These 3-D printer things sound pretty cool, right? Prototypes printed right on your desktop! All you need is a CAD file (your own or one of thousands from an online database like the Etsy-esque Shapeways) to turn digital dreams to plastic reality. But as 3-D printing becomes more popular, the number of consumer devices available for purchase is exploding. Which one should you buy? Here’s a breakdown, by cost, of the best consumer 3-D printers on the market today.
If you’re looking to spend under $1,000, don’t expect perfect, prototype-ready builds without working for it. If you’re okay with sacrificing some quality or assembling your own machine, these models should suit you well.
The cheapest mass-market model available today is the $299 Printrbot Simple. While this model hasn’t been professionally reviewed (it only hit the Maker Faire last May), it’s an affordable and adorable trial option. At 3.5"x3.5"x3.5", it likely has the smallest build area on the market. Like its bigger brother, the $500 Printrbot Jr., it can only handle PLA filament, not ABS filament (lacking a heated baseplate) and cannot connect via Wi-Fi, relying on a USB cable. Both are basic, light, and perfectly good starter models, but shouldn’t be counted on if you need to print medium or high-quality prototypes.
Taiwanese Kinpo Group just announced their XYZprinting line, which includes the vaunted $499 "da Vinci" model. The da Vinci will print using fused filament fabrication (FFF), the same additive manufacturing process as Stratasys’s (needlessly trademarked) "fused deposition modeling" (FDM). Although the processes are similar to desktop models that cost upwards of $1,400, the da Vinci has yet to be reviewed for build quality. The da Vinci should be available to order in September, with XYZprinting hoping to ship to the U.S., Japan, and Europe in early 2014 by partnering with local and online retailers based in those countries.
Imagine a cheap, efficient 3-D printer that can print out more 3-D printers. For consumers willing to build their own, the RepRap line of open-source printers includes many options at a number of price points. The catch is that the printers must be assembled, but most parts can be printed out from another machine, meaning that the cost goes down once you’ve built your first unit. If you’re just starting your RepRap printer army, you can order a kit for a Prusa model (for larger projects) for about $439 without printed parts or a kit for a Huxley model (smaller desktop footprint) for about $621.
If GNU and Share-Alike Creative Commons are your jam, these are fabulously cheap options that have been around for long enough to offer quality builds and a dedicated community to troubleshoot your 3-D printing needs. Other open-source 3-D printer kits can be compared here. And the best part about RepRap’s hacker community? They’ll often post "build days" in metropolitan areas where novices and veterans alike come together with a ton of parts and leave with a printer at the end of the day. You go, hackers.
The mid-$1,000 range offers plenty of choices of machines that strike a good balance between more features, better builds, and ease-of-use. Almost all models at this price range have heated base plates, allowing them to print with ABS material, which has its own advantages and disadvantages compared to PLA.
Though it’s an affordable, sleek-looking machine that easily connects to your computer over Wi-Fi, Cubify’s entry-level model, the $1,299 Cube, is somewhat disappointing if you want to experiment with your own designs or figure out why a certain design just won’t print right. The Cube prints in both PLA and ABS (provided you buy the new, post-2012 model).
The $1,559 Afinia H-Series H479 is a solid choice in the price range. The H479 has a higher resolution than the Cube, printing at a minimum 150 microns per layer compared to the cub’s 200 microns, and prints in both PLA and ABS. Afinia’s printer software sits between 3D Systems’ sparse printing options and Makerbot’s fine-tunable control. Its 5"x5"x5" printing baseplate is comparable to the Cube’s.
The Lulzbot AO-101 is another solid choice, primarily distinguished from the competition by its broader (but not taller) printing baseplate (7"x7"x3.9"). It also has a micro SD card slot that designs can be uploaded from, although it lacks Wi-Fi connectivity.
If you really want to get serious, you’ll need to spend north of $2,000. You’ll get amazing resolution for this price, but to achieve it you’ll have to sacrifice speed and, if you venture into industrial-style stereolithography, the number of downloadable printer files available for these models.
The Replicator 2 is still the best sub-$3,000 model when it comes to resolution, offering a minimum of 100 microns to the 125 microns of CubeX, Cubify’s midrange model. The replicator can also print in a greater variety of midlevel resolutions than the competition. There’s a catch, however: The Replicator 2 achieves that level of accuracy by only printing in PLA, a material that is much less finicky than ABS. The Replicator 2X adds ABS printing functionality, a heated base plate, and a second extruder head for printing in two colors simultaneously, but that drives the price up to $2,799.
While the mid-range Cube is limited, Cubify’s higher-end model, the $2,499 CubeX, takes a favorable lead in most reviews over the crowd favorite Makerbot Replicator 2. Reviewers primarily cite the CubeX’s larger build area, which is 66% deeper and 33% higher (10.8"x10.45"x9.5" for the CubeX, 11.2"x6"x6.1" for the Replicator 2). The price goes up rapidly if you want a dual- or triple-color model ($2,799 for two-color Replicator 2X, $3,249 for two-color CubeX, $3,999 for three-color CubeX), but the additional modules can be purchased after-market and easily installed.
If you want cutting edge, the Form 1 3-D printer is the best bet. Formalabs’s innovative desktop printer dominated its Kickstarter last September, raising 29 times its $100,000 goal, so it’s no surprise that the resulting model is sleek and dependable. The Form 1 steps away from the FFF/FDM additive printing, instead opting for an industrial technique called stereolithography. Instead of printing layer by layer, the printer works by pointing a laser through resin, which selectively hardens layers. The process, called photopolymerization, achieves a stunning minimum resolution of 25 microns, but the process takes more time. Switching to stereolithography also means a little bit of hoop-jumping to translate STL files from object databases using a program called PreForm that automatically adds scaffolds to 3-D designs so they can be printed on the Form 1. The resin, which costs $149 per liter (enough to make about 76 chess pieces), is currently only available in clear and gray.
[Images Courtesy of Lulzbot]