The 3D printer market is growing at an explosive rate, with new brands and styles of printing making an appearance each year. Where many 3D printers used to be huge, expensive machines, developments in technology and production now mean that many of the best options you can buy are increasingly affordable, and able to sit on a desk in your home without the need for workshop space.
Naturally, this means there’s now a huge choice of 3D printers out there that cater to all kinds of user needs and budgets. While this choice is great, it can make picking the best 3D printer for your specific needs more difficult. However, this guide can help, as we pick some brilliant 3D printers for all kinds of uses and budgets, with clear buying advice to help you determine which one you should buy.
Printing hardware has really taken off in recent years, so while a handful of filament printers (otherwise known as FDM printers) were all that was once available, there’s now a wide variety of different styles to suit your needs across a range of budgets.
Not sure how to decide which 3D printer is right for you? Here are a few things to consider when shopping for a printer.
Printer type: There are two main types of 3D printers: FFF (fused filament fabrication) and SLA (stereo lithography). FFF printers — which also cover FFM (fused filament manufacturing) and FDM (fused deposition modeling) devices — work by melting a plastic filament in a moving printhead to form the model. SLA printers use an ultraviolet (UV) laser to solidify a resin, focusing the laser to form the solid model. FFF printers are generally cheaper, simpler and easier to use, although SLA models like the Peopoly Phenom are lowering the price.
In addition to 3D printers, there are also 3D pens that hobbyists can use to create models using plastic filament. These are handheld devices that usually cost $100 or less, so they’re another low-cost way to give a kind of 3D printing a try.
Printing materials: Whichever type of printer you choose, pay attention to the type of material it uses when printing. The filament material used by FFF printers is available in several different materials, such as PLA (a brittle, biodegradable material), ABS (the same plastic used in Lego blocks), nylon, TPE (a soft, rubberlike material) and HDPE (a light, tough polystyrene). Many of these materials, particularly PLA and ABS, are available in a huge range of colors. Filaments come in two sizes: 1.75 mm and 3 mm, which are not interchangeable.
SLA printers have fewer options than their FFF counterparts, but printers like those from FormLabs can use resins that produce models ranging from very rigid to flexible and rubbery. The best 3D printers can use a wide range of materials, each of which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. (HDPE, for example, is light and tough, but not suitable for food use, while nylon is food-safe.)
Note that some printers only allow the use of approved materials or materials produced by the same company that made the printer. In that sense, those types of 3D printers are like more traditional paper printers: The manufacturers sell the hardware cheaply and then make money back on the consumables. (One of the best 3D printers for people on a budget, the da Vinci Mini, only works with PLA filament from manufacturer XYZprinting, for example; on the bright side, XYZ’s filament costs about the same as most third-party materials.) Other 3D printers place no restrictions on the type or origin of the material.
Print volume: All printers have limits on the size of the 3D print they can produce. That limit is defined by the size of the print bed and how far the printer can move the printhead. This is usually measured in cubic inches, but you should also pay attention to each of the individual dimensions, which determine the maximum size 3D print the device can create.
Print speed and quality: 3D printing is a slow business, and at present, there’s no way to get around this. You should expect a 3- to 4-inch model to typically take between 6 and 12 hours to print, depending on the print quality you select. That’s because of the way 3D printing works: The print is constructed in layers. The thicker these layers are, the quicker the print is produced but the lower the print quality is, as the layers become more visible. So, there is a trade-off between print speed and print quality.
The best 3D printers will allow you to determine which way you want to go with this, producing prints quickly or more slowly but at higher quality. The best printers offer a wide range of quality settings, from fast (but low quality) to slow (but high quality).
Price: The best 3D printers don’t have to cost a lot, though the ones used by professional designers and creators who print at heavy volumes will certainly put a big dent in your budget. (Devices like the Ultimaker S5 and Formlabs Form 3 cost thousands of dollars, for example.) But you can find very capable 3D printers for around $1,000, and prices are even lower for machines aimed at novices, educators and home printing enthusiasts. Prices for entry-level 3D printers are now below $300, and some of the best 3D printers now cost less than $200.