Why Buy a 3D Printer?
First, and foremost, you may be wondering why you would even want a 3D printer. These products have exploded in popularity in the past few years, with various news stories talking about how they will revolutionize manufacturing, 3D print food, or even replacement organs and tissues. While all of these are potential applications for this technology, in many cases emerging technologies will capitalize on the success and popularity of 3D printers and brand themselves as some form or another of 3D printing.
In reality, practically all of the machines that are typically found in homes or small studios will take a 3D file from a computer and produce a physical model of it in plastic. This can take minutes to hours to days, depending on the size of the model and the technology of the printer.
This rapid prototyping technique can be used to make custom mounts, replacement parts, educational models, household items … or your own personal army of squirrels or action figures.
Step 1: Buy or Build?
The first question you need to answer when purchasing one of these products is whether you would be best served by a model that is ready to go out of the box, one that has some assembly required, or a kit model that you build from the ground up. Each of these types has some advantages and disadvantages, which we will cover in the next few sections.
Getting a printer ready to go out of the box will cost a bit more but will you get you printing something immediately or almost immediately, with the vast majority of calibration completed at the factory. You may have to check the bed level to make sure nothing shifted in shipping but other than that, you are all set and ready to go. One downside is this essentially locks you into the manufacturer for support, as most state in the manual that disassembling or working on the machine will void your warranty. We would also caution that you pay extra attention to the listing when looking for a fully-assembled printer, as we found quite a few that showed a completed printer and were actually revealed to be a kit upon closer inspection.
Other models, especially the larger ones, ship with the majority of the assembly completed, meaning you can probably be ready to go in one to two hours. You may need a few common tools if they were not included and need to take a close look through the directions but most people should be able to get off the ground with relative ease with a completely assembled printer or a partially assembled one. All of the models in our review fall into this category.
This leaves the final type of printer: home-built from a kit. Right off the bat, this is definitely NOT the way to go for most people. However for those tech-savvy tinkerers out there, this method has a variety of benefits. These kit printers usually get you more printer for your dollar and are much easier to upgrade and add extras to. You also are intimately familiar with your printer and are much more likely to be able to repair, should the need arise. However, it takes a significant amount of time to build, a few less than common tools, and another significant chunk of time to calibrate — before you start printing anything. This is a good option if you are looking at getting a 3D printer as a project — not as a tool.
Step 2: What Type of 3D Printer should you get?
While all of these products take a digital file and create a physical manifestation of it, these machines all go about it in different ways. The exact methods and specifications of the main types are outlined further down but the majority of users will hear two main types thrown around: FDM/FFM/FFF and SLA.
The first methods — FDM/FFM/FFF — is the most commonly utilized method for most home or consumer grade 3D printers. While this technology has a ton of different names — Fused Deposition Modeling, Fused Filament Method, Fused Filament Fabrication — it all relies on plastic filament being forced through a heated nozzle that moves around on a gantry. The model is built up, layer-by-layer, until it is completed.
These type of printers are great pick for the majority of new users, as well as a large chunk of the intermediate and advanced users. All of the printers in our review use this type of fabrication technology. This method does have some drawbacks, such as a limit on the resolution available, difficulty with printing thin objects, and struggles with overhanging models.
This can be helped by printing with support — a sacrificial, breakaway structure — but this can be difficult to get right and removal can be a gigantic pain.
On the other hand, SLA printers start where FDM/FFF printers stop, with SLA printer's lowest level of resolution being on par with the highest available on FDM. These printers use a tank of resin or other similar substance, then uses a laser to cure it. The model is still built layer-by-layer but this method of fabrication makes exceptionally detailed structures easily produced with a great surface finish. These printers can also handle delicate geometries and overhanging parts with ease..
However, while these printers have unparalleled detail, they are usually more expensive initially, have a higher cost per print, and have a steeper learning curve. These probably aren't the best choice when you are first starting out unless you are a jeweler, artist, or someone who explicitly needs this level of resolution and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Step 3: New to 3D Printing? Prioritize Ease of Use.
Now that you have selected what type is the best match for you, it's time to take a realistic look at your experience and skill level. 3D printers are a relatively immature technology and even the most user-friendly model out there will take a bit of a learning curve, whether it's finding models to print, learning the meaning of all the setting in the slicing software, learning what slicing software is and why you need it, picking the right type of filament, or 3D ink, and discovering the limitations of your printer. While this may sound overwhelming, it is doable with just a little bit of research and practice.
However, it is important to not overestimate your technical skill level and overall technical savviness. Getting a bargain deal on a 3D printer is great but in the long run can end up costing more in frustration when it proves to be extremely unreliable and require constant maintenance. If you don't have the skills or patience to work on the printer, you will end up spending more time cursing the printer than using it. Established companies that have reliable customer service and support will be much more helpful at answering questions, have more detailed and complete documentations, and have an established protocol for repairing or replacing parts of your machine if it breaks — though these models may cost slightly more.
Less expensive models from overseas based companies may come at a bargain price but you may be largely on your own or stuck reading forums without proper documentation and watching videos on the internet to troubleshoot or fix problems. We would recommend that new users get a model that scores well in our Ease of Use metric as well as our Support and Reliability metric.
Step 4: Advanced Features or Other Special Concerns?
Now that you have narrowed down your selection considerably, your final choice can be made by looking at any special features that you are looking for. If you want to print BIG things, then getting the model that has the largest printable volume is the choice for you. However, many software programs allow you to split large models into sections for easy printing in smaller machines. Models that have at least an 8"x8"x8" build area will be able to print the vast majority of model without splitting and is a good, middle-of-the-road build envelope to start with if you are unsure.
You should also consider the amount of space you have available for your new printer. The smaller models with correspondingly smaller build areas are suitable for a portion of your desk or a small table. Larger models require a significant amount of real estate and can strongly benefit from a dedicated station or workbench. In addition to the printer itself, you also need to budget some space for storage of filament and a small assortment of tools … and space to display all of your newly 3D Printed knick-knacks, of course.
Finally, you can look at the temperature range or filament types that work with the printers you are considering to help make your final choice. The temperature range of the extruder will dictate what materials you can print with, whether you are limited to the two most common plastic: PLA and ABS, or if you can branch out to specialty materials with unique properties, such as nylon, carbon fiber filled, wood filled, bronze filled, PETG, or T-Glase.
You will also want to check if the printer is compatible with generic filament or will only work with the manufacturer. It usually is slightly more expensive but less of a hassle to use a printer that works with proprietary filament as you can use preset settings. However, you are restricted to the selection available from the manufacturer, which may not include all of those specialty filaments listed above
You are now set to pick out the perfect 3D printer for your needs. Hopefully this guide has been helpful and make it a little easier to get you on your way to 3D printing. Take a look at our How We Test article for a more detailed breakdown of our testing and evaluating process or our comprehensive 3D Printer review to see which models came out on top and why. The next sections give some more background information on the various types and technologies of currently available printers, as well as some different ways to get files to print.
Other Types and Technologies of 3D Printers
In addition to FDM/FFF and SLA mentioned above, there are a few other types of machines available.
Excited about 3D printing but don't want to spend hundreds of bucks? Then you may want to consider a 3D printing pen. While these are mainly toys and will not produce physical objects anywhere close to the quality from a 3D printer, these are a fun way to play with the technology for less than $50.
Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS is a highly precise method of 3D printing. Parts are formed by a laser sintering, or melting, together a powdered material to form a cohesive object. These printers can actually print in metal, using a high-powered laser to melt metal powder together. As you can imagine, these are complex, expensive, and mainly suited to labs, studios, or other industrial applications.
The technology behind these machines is always evolving, whether it is bioprinting replacement organs or printing at lightning fast speeds using Terminator-inspired ideas, 3D printers are constantly evolving. However, similar to most cutting edge technologies, there is a noticeable lag between the development of these techniques and their incorporation into consumer products. For now, home 3D printers will primarily print plastic, using FFF or SLA technologies … or print pancakes, of course.
How to Find Things to Print
Finally, after all of the research, you've made your final decision, got your printer, set it up, and printed the sample prints … now what? There are literally endless possibilities that you can make on your new machine. Below are a few of the different places where you can find the next thing to print.
Online File Repositories
One of the easiest places to get 3D files to print is to download them directly from the internet. Many of these sites, such as Thingiverse, one of the most popular online 3D printing communities, or Pinshape, an up and coming site that is growing more and more popular. These sites offer tons of files for free, usually under an open source license. In addition to offering files, these sites will occasionally host contests and challenges with prizes. There are tons of other options out there as well, these two sites are just two of the most prominent.
Draw Your Own
Bored of printing other designers' work? Can't find what you are looking for? Then it may be time to take up drawing your own using a CAD, or Computer Aided Design program. While professional CAD programs can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years to learn, there are a handful of free programs out there that aren't too difficult to learn, such as Google Sketchup, TinkerCAD, and Blender. Sketchup and TinkerCAD have reasonably shallow learning curves, while Blender can be quite intimidating for the novice. Luckily, there is an enormous selections of online resources or classes to learn from for these programs.
The final method to create a 3D file is by scanning, using a 3D scanner (or a 3D scanning attachment for your mobile device) or by photogrammetry — a process for combining many 2D photos of an object into a 3D printable file. Scanners have mixed results and can represent a significant investment, ranging from a few hundred bucks to several thousand. Photogrammetry works well with simple objects, with many apps and programs being able to accomplish this task, but can struggle with more complicated ones. Some of the newer 3D printers even have a built-in scanner, allowing them to act as a sort of 3-Dimensional photocopy machine.
Hopefully you have found this guide useful and our a little further along on your path to finding the perfect 3D printer and figuring out how to use it. Our complete review is linked below, or you can peruse our How We Test article for a comprehensive look at our testing and ranking procedures.