In the market for a 3D printer? Here's what you need to know

Krishan Sharma
Technology Journalist

Krishan Sharma is a freelance journalist who writes for various consumer tech and business IT publications

Krishan Sharma
Technology Journalist

Krishan Sharma is a freelance journalist who writes for various consumer tech and business IT publications

Before you invest in a 3D printer, there are some key things to be aware of which could ultimately save you time, money and frustration. Here’s what you need to know.

3D printing has long been the domain of commercial companies and industrial designers, but as the technology develops desktop 3D printers are more affordable. This means startups and hobbyists are now benefiting from the technology as well. After all, who wouldn’t want a machine that can build physical objects on demand? Whether it’s quickly turning around prototypes or making homemade replacements for hard-to-find parts, the possibilities with 3D printing are virtually endless.

3d printer illustration

Expectation management − What a desktop 3D printer can and can’t do

It’s still early days for desktop 3D printing so there are still limitations.

Firstly, the 3D printers on the market now are limited to two types of plastic − PLA and the slightly tougher ABS plastic. Thankfully, you are now able to print objects using multiple coloured plastics with printers such as the Cubify 2. It’s worth noting that there are a few desktop 3D printers available, such as the Hyrel E2 that can handle more flexible materials like clay and silicone. While industrial 3D printing machines are capable of printing in many materials like nylon, metals and moulded polystyrene, it will take some time for those capabilities to trickle down to the world of desktop 3D printers. 

There is also extensive research looking into 3D printing machines that are capable of using conductive material to produce electronic objects but it’s an area with engineering hurdles that will take some time to overcome. So, printing your own robots and smartphones with your new 3D printer is not a reality, at least for now.

Take it to the limit

Another limitation to be aware of are the size restrictions which varies from printer to printer. It’s important to remember that even the best desktop 3D printers can only build objects up to the size of a shoebox. One such example is the MakerBot Replicator 2 which has a build area of 25 x 15 x 15 cm. It shouldn’t deter anyone looking to print small parts or design prototypes, but it’s an important consideration for those who plan on using a 3D printer for producing larger objects. That said, most print jobs can be split into smaller parts that can be combined after printing, so the size of the build area may not be quite as limiting as it first appears.

Above all else, you will need a lot of patience when using a 3D printer. Converting a digital design into a small, plastic 3D object can often take many hours and it’s not unusual to have to wait a day or two for more complex model.

Four of the best 3D printers to suit any budget

When investing in a 3D printer, cost will always be the biggest factor. But, as is the case with paper based printers, the sticker price is only half the story. Running costs such as the type of plastic it uses (PLA is cheaper than ADS), warranty periods, manufacturer support and spare part prices should all be variables taken into consideration when assessing the cost of a machine.

  1. Budget 3D printer: XYZ Printing Da Vinci - The Da Vinci 1.0 from XYZprinting offers one of the largest build volumes of up to 20 x 20 x 20 cm, allowing for larger printable objects. It is an enclosed machine, preventing inadvertent encounters with hot plastic and also ensures that printing byproducts aren’t released outside the printing area. Reasonable print speeds (150 mm a second) with a plug-and-play setup round out a solid performer for the budget buyer.
  2. Best 3D printer under $1000: Cubify Cube 3 - The Cubify Cube 3 is at the top of the list for a few key reasons. Firstly, unlike its competitors it is dead simple to operate, making it a great entry point for newcomers. Secondly, you can use either ABS or PLA plastic and it is compatible with 20 different coloured plastics. It is also easy to swap out with a sealed cartridge based system. The Cubify Cube 3 is expected to go on sale within the next couple of months, but for those eager to dive in now, its predecessor, Cube 2, is a worthy alternative.
  3. Best 3D printer between $2000 − $3000: Hyrel E2 Hobbyist - The Hyrel E2 is the most versatile 3D printer on the list. The printer supports up to four extruders, for printing multiple copies of objects at once or using multiple materials or colours with one object. The extruders are swappable with optional accessories such as the EM025 extruder which can print objects using alternative materials such as air-dried clay, silicone, Play-Doh and Sugru − useful for printing flexible objects. The company is planning to expand the optional extruder line with other materials like Nylon later on down the track. For users who desire to print objects in materials that go beyond the usual ABS and PLA plastic, the Hyrel E2 is an excellent desktop 3D printer option.
  4. Best 3D printer for small business or the serious user from $8000: Stratasys Mojo - Small businesses that require a 3D printer for daily use need a machine that provides rock solid reliability and tech support. Stratasys Mojo checks all those boxes and also comes with some useful features of its own. Stratasys Mojo is a commercial grade printer with a hobby build-size; it uses a proprietary ABSPlus thermoplastic, which the company claim is more suited to making complex and larger objects. Another useful feature is the ability to print with a water-soluble material (SR-30) for building complex objects that can be quickly dissolved with water. This machine is a worthwhile investment for anyone who will be using 3D printing as a central part of their business.

How to get started with your new 3D printer

So you have a brand new 3D printer ready to go but now what? Just like paper based printers, you will need to feed it content to print. There are three ways to do this. The easiest way is to download the 3D digital files from printing sites such as Thingiverse and Youimagine. Both websites house an extensive collection of designs that are handily categorised from household items, tools and gadget accessories to fashion and art.

The other option is investing in a 3D scanner − a handheld device that can scan real life objects and produce a 3D design file ready for print. Again, this was once an area exclusive to the commercial sector but the consumerisation of 3D printers has spawned budget friendly 3D scanners for the masses.

The Sense 3D Scanner by Cubify is a popular scanner. If you feel out of your depth using 3D modeling applications and if you really need to print custom objects, then something like the Sense 3D scanner is a wise choice.

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