The capabilities of 3-D print technology are ushering in a new paradigm of possibility, granting the power to create whatever you want, when you want, to your exact specifications. Although there is a long road ahead before 3-D printing reaches the pinnacle of its production potential, it’s already becoming the boon of small businesses owners and tinkering teenagers alike. If you’re considering getting into 3-D printing, whether as a hobbyist or entrepreneur, you’re not alone. There are quite a few things to take into consideration, however, not the least of which is what you’re prepared to spend. If you’re not already familiar with the features and specifications described below, you’ll most likely want to brush up before reaching for your wallet.
Build area refers to the maximum dimensions a printer is capable of outputting and is typically described in measurements of width, depth, and height. Although a smaller build area places limits on how big of an object you can print, bear in mind that many jobs can be divided into multiple parts.
Extruders are the parts of filament printers which form the printed object by pushing out the print material into layers on the build surface. While there are advantages to a printer with multiple extruders, most more affordable machines have only a single extruder, meaning it can print in just one color and material at a time.
Print speed is exactly what it sounds like; how quickly the extruder can change direction while layering print material. A faster-advertised print speed normally translates to more rapid prints, but the duration of a job is also affected by the material being used, as well as the complexity of the job’s design. The more edges in your design, the longer it will take to print.
The resolution, just like in paper printers, determines the level of detail that can be produced by a given machine. Horizontal resolution refers to the smallest possible movement that an extruder can make within one printed level. Vertical resolution, also called layer thickness, refers to the minimum depth that can be printed in a single pass. With both kinds of resolution, a smaller value means smoother and more detailed prints.
You’ll find that you can buy a 3-D printer in one of two ways: factory assembled (plug and play) or as a kit you put together yourself. Pre-assembled models are easier to get your feet wet with, but the process of assembling one at home can provide a foundation of knowledge for how the machine works, and even make it possible for you to modify it once it’s functional, tailoring it to your specific needs. You might worry about the difficulty of self-assembly, but most kits are on the level of a typical Lego set.
Types of Printers
Whether you’re just getting into the 3-D scene, or looking for an upgrade to your current printer, the following selection has something in it for nearly everyone.
Entry-Level Filament Printers
On the plus side, these printers aren’t too complex for beginners, can use filament of many colors, and often come with basic software. On the other hand, they only print with just one extruder, and typically have a small build area. Here are some examples:
The Peachy Printer (currently available for pre-order) is the least expensive 3-D printer on the market. At just $100, it may not have the pedigree of some of the better-known machines, but per its designers, it packs a powerful punch, and maybe the perfect product for those who want to experience 3-D without breaking the bank.
The Macio, available for $200-$300, is made to be both affordable and reliable. Despite a minimal build area that limits it to small jobs, this printer is another great choice for an entry-level hobbyist or creative designer.
Printout comes in various sizes, and ranges in price from $250-$1,000, but is highly customizable and capable of completing much larger tasks than the first two printers listed here. These award-winning machines are great for a beginner, but can also keep an experienced print designer or 3-D printing entrepreneur quite happy.
Higher-End Filament Printers
Many of these machines offer better resolution and bigger build areas, come with multiple extruders, and can use other mediums besides plastic, enabling designers to branch out into projects that involve clay or other flexible materials. Do watch out for the hidden costs of undertaking large projects with various materials, though.
The RepRap Mendel, at $1,595 for a kit (or less, if you source the parts yourself), is a moderately sophisticated machine that is still relatively affordable. It’s small enough to fit on your desk but can print in large volumes. It’s also light, portable, simple to assemble, and has the added benefit of being a widely-used model with lots of online support available.
Ultimate 2 is an elegant machine in both looks and design and can produce high-quality prints. Its price tag of $2,500 requires a bit more investment than some others in its category but is well worth it in terms of build area, material compatibility, and detail. Ultimate also offers its own design software, called Cure, which is a plus for many users.
The Hire E3 is an example of a machine that can print with any air-dried material. With a built-in Windows computer, touch screen, heated build platform, and a sturdy aluminum structure, this printer is considered a great value, coming in at under $1,500. Best of all, everything you need comes in one box.
If you have a bit more in your budget, you might be looking for one of these SLA models, many of which use photosensitive resin, digital projection, and very high resolution, resulting in highly detailed prints.