3D printers make up one of the most exciting areas of the current technology landscape. Every few months, a slew of new models arrive that cost less, print things faster and produce larger objects than ever before.
Based on our extensive evaluations of more than a dozen models in different price ranges and hours of testing, our top overall pick for those on a budget is the Printrbot Simple Metal ($599), because it offers an easy-to-use entry into the world of 3D printing. Those looking to print in a variety of materials should check out the LulzBot Mini ($1,350), which supports ABS, nylon, polycarbonate and polystyrene. 3D-printing enthusiasts will like the speed and reliability of the TAZ 5 from LulzBot ($2,200).
To make it easier to know which 3D printer is right for you, here are a few things to look out for, along with more information on all of our top picks.
What to Look for in a 3D Printer
Printer type: There are two main types of 3D printers: FFM (fused filament manufacturing) and SLA (stereo lithography). FFM printers work by melting a plastic filament in a moving printhead to form the model. SLA printers use an ultraviolet (UV) laser to solidify a resin, focusing the laser to form the solid model. FFM printers are generally cheaper, simpler and easier to use, although new SLA models like the $1,499 XYZprinting Nobel 1.0 are lowering the price difference.
Printing materials: Whichever type of printer you choose, pay attention to the type of material it can use to print. The filament material used by FFM printers like the LulzBot TAZ 5 is available in several different materials, such as PLA (a brittle, biodegradable material), ABS (the same plastic used in Lego blocks), nylon, TPE (a soft, rubberlike material) and HDPE (a light, tough polystyrene). Many of these materials, particularly PLA and ABS, are available in a huge range of colors. Filaments come in two sizes: 1.75 mm and 3 mm, which are not interchangeable.
SLA printers have fewer options than their FFM counterparts, but printers like the Form 1+ can use resins that produce models ranging from very rigid to flexible and rubbery.
The best printers can use a wide range of materials, each of which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. (HDPE, for example, is light and tough, but not suitable for food use, while nylon is food-safe.) However, some printers only allow the use of approved materials or materials produced by the same company that made the printer. In that sense, those types of 3D printers are like more traditional paper printers: The manufacturers sell the hardware cheaply and then make money back on the consumables. Still, some 3D printers place no restrictions on the type or origin of the material.
Print volume: All printers have limits on the size of the 3D print they can produce. That limit is defined by the size of the print bed and how far the printer can move the printhead. This is usually measured in cubic inches, but you should also pay attention to each of the individual dimensions, which determine the maximum size 3D print the device can create. So, for example, if a printer like the LulzBot Mini has a print volume of 223 cubic inches (6.2 x 6 x 6 inches), it can print objects that are up to just less than 6 inches high, wide and deep.
Print speed and quality: 3D printing is a slow business, and at present, there's no way to get around this. You should expect a 3- to 4-inch model to typically take between 6 and 12 hours to print, depending on the print quality you select. That's because of the way 3D printing works: The print is constructed in layers. The thicker these layers are, the quicker the print is produced but the lower the print quality is, as the layers become more visible. So, there is a trade-off between print speed and print quality. The best printers will allow you to determine which way you want to go with this, producing prints quickly or more slowly but at higher quality. The best printers offer a wide range of quality settings, from fast (but low quality) to slow (but high quality).
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