From classrooms to design shops, 3D printers have found an audience with students, makers and industrial designers. And as you would expect for a product that appeals to everyone from professional designers to educators to hobbyists, even the best 3D printers vary wildly in the features they offer and how much they cost.
This neat 3D printer produces high-quality prints at a low cost, making it an appealing choice for novices.
LulzBot Mini 2
Serious 3D printers will love the speed, flexibility and larger print area of the LulzBot Mini 2
Design professionals will appreciate Ultimaker's excellent print quality and extensive material support.
Based on our extensive evaluations and hours of testing of more than a dozen models in different price ranges, we recommend the Monoprice Voxel ($399) as the best 3D printer for anyone on a budget. It produces good-looking prints at speeds you'd expect from more expensive models. (If you'd like to save even more money, the $180 XYZ da Vinci Nano and $299 Toybox 3D printer are good choices for beginners as well.)
Those looking to print in a variety of materials should turn to the LulzBot Mini 2 ($1,500), a worthy if higher-priced successor to the original Mini that offers faster print times, a big print area, and a more flexible printhead capable of handling even more materials than its predecessor.
3D-printing enthusiasts and professional designs will appreciate the two swappable extruders and excellent print quality of the Ultimaker 3 ($3,495). If you're not prepared to spend that much on a printer, we also like the LulzBot Taz 6, which costs about $1,000 less than the latest Ultimaker model and turned out fast, high-quality prints when we reviewed it last year. (Aleph Objects, which makes the Taz 6, is now selling a successor to that printer. The $2,950 Taz Workhorse Edition offers a 14% larger build volume and support for 20-plus materials. Other features include an improved motion system and automatic calibration.) If you're looking for a resin printer, we've long been fans of the Form 2 from FormLabs, though we're looking forward to testing the new version of that printer, the Form 3, which came out earlier this year.
Best Budget 3D Printer
If you're looking to get started in 3D printing, the Monoprice Voxel 3D printer is a great choice, as it delivers high-quality prints without costing you a fortune. The MP Voxel is also speedy, producing prints in times we usually see from more expensive devices. Novices will particularly appreciate the heated print base, which means more reliable prints when you use materials like ABS. The top of the print bed slides out, too, and it's bendable, so removing prints is a snap.
Best Intermediate 3D Printer
This updated version of the LulzBot Mini doesn't miss a step when it comes to replicating what made the original such a great 3D printer. Once again, you get a printer that's flexible enough to handle different materials at an affordable price tag if you're ready to step up from models aimed at beginners. But the LulzBot Mini 2 outdoes its predecessor by giving you a larger print area to work with and a new, more flexible printhead capable of handling even more materials. Our testing revealed that the Mini 2 churns out prints faster than the original with quality remaining high on the finished product.
Best Enthusiast 3D Printer
You'll pay a steep price for Ultimaker's latest printer, but if you're a design professional or serious 3D-printing enthusiast, the Ultimaker 3 is more than worth the cost. Print quality is excellent — some of the best we've seen from a 3D printer, even in draft mode — and the Ultimaker 3 supports a wide range of materials. Excellent software makes it easy to manage prints, and a redesigned printhead with two swappable extruders adds to the Ultimaker 3's impressive flexibility.
Best Resin Printer
This SLA printer from Formlabs improves on its predecessor by expanding the print area to 224 cubic inches, up from 156 cubic inches on the Form 1+. An updated print mechanism means greater print consistency, and the Form 2 can handle third-party resins — both improvements over past versions. Most importantly, though, the Form 2 produces excellent prints featuring fine detail with clean, sharp edges. Its price tag puts it out of the reach of casual users, but engineers, artists and jewelers will appreciate the Form 2's performance.
In April, Formlabs announced a new version of its SLA printer, the Form 3. This model starts at $3,499 and features a completely redesigned optics engine and slightly larger build area than its predecessor. You can still buy the Form 2 at the Formlabs website at a reduced cost.
What a 3D Printer Costs
3D printers don't have to cost a lot, though the ones used by professional designers and creators who print at heavy volumes will certainly put a big dent in your budget. (Both the Ultimaker 3 and FormLabs Form 2 cost upward of $3,000, for example.) But you can find very capable 3D printers for around $1,000, and prices are even lower for machines aimed at novices, educators and home printing enthusiasts. Prices for entry-level 3D printers are now below $300, and you'll even find some — like Monoprice's $160 Mini Delta 3D Printer — which push the price even lower.
What to Look for in a 3D Printer
Not sure how to decide which 3D printer is right for you? Here are a few things to consider when shopping for a printer.
Printer type: There are two main types of 3D printers: FFF (fused filament fabrication) and SLA (stereo lithography). FFF printers — which also cover FFM (fused filament manufacturing) and FDM (fused deposition modeling) devices — 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. FFF printers are generally cheaper, simpler and easier to use, although SLA models like the XYZprinting Nobel 1.0 (around $1,000) and the $1,295 Peopoly Moai are lowering the price difference.
Printing materials: Whichever type of printer you choose, pay attention to the type of material it uses when printing. The filament material used by FFF printers like the LulzBot Taz 6 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 FFF counterparts, but printers like the Form 2 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.)
Note that 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. (Our top budget 3D printer, the da Vinci Mini, only works with PLA filament from manufacturer XYZprinting, for example; however XYZ's filament costs about the same as most third-party materials.) Other 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).