Okay, let’s assume that you have decided to jump into the 3D printing pool. If you haven’t yet, please don’t turn off this series, as I will be doing an upcoming chapter on your options should you not want to do your own 3D printing.
I am not going to do specific recommendations as to brands and models. I think that would be a little too subjective, and the market and the technology is too fluid to identify a specific model. I will, however, toss out some words of caution.
We all want to find the right balance of value and quality, but I tend to want to tip the scale to quality. The adage of “penny wise, pound foolish” is one you will want to keep in mind. Saving $80 by skipping on the heated build plate may seem logical until you realize your prints are consistently failing to seat on the plate. I have an acquaintance who bought a new entry level economy car and skipped the air conditioning option, which when combined with the mandatory “environmental” tax on that option, runs to an additional $1800 or so. At the dealership sales desk the decision made sense. But when you are stuck in traffic in August with an outside Humidex reading of 42C the logic of that choice may be less solid. Add in the reduced value on the resale market. The same rationale applies to 3D printers. So please don’t sell yourself short when choosing quality over price.
As I said the 3D printing market is rapidly evolving and returning to my comparison of the early home computer market, you will see brands come onto the market and many will no doubt disappear overnight. After all, who remembers Wang Laboratories computers now? If you were born after 1990 you will likely Google that to make sure I am not making that up (I am not).
What should I look for in my first printer?
I am going to work on the basis you are looking at an FDM printer (filament). If you are set on an SLA printer, please hold on, and I will touch on that later in the article.
You should ensure a printer that has:
- A heated build plate / printer bed. The “build plate” or the ‘printer bed” is the base on which the filament is laid down by the extruder and upon which your model will be laid down. A heated bed is common now on all but the lowest end printers. Again, it’s my opinion, but please don’t buy a printer without one. You will regret it. You can print successfully without a heated bed, but the heated bed provides a consistent temperature for your filament and help mitigate the variable temperatures of your work area. Many types of filament absolutely require a heated bed, and all will print much better with a heated bed. So please don’t skip on this.
- Open source hardware – As I touched on in the previous chapter, this is the norm with most 3D printers now, but there are still models with proprietary hardware and peripherals out there. Avoid that; it will make both printing (filament) and any replacement parts much more expensive and puts you at risk of obsolescence if the manufacturer disappears.
- A large enough build plate. Consider what you are planning on building in the future. When I first started into 3D printing, I was planning on building tanks and the like, but soon branched into landing craft and terrain items such as bridges – examples of these .stls are offered on my CGTrader and Thingiverse profiles. These really pushed the limits of the built plate size of my Prusa Mk2S, which measures 250mm L x 210mm W x 200mm H /84”L x 8.3”W x 8”H. If you just plan on printing AFVs build plate size won’t be too much of an issue but keep your options open. I would say do not go any smaller that the size noted above.
- Frame construction. The operation of an FDM printer involves a lot of mechanical movement . The extruder head or the build plate – dependent on the printer design- is going to be buzzing back and forth (your “X” and “Y” axis, and up and down on the “Z” axis). This movement will cause vibration. You want to ensure the frame of your printer is solid and sturdy. Ideally a metal frame is the gold standard.
What are some not so essential features?
I must state again that this is all just my own opinion, but there are some features that may be nice but aren’t essential for your first printer.
- Wi-Fi connection: some printers can link to your home computer via built in Wi-Fi connection. This allows you to send your gcode directly to your printer from your computer, as well as allowing easy software upgrades, which are fairly common. The alternate method is to load an SD card or USB stick from your computer and then loading the data into your printer from the SD/USB. The Wi-Fi is nice, but it isn’t essential.
- A printer enclosure: You will see several models of printers built within an enclosure. The pic below shows some Ultimaker printers, all fully enclosed models – see here:
The enclosures provide a temperature-controlled environment for printing with certain filaments – not the standard PLA you will start with but ones such as ABS and more exotic ones. The enclosures can also add some rigidity to the design. They do, however, limit access to the printer. If you browse some 3D printer sites you will see many examples of users who have converted a $10 Ikea “Lack” table into a printer enclosure. It may be a far better option to you than buying an enclosed printer.
Any suggested brands to look for? Look out for?
I don’t want to try to recommend a specific brand, but there are some well established brands in the current field, considering the very “new” nature of this market. These include
There are others, but these are the most common ones you will see , and that gives you the benefit of scale. They produce a range of FDM printers. I own a Prusa and am a proponent of their products, as they only sell direct and have a good support system. They are pricey, though, as they are built in the Czech Republic, not in China like so many of the others. I can’t begin to select a specific model or manufacturer for you; there are too many variables.
I do have to issue a caution, though. I have read too many posts of Anet (and Monoprice, you can prevent this by installing a Mosfet device) printers catching on fire. Seriously. Filament printing involves significant temperatures with their hot end and there is always the need for prudence. The Anet seems, however, to have a higher frequency for self-combustion. Here is just one of many legitimate internet posts on that topic.
When you narrow your focus onto a few makes and models, start doing some research; look for independent reviews on line, check who the poster of the review is and when it was published. A review of a new model at the time of its introduction may not be a valuable as one posted by a user after six months of ownership.
You said you would talk about SLA printers?
I did mention in Chapter 1 that I didn’t think an SLA printer was a best choice for a first printer, but if you heart is set on it, and you want to print finely detailed models, e.g. actual miniature figures, then from all I have read I would suggest you take a look at the Anycubic Proton. It is a reasonably priced entry level resin printer. Just be aware of that the process is completely different from printing with filament on an FDM printer.
Is there a useful source for video reviews, so I can see the printer in use?
I previously referred to the Maker’s Muse channel on YouTube. Another channel I find very objective and well produced is the 3D Printing Nerd. The host Joel gives some great reviews. Here is the link to his channel.
With both this channel and the Maker’s Muse, be sure to narrow down your search; if you just type in “best printer” you will be swamped with likely hundreds of videos. Ask instead “Maker’s Muse Creality CR-10 review” and the results will be focused and will be much more useful to you.
A Ready Built or a Kit? What is right for you?
Many manufacturers offer their printers as both pre-assembled and as kits. If you are comfortable with mechanics and like the hands-on, you can save anywhere from $150 to $300 off the price of an assembled one. You will likely find articles on line by people saying, “I built my printer in 10 hours!” but I assure you that was not their first printer build. I have read the first build can take somewhere up to 40 hours, as it is not just physical assembly that takes the time but also the alignment and calibration required.
It is up to you to decide what your time is worth and if you have the time, knowledge, patience and work space to complete an assembly. One benefit of doing your own assembly is that you will become much more familiar with the printer’s operation, just by having handled all the parts.
The assembly manuals for most printers can be overwhelming, but fortunately there are a lot of good videos on YouTube that will walk you through a lot of your issues. This applies to the full gamut of issues you may encounter. We truly do live in a wonderous time.
Spoiler Alert: I bought my printer fully assembled. I will likely get my next one as a kit, but I am easily overwhelmed by technology and the fully assembled unit allowed me to dig into the actual 3D printing process.
Where else can I look for input, because you are not really narrowing down my choice much.
There are a lot of great Facebook group, both for general 3D printing and distinct groups for owners of specific printers. The first group I jumped into was the simply titled “3DPrinting”, found here.
There are then groups specifically for owners of a particular brand. I belong to the Prusa group and have found it tremendously helpful.
Most of these groups are “closed groups” but are quick to allow you to join. Just scrolling through past post will be helpful to you to see what issues people are dealing with and the nature assistance provided by other group members.
What? No simple answers? So you are leaving it up to me?
Yes, sadly, I am. I have a hard-enough time living with my own choices in life let alone those of anyone else. I know it likely remains a little overwhelming, but this I hope I helped at least a little to separate some of the wheat from the chaff.
In the next chapter we are going to do a quick walk through of a 3D print process.