Okay, you might know them as “3D printers,” but the formal name for them is “additive manufacturing machine.” Whatever you call that thing on your desk, any true aficionado knows that it’s a choice between going to the store to buy table settings that you might only use once and downloading Martha Stewart’s Trellis Collection in the MakerBot store to print off in your choice of colors. These table accessories are the gifts you give when you’re the one person in your family who owns a Makerbot and you want to be the popular one at the Christmas party this year. Then you can get back to geeking out over a technology that’s capable of disrupting the manufacturing industry.
Martha Stewart Meets Makerbot
If you are undecided on whether you even want a 3D printer but still need a convenient way to produce prototypes, you might consider hiring an owner of an additive manufacturing machine to produce them for you on 3DHubs. This will give you a chance to see what 3D printers can do before you make a decision. Most desktop additive manufacturing machines use some form of high-quality plastic such as ABS or PLS, but you can also print in full-color sandstone and industrial metals if you prefer.
With a layer resolution of 90 microns and a build volume of 200 X 200 X 185 mm, this isn’t too shabby for a 3D printer that looks good on your desk. It’s compatible with PC and Mac and will work with pretty much any 3D modeling software that can export .STL files. It has fewer print errors than many 3D printers in this price range, especially in situations where you want or need to run your additive manufacturing machine for more than 12 hours straight. It doesn’t have as large of a print volume as many $100,000 machines, but if you need to print off smaller items with a considerable amount of detail, this can do nearly as well. It can take a while to calibrate, but once you have that pinned down, it’s a breeze to use — really about as beginner-friendly as a 3D printer gets. If the cost of operating this machine is a concern, the Zortrax filament is relatively inexpensive, so the MSRP of just over $1900 shouldn’t intimidate you if you’re going to be asking it to perform a lot of builds. (Amazon usually has a markdown although the amount it’s marked down can change without notice. I saw it at $1700 on the day I wrote this.) For the price range, this is pretty much going to be the machine to beat for its overall quality and ability to handle the job without failing.
This one has a relatively large build volume at 280 X 280 X 250 mm. It gets HOT with a max temperature of 300°C for the hot end, so be careful and don’t let your drunk friends stick their fingers into it while it’s building. It’ll automatically calibrate, which means less time wasted trying to get things level before you start building. It’ll sometimes take longer than Cura estimates to print things, but if you’re patient and can avoid rushing the machine, it’ll give you a quality print. Cura is a pretty good software to use although some people recommended rebooting the software after each print to make sure the cache is cleared because that seemed to be the number-one cause of print fails for this machine. If you can put up with that, though, the hardware itself is very good and can hold up to printing multiple small objects at once or printing one larger object with equal facility. The price might seem intimidating at first, but if you want more print space in a hobby machine, this is a good choice.
This is one of the more versatile desktop additive manufacturing machines and is capable of handling ABS, PLA, PET and Flexible filament. It will have the occasional print fail and clogged nozzle, but the learning curve is not very steep for a 3D printer and it can turn out prints of excellent quality. MakerGear seems to prefer to pump its money into building a good machine and an equally good customer service department rather than spend it on advertising. It may mean that they’re missing out on Martha Stewart’s effective endorsement, but at least you know that you’re getting a machine that works and the customer service is helpful if you have a question or issue. Like many 3D printers, it can be crazy sensitive to any misalignment in the print bed or Z-axis, but many new users have found MakerGear’s tutorials on Youtube to be helpful in this department. Discerning users were impressed that an additive manufacturing machine in this price range was made with mostly metal with maybe a few token parts that you could probably print off as spares. It’s pretty impressive that a mid-range desktop 3D printer can get an average 4.8 out of 5 stars in 187 ratings and reviews on Amazon, so if you buy this one, you won’t regret it.
This is one of the few 3D printers in the price range that actually looks like an industrial printer. Actually, though, it prints only with PLA and justifies its price with a 21.6″ x 14.8″ x 15.3″ print volume. It automatically calibrates and levels its print bed so you don’t have to mess with it. It can work as a stand-alone machine that keeps STL and gcode files in memory. Most reviewers called it a good concept that could maybe stand to improve in a few areas such as difficulties with the filament path, as well the lack of available spare parts. Some professionals have said that AIO should take down its forum because it gives the impression that the company doesn’t care about resolving issues with its product. However, if you decide to contact AIO about an issue, their customer service is excellent and they actually care about resolving problems. They’ll even send a replacement machine if the one you receive didn’t function as promised. The software is frequently updated and its functionality as a scanner has actually improved with some updates. Basically, don’t let the looks fool you. Just think of this as a good $2,500 desktop 3D printer that’s great for producing prototypes that look much smoother than comparable machines in this price range rather than a cheap industrial machine.
This is a 3D printer that will look good on your desk and provide a total build volume of 402 cubic inches. It works with plant-based and recyclable PLA to make it more eco-friendly. It uses smart sensor technology as part of its patented QuikLevel leveling system and is Wi-Fi enabled. This one is a definite improvement over the Idea Builder 1.0 partly because the company listened to customer feedback, so if you had a bad experience with the 1.0, don’t let that entirely scare you off of Dremel’s new and improved version. The lid now has hinges that don’t look or feel cheaply made and you can now see through the lid. The front door is larger and higher quality. The new filament path in the 2.0 eliminates some points of failure that caused parts to fall off or break in the 1.0. There did seem to be mixed feelings about the revamped spool loading partly because it might not work with third party filaments, but it was generally agreed that the revamped version was an improvement. It’s got some pretty awesome safety features like a refusal to start printing if it detects that the front door is open. Most importantly for true geeks, the Idea Builder works with Linux. It’ll arrive in a good amount of packaging, so be prepared to spend some time taking it out of the box when it arrives, but at least you know it’ll be well protected from the abuses that the shipping industry can put things through.
You probably know that a 3D printer that uses words like “Mini” in its name probably won’t have a huge print volume, but if your priority is having a system that doesn’t take up a ton of room on your desk but can still turn out cool-looking prototypes, this is a good pick. It’s advertised as a tool that works well in the classroom or as a student’s very first 3D printer because the models it produces can take a lot of energetic handling by enthusiastic students. It rarely fails without warning, produces a hanging layer or misses a feature. Customer service is responsive if you have a question or an issue. Users generally love it as an excellent desktop additive manufacturing machine for not a lot of money.