Not Just For Professionals
Barely a decade ago, 3D printers were hulking, expensive machines reserved for factories and well-heeled corporations. They were all but unknown outside the small circles of professionals who built and used them. But thanks largely to the RepRap open-source 3D printing movement, these amazing devices have become viable and affordable products for use by designers, engineers, hobbyists, schools, and even consumers. If you're in the market for one, it's important to know how 3D printers differ from one another so you can choose the right model. They come in a variety of styles, and may be optimized for a particular audience or kind of printing. Preparing to take the plunge? Here's what you need to consider.
What Do You Want to Print?
Tied into the matter of what you want to print is a more fundamental question: Why do you want to print in 3D? Are you a consumer interested in printing toys and/or household items? A trendsetter who enjoys showing the latest gadgetry to your friends? An educator seeking to install a 3D printer in a classroom, library, or community center? A hobbyist or DIYer who likes to experiment with new projects and technologies? A designer, engineer, or architect who needs to create prototypes or models of new products, parts, or structures? An artist who seeks to explore the creative potential of fabricating 3D objects? Or a manufacturer, looking to print plastic items in relatively short runs?
Your optimal 3D printer depends on how you plan to use it. Consumers and schools will want a model that's easy to set up and use, doesn't require much maintenance, and has reasonably good print quality. Hobbyists and artists may want special features, such as the ability to print objects with more than one color, or to use multiple filament types. Designers and other professionals will want outstanding print quality. Shops involved in short-run manufacturing will want a large build area to print multiple objects at once. Individuals or businesses wanting to show off the wonders of 3D printing to friends or clients will want a handsome, yet reliable machine.
For this guide, we will focus on 3D printers in the sub-$4,000 range, targeted at consumers, hobbyists, schools, product designers, and other professionals, such as engineers and architects. The vast majority of printers in this range build 3D objects out of successive layers of molten plastic, a technique known as fused filament fabrication (FFF). It is also frequently called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).
What Size Objects Do You Want to Print?
Make sure that a 3D printer's build area is large enough for the kind of objects that you intend to print with it. The build area is the size, in three dimensions, of the largest object that can be printed with a given printer (at least in theory—it may be somewhat less if the build platform is not exactly level, for example). Typical 3D printers have build areas between 6 and 9 inches square, but they can range from a few inches up to more than 2 feet on a side, and a few are actually square. In our reviews, we provide the build area in inches, in height, width, and depth (HWD).
What Materials Do You Want to Print With?
The vast majority of lower-priced 3D printers use the FFF technique, in which plastic filament, available in spools, is melted and extruded, and then solidifies to form the object. The two most common types of filament by far are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Each has slightly different properties. For example, ABS melts at a higher temperature than PLA and is more flexible, but emits fumes when melted that many users find unpleasant, and needs a heated print bed. PLA prints look smooth, but tend to be on the brittle side.
Other materials used in FFF printing include, but are not limited to, high-impact polystyrene (HIPS), wood, bronze, and copper composite filaments, UV-luminescent filaments, nylon, Tritan polyester, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), polyethylene terephthalate (PETT), polycarbonate, conductive PLA and ABS, plasticized copolyamide thermoplastic elastomer (PCTPE), and PC-ABS. Each material has a different melt point, so use of these exotic filaments is limited to printers designed for them, or ones with software that lets users control the extruder temperature.
The Best 3D Printers of 2017 October 2017 Update - MINGDA MD-16 desktop mini 3D printer, Filament comes in 1.75mm. Filament is sold in spools, generally 1kg (2.2 pounds), and sells for between $13 and $20 per kilogram for ABS and PLA.