"Star Trek" promised replicators that could print out anything in seconds, even a cup of "Earl Grey, hot." While the technology isn't there yet, it is getting closer, thanks to consumer 3D printers. These devices convert a digital design into any small, plastic 3D object that your imagination and design skills (or designs you download) can come up with, from a tchotchke to a replacement part for a device to a prototype.
Home 3D printers mostly use a process called, alternately, filament deposition manufacturing (FDM) or fused filament fabrication (FFM). A plastic filament is melted and then deposited onto a smooth surface (called the print bed) by the printer extruder. The print bed is lowered, and the object is built up layer by layer.
Most 3D printers use either ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polylactic acid) plastic, both of which melt easily. Most users start with PLA, but then move onto the tougher (but slightly harder to use) ABS plastic. (Some printers can use more exotic materials, like clay, plasticine or even chocolate.)
Although improvements keep coming, the consumer models available now are limited. They print slowly, use only a small number of materials in limited colors, and require a lot of tweaking to get it working well. But once you get your 3D printer up and running, having custom-built objects on tap is a great feature for the modern household. We’ve picked the best 3D printers for how you want to use them. These printers can't yet produce a cup of tea, but they can produce the cup — and many other things.
Best Budget 3D Printer: Solidoodle 3rd Gen
There are ever-more cheap 3D printers available, but the best value is the $799 Solidoodle. This third-generation model has an impressive set of features for the price, including a large (8 x 8 x 8 inches) print area and robust metal construction that should stand up to extended use. The heated print bed helps to keep large ABS prints from warping as they cool. And internal lighting helps you to keep an eye on how the print is going.
What you don’t get is much in the way of software: Solidoodle refers you to several open-source packages. This is less of a hardship than you might think, though: The packages that are available (such as Repetier) are very high quality and easy to use.
Best 3D Printer for Beginners: Cubify Cube
3D printing can be complicated, so it’s best to start out with a straightforward printer. Priced at $1,299, the Cubify Cube is one of the simplest printers available. Cubify puts the filament (either ABS or PLA) in a sealed cartridge that is easy to change and includes software that offers a step-by-step approach to printing. The package includes plenty of premade digital designs to customize and print.
The Cube is also safe for kids to use. Because there’s no heated print bed, you won’t have to worry about burned fingers. Plus, the prints are easy to remove from the print bed. The Cube connects to computers over Wi-Fi, making it simple to share among multiple computers.
The Cube's simplicity has its downsides. You have to buy Cubify's filament cartridges, which cost a little more than generic spools and come in only five colors. At $1,299, the Cube is more expensive than similar (though less polished) printers like the Solidoodle 3rd generation. And Cubify's 90-day warranty is short for a printer designed to handle the rough and tumble of family or educational use. Overall, though, this printer’s simple, user-friendly design and software make glitches much less likely.
Best DIY 3D Printer: Maker’s Tool Works MendelMax
The best way to learn about how something works is to build it yourself. That’s the idea behind the RepRap Mendel, an open-source 3D printer that anyone can download the plans for and build from parts found in most garages or on the Web.
MORE: 3D Printer Buyer's Guide
If you aren’t up to finding all of the parts yourself, several companies offer kits. The $1,599 MakerTools MendelMax Standard stands out because it offers everything you need to build the printer in one package. The MendelMax 2.0 can print large models in a print area of 12.4 x 9.4 x 8.8 inches, and is one of the fastest 3D printers out there. Because you build it yourself, you can easily expand the MendelMax to add multiple extruders, print in different materials, or make other upgrades that the volunteers who create the Mendel printer designs come up with.
Best 3D Printer for Light Use: MakerBot Replicator 2
MakerBot produced one of the first commercial 3D printers, and the Replicator 2 (starting at $2,199) continues this groundbreaking trend. This is a powerful 3D printer with a very large (11.2 x 6 x 6 inches) printing area. But the Replicator 2 is also simple to use, as it comes with a software package called MakerWare that handles all the complex processing of 3D models quickly and without fuss, including the complex task of using two colors of plastic in one model
The Replicator 2 is very easy to set up, so you can get printing quickly. There are also lots of upgrade options available, such as dual print heads that can support multiple materials or colors in a single print job. With the optional $350 MakerCare Service plan, lasting a year from your order ship date, MakerBot will ship you a repair kit containing all the necessary parts should anything go wrong with your printer. The Replicator 2 is not the cheapest model available, but it offers good value and ease of use for those who want to be able to do quick and easy prints without spending too much time.
Best 3D Printer for Small Businesses: Stratasys Mojo
Small businesses and serious hobbyists who use a 3D printer on a daily basis need a model that is reliable and has very good tech support if it breaks. Stratasys Mojo is the best pick for it's excellent support, which includes on-site service and easy supply ordering. That all comes at a price, though: a hefty $9,995.
The Mojo prints using ABSPlus thermoplastic, which Stratasys claims is stronger and lighter than normal ABS, so it is suited for making complex and larger objects. The Mojo can also simultaneously print with water-soluble support material called SR-30, which provides support for complex objects during printing. When the print is complete, the support material can be quickly dissolved with water. The Mojo includes a washer that does this automatically: You don’t even need to get your hands wet.
Best 3D Printer for Experimenters: Hyrel E2 Hobbyist
If you want to push the boundaries of 3D printing, the Hyrel Hobbyist is the model for you. This new printer supports up to four extruders, so you can print multiple copies of objects at once, or print with multiple materials or colors in one object. And it goes beyond standard ABS and PLA plastic. The optional EMO25 extruder can handle materials like air-dried clay, silicone, Play-Doh or Sugru, which makes flexible objects. (However, these materials are experimental and not widely tested.) The company is also experimenting with other materials such as nylon. These extruders can also be quickly swapped out, so the E2 Hobbyist is somewhat future-proof.
The E2 Hobbyist is reasonably priced for all those capabilities: $2,145, which includes one extruder. Each EMO25 extruder is an additional $200, or $250 for the pro model with five nozzles. An all-in-one version of the printer with a built-in PC (the E3) starts at $2,345.
There are caveats: Hyrel is a new, unproven company, and models are available only on a pre-order basis, with a backlog of several weeks, But the E2 Hobbyist is by far the best option for those who want to experiment with printing materials beyond basic plastic.