There are many options out there when it comes to 3D printers, from the hobbyist level all the way to entry-level professional models. A variety of printers offer options ranging from heated build beds to proprietary super deluxe software. It can be hard to filter through the jargon and figure out what you actually need for your application. Because of this, it can be very easy to get carried away and spend a lot more than you should on features and extras that you don’t need.
It is crucial to establish a budget and a set of functional requirements before you start shopping around. This will allow you to find the best printer for your own needs. There is no “one size fits all” printer because each individual’s needs are different, and there is a huge variety of printers out there in the entry to intermediate level range. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are both constantly churning out new printers.
1. What materials do you want to print?
The first thing to consider after you know your budget range is what type(s) of material do you want to print. It is possible to work with everything from chocolate to ceramic. So, start by determining what type of material you need.
2. How much resolution do you need?
The second step is to decide how much resolution you need. Better resolution will add cost to the printer. If you aren’t sure what you need, start by looking at parts printed on a few different printers. You will be able to see what different resolutions look like in the finishes of various parts. A great place to check out 3D printers is at the Microsoft store if you have one in your local mall. If this isn’t an option, companies like Shapeways and Sculpteo will print out parts for you. In addition, there are maker fairs and such that usually have a 3D Printer surrounded by a crowd of people eager to show off their knowledge.
3. Consider frequency and type of use
If you will be using it daily with limited breakdowns (as opposed to one-offs) then your budget will probably be $2,000 and up. Two printers to check out in this range are the Form 1 ($3,299) and Stratasys Mojo ($9,900). On the other end of the spectrum in the $500 range are Kinpo da Vinci, Makerbot, Printrbot, and Reprap. These machines are more for the hobbyist and will not hold up as long in a production-type environment.
4. What part size do you need to print?
The build table size will also drive your printer cost up considerably. Consider the type of part you are likely to be working with, and make sure the table will accommodate your parts. Any additional table size will cost you extra money unnecessarily.
5. Check software compatibility
Look at what types of programs are compatible with each machine. It is good to know if you will be able to use the programs you like or if you will be locked into using specific proprietary software (or if you will be required to purchase specific proprietary parts). Some machines also require you to purchase material from a specific company, so it’s worth looking at that as well.
6. What’s the deal with the support material?
Another point that you will need to consider is how the support material is removed from the parts and from the printer. Some machine models may require extra time or tools that you are not willing to spend on (like in the case of the Stratasys, which uses a plethora of build trays).
7. Consider assembly and maintenance requirements
Be honest with yourself about how much time you want to spend on assembly and general maintenance of your printer. Even some professional level models must be cleaned after every print to keep them running at optimal conditions. If you are not the kind of person who wants to put together the printer, or spend time taking it apart to figure out why the resolution is slipping, then a Makerbot or Reprap is probably not your best option.
8. Which type of printer bed do you want?
Decide whether you want an open or fully enclosed printer bed. The fully enclosed bed will cost more money, but may be worth it for the increased protection of your parts. Open-bed printers are exposed to the environment, and small vibrations caused by walking around the printer or even a cold draft can affect the nozzle enough to cause the part to look strange. Keep that in mind when you see the companies’ videos of their printer working perfectly.
9. See before you buy
Lastly, you should witness your printer work in person before buying, especially if it is one of the “prosumer” models. At the very least talk to someone who is a regular user of that model and ask them any questions you might have. The printer’s build time, how long it takes to clean the parts, how expensive the materials are, what software comes with it, the necessary file types, etc. are all important points which you should be able to verify by talking with other users. Internet forums are a good place to find experienced users.
You will notice that the printer’s speed is not included in this list. This is because the printing speed should be dictated by the quality, material, and process.
Start by deciding on the features and requirements that you will need, evaluate several printers in your price range, and stick to your plan when you start down the buying path. There is a lot of hype in the 3D printer market and it is very easy to get carried away and buy something you do not need. Stick to the plan and follow these tips and you will be happy with the machine you choose.