- Prints with most filament type
- Interchangeable extruders
- Short exposures, fast printing
- Easy to use and setup
- 9-point leveling system
- Compact design
- Good build volume
The introduction of 3D printing in the 1980s has reshaped the landscape of technology, merging software and material science. It has changed the way we produce entire physical objects and parts in the last few decades, leading a manufacturing renaissance. Once a method for niche products, 3D printers are now a key technology tool used both commercially and in the homes of consumers like you.
The implications are limitless for industries such as healthcare, education, textile, aerospace, personalized products, and more. The creative process is completely digital and no longer limited by classical production methods. The possibilities are as vast as the user’s imagination.
We reviewed dozens of the top 3D printers to bring you our favorites:
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a prototyping process where a real object is created from a three-dimensional design. Additive Manufacturing (AM) is the process of building an object by adding material layer-by-layer. AM is a technology that allows physical components to be made from virtual 3D computer models using modeling data. The object is digitally sliced into layers, and these layers are fused together one-by-one. Unlike subtractive manufacturing, where material is carved from a larger block, most AM processes use less material, minimizing waste and labor. The actual 3D printing process is only one part of the entire procedure. Additive manufacturing is colloquially referred to as 3D printing. These terms have lent themselves to be interchangeable.
A typical 3D printer is like an inkjet printer operated from a computer, but instead of using ink, the printer utilizes filaments. These materials can range from thermoplastics to metals, glass, paper, and even wood substances.
With 3D printing, a user creates a virtual design of the object that they want to print in 3D. User saves their file as a Computer Aided Design (CAD) model, which is used to transfer this data to the printer to fabricate the object. The CAD model is then converted to the STL (stereolithography) file, which is the standard digital file format that is needed to transform a 3D model into a physical object. This file is transferred to the machine and built.
How Do I Get Into 3D Printing?
Getting into 3D printing can seem quite daunting. Choosing a 3D printer depends firstly on what you plan to make. There are typically two classes of 3D printers- hobby and professional machines.
It is important to consider the following:
- Price: What is your preferred price range?
- Quality: What will the finished product look like?
- Speed: How long does it take to finish a project?
- Capability: What special features are needed for end design?
- Resolution: Do you need a superior surface appearance at smaller heights?
- Experience level: How much training is needed to operate the machine?
Most consumers will end up choosing between two major options: FDM (fused deposition modeling) and SLA (stereolithography). FDM and SLA are the most widely used technologies for 3D printing, and are most often used to fabricate plastic objects or composites, and nylon-like materials.
Types of 3D Printers
There are several different types of 3D printing to choose from, but the most widely used and commonly sought after with people just getting into 3D printing is a process known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM is the most common form of material extrusion 3D printing. FDM printers use a thermoplastic filament (polymer that changes to a liquid upon the application of heat and solidifies to a solid when cooled). These filaments are unwound from a coil and fed through an extrusion nozzle, layer-by-layer, to create a 3D object. This method is relatively easy to use and great for hobbyists, inventors, and small business owners. FDM printers have the lowest price of entry and materials, but also the lowest resolution and accuracy. They are best for basic proof-of-concept models and simple prototyping.
Another type of 3D printer is called Stereolithography (SLA). SLA is the most common form of light polymerization 3D printing. This type of high-end printer utilizes laser technology to cure layer-upon-layer of photopolymer resin (polymer that changes properties when exposed to light) into hardened plastic. A laser beam, directed into the pool of resin, traces the cross-section pattern of the model for that particular layer and cures it. SLA printers utilize highly versatile material selections and have the highest resolution accuracy, the sharpest details, and the smoothest surface finishes of all 3D printing technologies. However, SLA build areas are typically smaller and finished prints need to be processed and then cured. They are best for functional prototyping, patterns, molds, and tooling, making them one of the most versatile 3D printers.
The oldest of 3D printing technologies, Digital light processing (DLP) machines are similar to SLA technology in that they both use photopolymers. The difference between the two is that DLP uses a digital light projector to flash a single image of each layer at once, achieving faster print times. While SLA uses ultraviolet light, DLP uses arc lamps.
Another type of 3D printer similar to SLA, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), utilizes a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass, as opposed to light beams and liquid. Unlike SLA technology, support material is not needed as the build is supported by unsintered material. SLS uses powdered substances and is a process that repeats one layer at a time until it reaches the object’s height. SLS printers have a low cost per part, a high productivity, and are best for functional prototyping and custom manufacturing.
Like SLA, Selective Laser Melting (SLM) printers use a high-powered laser beam to form 3D parts. During the printing process, the laser beam melts and fuses various metallic powders together. While SLS processes partly melt the powder, SLM completely melts it. SLM is widespread among aerospace and medical orthopedic industries, and not commonly used as a desktop printer for most everyday users.
3D Printers Buyer’s Guide
After reviewing the various types of printers, here are a few questions that should be taken into consideration before deciding on which type of 3D printer to purchase.
Time Setting Expectations
The cheaper and smaller the 3D printer, the more assembly, calibration, and time typically required to get going on project creation. If you are on a tight budget and have time to devote to tinkering with the machine and troubleshooting, a hobby-grade machine might be right for you. Be prepared to modify your equipment and experiment with different software settings.
Typically, the larger the build envelope, the better. Smaller printer beds (the platform on which products are built) also pose a time and budget constraint. Larger bed sizes lead to more efficiency and allow users to print larger pieces at once, instead of building together smaller parts over a longer period.
When reviewing specs of various printers, it is important to note the quality of finished products at different sizes and speeds. A machine may be able to pump out miniatures at a relatively high speed, but when building parts, the quality can go down immensely, and take even longer to build.
Heatbeds improve print quality and reduce warping. When choosing to purchase the addition of a heated bed, material type also comes into play. Each filament type has its own temperature requirements, and PLA and ABS materials specifically require higher temperatures. A powerful heated build plate is important when printing large parts. A heated bed also provides added adhesion, allowing materials to cool more slowly and release from the bed with more ease.
Understanding material types for the final product is necessary to help users choose which type of printer to purchase.
To print with ABS, you need a temperature-controlled bed. ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) filament is strong, heat resistant, and can be smoothed with acetone. ABS is a common thermoplastic made from petroleum, which produces noxious fumes during the printing process that are hazardous to breathe. It is a popular plastic for injection molding and is used to make Legos, instruments, sports equipment, and more.
Polylactic Acid, commonly known as PLA, is one of the most popular materials used in desktop 3D printing. Known as a bioplastic, PLA provides accurate prints and is relatively easy to print with. It is the default filament of choice for most extrusion-based 3D printers because it can be printed at a low temperature and does not require a heated bed. PLA can also be food safe but is sensitive to heat after printing. PLA is quick, simple, and easy to print, and can be printed using any printer.
Thermoplastic polyurethane, or TPU, is a common form of elastic polymer that is flexible. TPU can be used with any properly equipped FDM printer, and is great for making custom phone cases, sporting goods, or automotive bushings.
Polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified, or PETG, is the useful filament to combine strength and ductility, which is why it is used in so many mechanical parts and robotics. PETG is strong, accurate, and heat resistant, and great for artistic projects due to its transparent nature.
While these are the most common filament types, creative variations such as woodfill, metalfil, copperfill, fluorescent, color-changing, silk-like, glitter, and more are available to help a user’s imagination come to life.
Nylon, or polyamide, is a popular yet challenging filament to work with. It is tough and partially flexible, and is able to resist high impacts. Nylon filaments typically require hot temperatures near 250 degrees Celsius. They are also hygroscopic, meaning they absorb moisture from the air, so proper storage becomes very important. Improperly dried filaments can cause printing defects. Once you’ve mastered the basics, Nylon is a great material for the use of creating cable ties, screws, nuts, and bolts, and plastic gears.
Polycarbonate (PC) is a durable material used for engineering applications. Like Nylon, PC is hygroscopic, which affects printing performance and strength. It is naturally transparent and bendable without breaking. PC is best printed on a machine that has an enclosed build volume and one that is capable of handling high bed and extruder temperatures. PC is a great material for making high-strength parts, heat-resistant prints, and electronic cases.
Sustainability is an ever increasing topic at the forefront of minds today. Eco-friendly 3D filament is a new alternative to classic plastic filament. Though the cost may be steep, many biodegradable or compostable filament options are available on the market. Options such as plant-based and organic waste filaments are also environmentally-friendly options. While some PLA filaments are biodegradable, objects can be created using leftover 3D printer filament. There are also biodegradable PETG blends available that can be used to create mechanical parts, 3D printer components, and other high strength products.
Filament comes in two diameters– 1.85mm and 2.85mm. The latter filament is sometimes mistakenly referred to as 3 mm, but should not be confused with the less common filament size that actually measures 3 mm in diameter. Most models use the smaller of the two diameters. Filament is sold in spools and costs anywhere from $20 to $50 per kilogram for ABS and PLA varieties.
Environment and Placement
After purchasing a 3D printer, users must be wary of placement location, as the printing process emits microparticles that are hazardous to health and toxic to breathe. It is important to investigate filtration systems, as harmful particles lead to prolonged health issues over time.
3D printers are also temperature sensitive, so a climate-controlled room is best.
Placement can be restricted by method of transmission of software files. 3D printers can either use USB, WiFi, or SD cards, so knowledge of the transfer type of information from software to hardware is essential.
And finally, noise levels differ across printer types. Enclosed 3D printers generally produce less noise.
Afraid to take the plunge?
Anyone interested in exploring the world of 3D printing can now do so in the comfort of their home. You don’t even have to own a 3D printer to be able to print in 3D. The technology is now available to design your own 3D models online using free programs like SketchUp or Tinkercad. After you’ve finished designing your model, you can find a local or online service that can print the 3D model for you, making creation accessible to just about anyone with access to a computer.