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Ready to bring your three-dimensional creations to life? Heres everything you need to know to choose the right 3D printer.
3D printersare here. Theyre hip. In fact theyre cool as all get-out. You know you want one. But its important to know how 3D printers differ from one another, in order to choose the right model for you. 3D printer models come in a variety of styles, and may be optimized for a particular audience or kind of printing. Preparing to take the plunge? Read on.
Tied into the question of what you want to print is a more fundamental question: Why do you want to print in 3D? Are you a consumer who wants to print toys and/or household items? A trendsetter who enjoys showing the latest gadgetry to your friends? Are you 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 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 working with melted plastic? Or a manufacturer, looking to print plastic items in relatively short runs?
Your optimal 3D printer depends on your planned use for it. Consumers and schools will want a model thats easy to set up and use, doesnt require much maintenance, and has reasonably good print quality. Hobbyists and artists may want special features, like the ability to print objects with more than one color, or to use multiple filament types. Designers and other professionals will want very high resolution. Shops involved in short-run manufacturing will want a large build area to print multiple objects at once. Individuals or businesses that want to show off the wonders of 3D printing to friends or clients will want a handsome, yet reliable machine.
For this buying 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), although that term is trademarked by Stratasys, Inc. A few use stereolithographythe first 3D printing technique to be developedin which lasers trace a pattern on a photosensitive liquid resin, hardening the resin to form the object.
How Large Are the Objects You Want to Print?
Make sure that a 3D printers 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 theoryit may be somewhat less if the build platform is not exactly level, for example). Typical 3D printers have build areas ranging from about 6 to 9 inches square, but they can be anything from a few inches up to more than two feet on a side, and they are not necessarily square. In our reviews, we give 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-filled 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. They each have different melt points, so use of these exotic filaments is limited to those printers with software that lets users control the extruder temperature.
Filament comes in two diameters1.85mm and 3mmwith most models using the smaller-diameter filament. Filament is sold in spools, generally 1kg (2.2 pounds), and sells for between $20 and $50 per kg for ABS and PLA. Although many 3D printers will accept generic spools, some companies 3D printers use proprietary spools or cartridges. Make sure that the filament is the right diameter for your printer, and that whatever spool you use is of a size that is compatible with your printer, though in many cases you can buy or make (even 3D print) a spool holder that will fit different-size spools.
Stereolithography printers eschew filament in favor of photosensitive (UV-curable) liquid resin, which is sold in bottles. Stereolithography is capable of very high-resolution prints. There is a limited color palette available: mainly clear, white, gray, black, and gold. Working with liquid resin and isopropyl alcohol, which is used in the finishing process for stereolithography prints, can be messy.
The importance of the build platform (the surface on which you are printing) may not be apparent to 3D printing newbies, but it can prove critical in practice. A good platform will let an object adhere to it while printing, but allow for easy removal when the printing is done. The most common configuration is a heated glass platform covered with blue painters tape or a similar surface. Objects stick to the tape reasonably well, and are easy to remove when completed. Heating the platform can prevent the bottom corners of objects from curling upward, which is a common issue when printing with ABS.
With some build platforms, one applies glue (from a glue stick) to the surface for the object to adhere to. This is workable, as long as the object can easily be removed after printing. (In some cases, you have to soak both platform and object in warm water for the object to come lose.)
A few 3D printers use a sheet of perforated board with tiny holes that fill with hot plastic during printing. The trouble with this method is that although it will hold an object solidly in place during printing, the object may not easily come lose afterwards. Using a thumbtack or awl to push the plugs of hardened plastic out of the perforations to free the object and/or clean the board is a time-consuming process, and can damage the board.
If the build platform becomes tilted, it can impede printing, particularly of larger objects. Most 3D printers offer instructions on how to level the build platform, or let you run a calibration routine in which the extruder moves to different points on the platform to ensure that the points are all at the same height. A few printers automatically level the build platform.
Setting the extruder at the proper height above the build platform when commencing a print job is also important. Such Z-axis calibration is usually performed manually, by lowering the extruder until its so close to the build platform that a sheet of paper placed between extruder and platform can move horizontally with slight resistance. A few printers automatically perform this calibration.
How Do You Want to Connect to Your 3D Printer?
With most 3D printers, you initiate the printing from a computer over a USB connection. Some printers add their own internal memory, which is an advantage because they can keep a print job in memory and continue printing even if the USB cable is disconnected or the computer is shut down. A few offer wireless connectivity, generally a direct, peer-to-peer link rather than Wi-Fi. A downside of wireless is that it can take much longer to transfer the files than it would over a USB connection.
Many 3D printers have SD card slots from which you can load and print 3D object files using the printers controls and display, while a few have ports for USB thumb drives. The advantage of printing from either of these media is that you can print independently from a computer. The downside is that they add an extra step, in transferring the files to your card. Usually wireless, SD-card, or USB thumb-drive connectivity is offered in addition to USB cable, although a few models offer one or more of those options instead of a USB link to your computer.
Do You Want an Open or Closed Frame?
Closed-frame 3D printers have an enclosed structure with a door, walls, and a lid, while open-frame models lack these. The advantages of an open-frame model are that it provides easy visibility of a print job in progress, and easy access to the print bed and extruder. A closed-frame model is safer, keeping kids and pets (and adults) from accidentally touching the hot extruder. It provides for quieter operation, reducing fan noise. And it can reduce possible odor from printing with ABS, which can exude what some users describe as a burnt-plastic smell.
Do You Want to Print Objects in Two (or More) Colors?
Some 3D printers with multiple extruders can print objects in two or more colors. Most are dual-extruder models, with each extruder being fed a different color of filament. One caveat is they can only print multicolored objects from files that have been designed for multicolor printing, with a separate file for each color, so the areas of different colors fit together like (3-dimensional) jigsaw puzzle pieces.
What Software Do You Need for 3D Printing?
Todays 3D printers come with software on a disk or as a download. Its Windows compatible, and in many cases can work with OS X and Linux as well. Not long ago, 3D printing software consisted of several parts, including a printing program that controls the motion of the extruder, a healing program to optimize the file to be printed, a slicer to prepare the layers to be printed at the proper resolution, and the Python programming language. These components were derived from the RepRap open-source tradition that spurred the development of low-cost 3D printers, but today 3D printer manufacturers have integrated them into seamless, and for the most part user-friendly, packages. Some 3D printers allow you to use separate component programs if you prefer.
A 3D printer extrudes (deposits) successive thin layers of molten plastic in accordance with instructions coded in the file for the object being printed. For 3D printing, resolution equals layer height. Resolution is measured in microns, with a micron being .001 mm, and the lower the number, the higher the resolution. Thats because the thinner each layer is, the more layers are needed to print any given object, and the finer the detail that can be captured.
Nearly all 3D printers being sold today can print at a resolution of 200 micronswhich should produce decent-quality printsor better, and many can print at 100 microns, which generally delivers good-quality prints. A few can print at higher resolutions still, as fine as 20 microns, but you may have to go beyond the preset resolutions and into custom settings to enable resolutions finer than 100 microns.
Higher resolution comes at a price, as youll pay a premium for printers with resolutions higher than 100 microns. Another downside of increasing the resolution is that it can add to print times. Halving the resolution will roughly double the time it takes to print a given object. But for professionals who require the highest quality in the objects they print, the extra time will be worth it.
Check out our guide tohow 3D printers work, as well as ourtop picksin the category. And be sure to check out our gallery ofsimple and practical 3D printer objects.
As Analyst for printers, scanners, and projectors, Tony Hoffman tests and reviews these products and provides news coverage for these categories. Tony has worked at PC Magazine since 2004, first as a Staff Editor, then as Reviews Editor, and more recently as Managing Editor for the printers, scanners, and projectors team. In addition to editing, Tony has written articles on digital photography and reviews of digital cameras, PCs, and iPhone apps Prior to joining the PCMag team, Tony worked for 17 years in magazine and journal…More
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