How to Choose a 3D Printer
The top performers in our review are the Ultimaker 2, the Gold Award Winner; Lulzbot TAZ 5, the Silver Award winner; and Cubify CubePro, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a 3D printer to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
What Is 3D Printing and How Does It Work?
3D printers might look like something from the future, but they already serve as fundamental tools for many industries. These machines use an additive process to create functional objects from digital files. Their versatile extruders can lay out intricate designs for use in all sorts of situations.
How Does a 3D Printer Work: The Basics
The printing process can be understood as a few simple steps. It starts with a digital designer. This person creates the blueprint for the project. Once this happens, the 3D printer uses the digital design as a guide. The machine pushes molten plastic through an extruder and layer by layer the object takes shape. When it finishes, the designer can pry the finished prototype from the build plate and clean it up.
How Does a 3D Printer Work: Layers
3D printers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) software to determine the shape and size of a print. Once created, the 3D file goes through a digital slicing process, which cuts the model into printable layers. These printers then use this sliced layer information to determine how much material to extrude and where exactly the material needs to go. They extrude the patterns one layer at a time until the 3D print finishes building.
This additive-build model remains the most common style of 3D printing available, but stereolithography printers produce similar results. With stereolithography, the printer controls exposure to a light-sensitive material, solidifying one layer at a time.
How Does a 3D Printer Work: Print Speed
This building process can take many hours, no matter the style of 3D printer you use. The speed of the printing process depends on the size and complexity of the print. 3D printing software controls the density of the object, and most models use a honeycomb pattern to fill the interior of the print. This process doesn't require nearly as much filament as full, flat layers and increases the object's overall print speed.
The density of the interior is not the only factor to consider when creating a 3D file. When you slice a 3D design, you can choose the thickness of the print layers, also referred to as print resolution. Thick layers print faster than thin layers, but they also result in a blockier look for the finished print. Thin layers allow the 3D printer to create much smoother prints, but they can take significantly longer to finish.
What Materials Do 3D Printers Use?
Nowadays, you can purchase plastic filament online. While many consumer 3D printers use some form of plastic, industrial printers can extrude and manipulate many other materials such as wood, nylon, copper and various high-quality plastics. The availability of these alternate materials allows for immense versatility. Some industrial 3D printers even extrude wax, which melts away when cast with metal. Some industrial 3D printers even sinter metal powder into rigid structures.
This wide variety of workable materials ensures that 3D printers work as valuable assets for all sorts of projects. Industries that rely on highly specialized machine parts use them to create replacements and those that rely on working prototypes or short-run products use 3D printers for simple manufacturing.
What Do 3D Printers Use for General Consumer Prints?
While commercial machines work with a wide variety of materials, most home units rely on acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polylactide (PLA) plastic filament. These two forms of plastic work well as 3D printing materials for a few different reasons. Both types of plastic can produce prints with high levels of detail, but they do have a few differences.
ABS vs. PLA 3D Printing Materials
ABS plastic dries in to a hardened solid form, reacts when exposed to acetone and has some flexibility. This type of plastic has some issues when used as a 3D printing material because it tends to warp when used on an unheated build plate. This is especially true for large prints. The greatest benefit of using ABS for 3D printing is its reaction when exposed to acetone. A short acetone bath can remove some ridges from the surface of the finished print, and small amounts of acetone can lock two pieces of ABS plastic together. This material sometimes creates an unpleasant smell when heated. ABS filament is recyclable.
PLA filament also dries into a sturdy, solid form. This material is biodegradable, and it doesn't produce the same unpleasant smell as ABS. This eco-friendly 3D printing material also comes with another benefit: It doesn't warp when extruded onto unheated build plates. Many creators use blue tape on build plates to create a flat base when using PLA. This minor adjustment ensures the 3D printing material stays true to form until the whole piece dries. You can grind up PLA material from old, unused prints and reuse it to save on future material costs. PLA filament doesn't adhere to itself the same way ABS filament does nor does it respond to acetone the same way.
Most affordable 3D printers accept both types of filament. Still, you should always check for a heated build plate before printing with ABS. Other FFF 3D printing materials include nylon, copper, wood and experimental filaments. These and other filaments are still new to the market and more and more machines are compatible. Many manufacturers provide proprietary filament engineered specifically for their individual 3D printers. With certain chassis designs, only the manufacturer 3D printer cartridge fit inside the printer. However, some machines allow you to use generic cartridges, which come in a wider range of colors and can be much cheaper, cutting down on your overall 3D printer cost. One 3D printer extruder is standard and allows you to print just one color at a time. With the best 3D printers, you can upgrade to a dual-extruder or triple-extruder, so you can print with two or three colors on a single model.
History of 3D Printing
The earliest 3D printers appeared in the 1980s. These machines used lasers to cure light-sensitive materials into specific designs. It was during this time that the slicing process first appeared and designers used computer programs to split 3D designs into a series of connected layers. The stereolithography machines used these layers as guides for their lasers, curing models one bit at a time.
Many modern 3D printers use the same style of slicing software that was used for the early machines. The most significant difference between the newest machines and the prototyping machines of the 1990s is the use of many different materials instead of just a light-cured polymer. Today’s extrusion process is called fused filament fabrication (FFF), which describes the way materials melt and extrude in modern 3D printing.
Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) machines, use a process similar to the original stereolithography machines, except they sinter metal powder into solid forms. This process opened up many possibilities for companies that rely on machined metal parts. Unlike parts created with older CNC machines, DMLS industrial 3D printers could generate intricate structures on the inside of each piece.
Polyjet printers, also known as multi-jet printers (MJP), use several extruders to create robust designs with different colors and materials. These new forms of 3D printing are only available with industrial 3D printers right now, but the technology is rapidly evolving and consumer models may offer more robust print options in the future.
How Much Does a 3D Printer Cost?
The cost of a 3D printer depends on whether you purchase a consumer, budget or industrial model. All of the consumer models on our lineup cost less than $4,000, while the printers on our Budget 3D printer lineup cost less than $1,000. The majority of industrial 3D printers exceed $50,000 in price. The difference in price comes primarily from the versatility of the product. Industrial printers handle a greater variety of materials than consumer models, come with larger build plates and usually have more robust customer support.
When considering the cost of 3D printers, you may also want to consider the cost of filament. All manufacturers have a recommended filament, and most manufacturers provide their own brands. You may want to shop through some filament options before determining which 3D printer to use. After the initial purchase of the machine, you need to purchase filament to print anything.
While 3D printing technology is still nascent, it is quickly becoming more cost effective not only for hobbyists but for beginners as well. 3D printing is much less expensive than it was a few years ago but can still be very costly compared to finding plastic parts at the store or online. Using a 3D printer in your home is a realistic option for domestic projects, including DIY crafts, home improvement, custom toys, school projects, artwork and more.
A 1-kilogram filament spool, which is about 2.2 pounds, ranges anywhere from $20 to $100 dollars, depending on manufacturer and printer compatibility. That 1-kilogram spool can print almost 400 regular-size chess pieces, and since it costs between $20 and $100 per spool, the final cost of each chess piece is between $0.05 and $0.25. Prices, of course, depend on filament cost, infill, size of the item and many other factors. Both proprietary filament and generic brand filament are available in many different sizes and colors. If you’re looking to save money in the long run, a printer that accepts generic or cheap filament can help cut down long-term costs.
Machines like the Cubify CubePro require the manufacturer’s own proprietary filament to produce prints. The cost of Cubify's 3D printing filament is at the higher end of the spectrum and comes in a variety of colors. While it does come at a higher cost, this specially designed material does come with some added benefits. These proprietary 3D printing materials are built specifically for your machine, so you do not need to struggle with feeding or extrusion the way you might with a generic brand.
Best Budget 3D Printers
While the top three machines were chosen for their overall stats, price does play an important role when shopping on a budget. Frugal shoppers may want to consider the best budget 3D printers that cost $1,000 or less. In our list, that narrows the options to the Cubify Cube 3, the XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0 and the Printrbot Plus.
A cheap 3D printer still needs to produce quality results. The Cubify Cube 3 uses pricier proprietary filament, but it features an on-board screen for easy control. This affordable 3D printer comes with three different ways to transfer files, including a wireless connection. It ships with a few existing designs and a starter pack of filament.
The XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0 doesn't feature wireless printing, but it does have a heated print platform for ABS printing. This printer excels with its simple design and easy-to-use interface. Both ABS and PLA are compatible with this machine as well. The Printrbot Plus 3D printer costs more than most budget 3D printers, but it doesn't have an on-board control system. Its extruder can create layers as thin as .1 millimeter, mimicking the quality of much more expensive machines.
Common Misconceptions About 3D Printing
Many newcomers to this hobby fail to recognize that successful 3D printing takes planning. Because 3D printers use an additive process to create their builds, many complex structures require supports. These structural supports serve no purpose once the build finishes, and they can be removed from the print almost immediately. Many first-time designers assume the prints support themselves and fail to include lattices and rafts.
Those unfamiliar with 3D printing technology commonly assume that finished prints look exactly right from the moment they finish building. In truth, many prints require additional attention once you remove them from the build plate. The lattices and rafts must be removed and often you need to sand down the surface to achieve a smooth finish where the supports stood. This finishing process takes more time with thicker layers, while many of the thinnest layers require little sanding to achieve a smooth look.
The other major misconception behind 3D printing technology is that it is a good solution for mass-market manufacturing. Some designers want to print their designs on a large scale, even when they only have access to consumer units. Because of the cost of filament and the length of time it takes to finish a single object, 3D printing does not usually make sense as a large-scale manufacturing solution.
When manufacturing products, the fail rate of the production line makes a significant impact on overall cost. Desktop 3D printers often produce imperfect units, and it can take extra time to start over. Desktop and commercial printers help with prototyping and short-run production, but the cost of a print can add up quickly. If you plan to use a 3D printer for ongoing large-scale commercial production, you should first consider the cost of traditional manufacturing.
The Future of 3D Printing Technology
Over the course of thirty years, we have seen this technology emerge and flourish. What started as a quick prototyping system evolved into a growing worldwide industry. If you are asking whether 3D printing is the future, look around. This technology already impacts the world in major ways. From the smallest trinkets to the most intricate moving parts, 3D printers grow in popularity because of their enormous versatility.
Scientists and engineers use 3D printing technology to replace lost limbs and businesses use it to prototype new products. Artists use 3D printers to build wax sculptures that are then cast in to metal statues. In the future, 3D printing could change the way we interact with isolated places. This technology shows enormous potential for tech-savvy developers that work in developing countries. It could even help with disaster relief, considering the difficulty of finding small, specialized parts in many areas of the world. With a single 3D printer, crucial mechanical components can be printed on-site without having to wait for shipping.
The same concept applies to space travel. Astronauts could use 3D printing technology for emergency repairs, potentially allowing for even greater distances of space exploration. As this technology progresses, these machines revolutionize the way we produce and store materials. Unused filament can be crushed and reused. Recycling plants may eventually start turning discarded materials into usable 3D printing filament. The growth of the industry moved this technology from the industrial space onto the consumer desktop. With time, 3D printing technology could become a household resource.
3D Printers: What We Tested, What We Found
In order to review the products on our lineup, we chose two main tests to evaluate the printers’ performance and print quality. For the print quality tests, we evaluated the models printed on each printer individually and together as a group. As print quality varies not only from printer to printer but also by the individual model design, slicing program and printer software, we used the same model files and manufacturer recommended printer software. In addition, we replicated the printing conditions for each test as closely as possible to help eliminate any inconsistencies.
Whenever possible, we performed hands-on tests of each printer in our office. However, some printers were unavailable for in-office testing, and we completed our thorough research using other methods, including analyzing information from our partner media sites, which provided testing data and evaluations for our 3D printer reviews.
Accuracy Test: Most Printers Are Fairly Accurate
For the accuracy test, we printed the same model of the Empire State Building on each printer. We replicated the temperature, speed, layer height and other factors for each print. If the model printed consistently without hiccups, the printer achieved a high score. On the other hand, if the model had defects or an inconsistent surface finish, it scored lower. We printed models multiple times on the machines to ensure that each could produce consistent test prints. Many of the Empire State Buildings were identical, which indicates that our top few printers, especially the Ultimaker, have a high levels of accuracy compared to other less stable printers.
Stress Test: Not Every Aspect Is Perfect
For the stress test, we printed the same complicated model with each machine to reveal printer weaknesses. The model we choose had a number of shapes, including flat surfaces, cones, boxes, arches, thin and thick walls, and circular designs. After the part finished printing, we evaluated its print quality for XY accuracy, Z accuracy, bridging, zippers, consistency, errors and overall quality of the finished print surface.
We found that no printer could achieve each and every feature flawlessly. Some struggled with X accuracy and left extraneous strands for cleaning, some bridges collapsed and some had poor surface quality. The printers with the fewest inaccuracies typically print high-quality parts. Be aware, however, that no 3D printer is perfect; model quality, print conditions and calibrations all have a large part to play in overall print quality.
Print Quality: Faster for Drafts, Slower for Resolution
Printing accurate, high quality models is a major requirement, no matter what type of printing you plan on doing. Good print layer heights generally range from 0.01 to 0.03 millimeters, which is about the thickness of a piece of paper. An inverse relationship between 3D printer speed and quality allows you to print quick, imperfect prototypes or slow, high quality models. Generally, faster speeds equal lower resolution and slower speeds equal higher resolution. If your printer and software allow you to change the speed and resolution for each model, you can customize the best option for quick prototypes and professional finished products.
Print capacity is another important criterion if you're looking to print models larger than a tennis ball. Most of the best 3D printers have build space for models up to 9 x 9 x 9 inches, so you don't have to slice your file into multiple prints that you later have to assemble with glue.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison directly from the manufacturers. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication. The 3D printer model files we selected for our stress and print quality tests were all open-source files and free for public use.
Key Attributes to Consider in a 3D Printer
Whether you want a professional 3D printer to use at the office or a consumer model for personal projects, there are a few important aspects to consider.
Max Build Size
You can determine your maximum build size by the dimensions of your build plate and the maximum height of the extruder. The bigger the available space, the better.
Small build plates limit the maximum size of your print. If you want to build something bigger than the allotted build-space, need to slice your 3D object into smaller pieces. Compact 3D printers may increase the time it takes to print larger items, as you will need to print and join or glue each segment separately. This can also impact the quality of the final print. Large 3D printers allow you to print these segments together, so the end result shows fewer visible seams. Units with small print volumes can still produce large works. Those units that use ABS 3D printing filament can fuse together with a few drops of acetone, and models built with PLA can be assembled with glue.
The quality of your print depends on the size of the layers you use, but it also depends on the precision of the extruder. Your 3D printer needs to read and understand your design file to produce a precise physical representation. These machines accept standard 3D file types, but you may need to play around with different slicing programs to find the one that works with the printer you choose.
The Ultimaker 2, ranked as our best 3D printer, comes with a heated build plate and precise nozzle alignment to ensure high print quality. Your choice of filament style may determine whether you want to find a unit that comes with a heated plate. Some plastics are more susceptible to warping than others, and the build plate can mitigate some of this distortion. Other factors play a role in print quality as well. Printers with low layer thickness settings may take longer to produce a final print, but they can often produce a smoother finished print. The speed of the printer also plays a role in print quality. Slow 3D printers may offer more precise builds, while those that work quickly may create imperfections.
Size of Filament
Most consumer 3D printers work with one of two types of filament. The most common sizes are 1.75 millimeters and 3 millimeters in diameter. A 3D printer takes filament from the spool and heats it. The heated plastic then comes out through the extruder to form each layer. The diameter of the filament depends on the requirements of the 3D printer. Because the filament melts, it doesn't directly correlate to the thickness of your layers.
Ease of Use
The models on our lineup are preassembled, and some are made specifically for beginners. For those wondering how 3D printing works, a machine like the Cubify CubePro speeds up the learning process because it allows you to start experimenting with prints right away.
Online resources also help beginners find their footing. 3D printing technology has been around for decades, and many builders upload their experiences online. Many manufacturers link to these resources, so you can learn from other members of the community while you use these machines. The same concept applies to troubleshooting. If you need to find quick answers about a particular 3D printer, manufacturers almost always have some form of online communication available.
Most printers come with some parts detached for easy shipping. Inserting the print plate, tightening screws and calibrating the machine are all basic assembly procedures. However, printers that required more complex assembly weren't scored as high as machines ready to print from the box.
Some units come with LCD screens for on-board navigation, and others require a direct connection with your computer as they run. Models like the Lulzbot TAZ 5 include ports for SD memory cards, so you do not need a wireless connection to print files without your computer. These different types of connections give you enough freedom to work without having to change your setup, but they do need a small screen to navigate between the files on your card. Wireless 3D printers and those that accept memory cards can be set up anywhere with Wi-Fi, and they don't need to be connected to your computer to print your files.
Whether the printer has an LCD screen or a virtual control application, the interface greatly affects the overall usability of the machine. Controls that are easy and intuitive generally include a larger number of features to help you raise and lower the print bed, control temperatures, and start and stop prints.
Since you're likely to keep your 3D printer for a while, we also evaluated design longevity. 3D printers with swappable print heads, easy-to-clean print plates and accessible internal parts are simpler to maintain. Many 3D printers come with some basic maintenance tools and replacement parts. Because they use heated materials to form each layer, they often benefit from scrapers or other prying tools to remove some prints from their build plates. Machines typically come with tools of their own, so you do not need to buy them separately. Key items include tools to clean the extruder nozzle and putty knives to remove finished prints.
Availability of Support
3D printing technology changes all the time, and it's important to find a machine that comes with support. The companies that manufacture these units usually work with you to ensure your machine adapts to the evolving 3D print space, and they often come up with clever new ways to improve their machines. They can sometimes even help you adapt an existing 3D printer to work more efficiently as their technology progresses.
Most 3D printers come with helpful manuals, but some of the most expansive support comes from online communities. The Lulzbot TAZ 5 boasts a forum that addresses many common issues, and Ultimaker provides something similar. Look for a community around whichever machine you choose. The 3D printing community grows every year, and designers of all skill levels are usually happy to share their knowledge. You can often use forums and other printer-specific resources to answer common questions. Brands with recognizable names often promote these support structures to their communities in blogs and on social media.
When you want to buy a 3D printer, look for long periods of coverage in a warranty. Most large 3D printers, especially those that come from big-name manufacturers, offer some type of specialized support for the brand. You can typically contact these companies for live help and support over the phone, through email or using live chat on their websites.
3D Printing Resources Online
Places to Learn and Places Sell Your Work
You don't need a professional 3D printer to earn an income from 3D printing. Many consumer models provide enough control to earn some cash from online orders.
Some websites allow you to list your 3D printing service as a resource for people in your community, so when someone searches for local 3D printers, they can find your service. These sites accept 3D files and send them to you when you take the job. The buyer can even ask questions and pay, usually directly through the site. People can also go online and upload an STL file for printing.
Finding Files and Design Sites
It's easiest to print objects from predesigned files. A wide variety of STL files, the 3D-printer equivalent of sewing patterns, are available from a number of 3D model libraries. Many files are open source or freely provided for general printing. There are also a number of sites that offer for-purchase STL files that are usually higher quality and provide hard-to-find models. Creating your own CAD STL files is a more complicated process, especially if you're new to 3D printing. Designing your own models requires software expertise, and depending on what you wish to create, can sometimes require advanced degrees, days of work and specialized software. If you want to learn more about how these 3D printers work or how to find model files, take a look at our articles about 3D printing.
If you want a way to create 3D designs online, there are a few strong resources at your disposal. These options produce the files you need to use with a 3D printer. You can create new designs, make changes to existing designs and export the finished products using any of the following choices. These free programs are simplified versions of more feature heavy CAD Software, where most 3D files and designs are created.
TinkerCAD does not require a download to function. You can create 3D objects using the web-based platform and print with 3D printers almost anywhere. Many student classes use this platform because it doesn't require much setup. You can create a profile and start building right away.
Blender is a program that has a more robust interface to create detailed objects. It does have a bit of a learning curve, though. If you aren't already familiar with the 3D design, you may want to check out some online courses before diving into Blender.
Autodesk's 123D App offers a few unique solutions for 3D modeling and design. It provides online and downloadable applications that help with several different tasks, including one that helps translate photos in to 3D objects. This site also offers a full selection of downloadable premade files that are ready for 3D printing.
Another option is Sketchup. This is one of the more popular programs that allows you to create simple 3D designs in minutes.
3D Printers: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The Top Ten Reviews Gold Award goes to a stand-out machine. The Ultimaker 2 produces high-quality prints, comes with a large build size and has tons of options for setup. The 3D printer works with both PLA and ABS filaments and comes with an on-board navigation screen. While the unit doesn't connect with Wi-Fi, it does include an SD card reader. You can connect the 3D printer directly to your computer or use this small external memory card to transfer files to the machine from anywhere. This machine creates a simple mix of quality and speed, so you do not need to wait long to finish basic prints.
The Top Ten Reviews Silver Award is awarded to the Lulzbot TAZ 5, which has large build capacity, extra material options and an on-board navigation system. The machine’s print quality is especially high and ranges from 0.075 to 0.35-millimeter layer heights. The Lulzbot TAZ 5 is the newest iteration of an excellent printer that is easy to use for beginners and advanced enough for professional projects.
The Cubify CubePro also earned high ratings and is the winner of the Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award. This machine accepts PLA and ABS filament, and it comes with notable print building space. The sizable printing space allows you to print large items in few segments, and the popularity of the brand comes with a large knowledgebase to help with troubleshooting. The CubePro connects to your computer over a wireless network.
Ultimaker, Lulzbot and Cubify all offer free video tutorials on their websites. Both Cubify and Ultimaker offer three-month warranties on their 3D printers, whereas Lulzbot offers a full year. The wide availability of support makes these units especially approachable. You do not need to be an expert to start using them right away.