit on the slow side. Layer thickness measures 0.1 to 0.4 mm (often expressed as 100 to 400 microns). The Da Vinci will print with both ABS and PLA filaments. However, it takes proprietary cartridges rather than readily available spools, and some owners weren't happy about this. There are hacks to get around this, but doing so could invalidate the machine’s warranty.

3D Printer Features

There are many features and options to choose from when you shop for a 3D printer. Here are a few of the most important to consider.

Features

Self-Leveling

Leveling is a crucial part of the 3D printing process. The print bed must be perpendicular to the extruder for your printer to create objects successfully. Many printers are leveled manually — you adjust three or four wingnuts below the printhead while gauging the gap between the print bed and extruder nozzle. Self-leveling printers can save you a great deal of time and headache. Using sensors and motors, the self-leveling printer takes care of leveling before each print job.

DID YOU KNOW?

Leveling the print bed is crucial to ensuring successful prints. Some printers offer an automatic or “self-leveling” feature, which can save you a lot of time and frustration.

Features

SD Card

Your 3D printer has to be given a file, usually referred to as “gcode,” to direct the printhead. Most printers allow you to plug a laptop or desktop computer directly into the printer, but it’s far more convenient to put the gcode file on an SD card. Keep in mind that many prints require hours (or even days) to complete. If your printer doesn’t accept SD cards, your computer must remain attached to the printer through the complete printing time.

Features

Heated Print Bed

The two most common materials for printing on an FDM printer are ABS and PLA plastic. ABS plastic absolutely requires a heated print bed; your objects simply won’t print successfully without one. PLA can be used with a non-heated bed, but most users report greater success with a heated bed. Some printers come with a heated bed as a standard offering, while others offer it as an upgrade. Some, however, don’t allow for a heated bed even as an aftermarket addition.

For the best chance of successful prints, clean your print bed after every task. Debris and dust prevents the plastic from sticking to the bed, potentially ruining a print halfway through the job.

Staff
BestReviews
Features

WiFi

Similar to SD card support, some printers allow you to connect via WiFi.

Features

Single- vs. Dual-Extruder

The majority of home printers are single-extruder. The printer only feeds one spool of filament at a time. If you want to change colors or material in the middle of a print, the printer must allow you to pause the print, swap out the filament, and resume printing. Dual-extruder printers support two filaments at once, allowing you to mix colors and material types within a print. While some 3D printing enthusiasts consider this an extremely helpful option, most are content with single-extruder printing.

Ultimately, 3D printing works best for the person who loves technology and doesn’t mind learning from any potential mistakes.

FAQ

Q. How much noise do 3D printers create?

A. Because a 3D printer makes use of drive belts and motors, it does create a bit of noise while operating. It’s not an extremely annoying type of noise, such as you might find with beeps or high-pitched whines. However, you will notice. You can decrease the sound by getting a fully enclosed printer.

Q. What kind of software do 3D printers use?

A. 3D printers depend on “slicing” applications to generate gcode files, which control the printer. Most consumer printers ship with the manufacturer’s slicing program, but these are typically very simple applications, lacking advanced features. Other slicing programs are available on the Internet, some free and some at a cost, and these often give you far greater control of  your printer’s capabilities.

Q. How much experience do I need to operate a 3D printer?

A. 3D printers have a wide range of features that will give you as much or as little help as you want with the printing process. For novices, 3D printers exist that will guide you through the entire process. For those who like more hands-on control, other 3D printers will let you handle as much of the process as you want.

Q. What kind of maintenance do 3D printers require?

A. Regular maintenance will keep your 3D printer working longer and more successfully. Monthly maintenance tasks include ensuring the belts are tight, and lubricating the moving parts. You should also ensure that screws are tight a few times per year, both on the printer’s frame and on the motor.

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