Ten 3D printers for this year's modellers
The shape of things to come
Product Round-up You may not know why but you probably want a 3D printer. These are intrinsically cool devices: A mix of engineering, electrical engineering, material science, chemistry, electronics and software.
As an emerging technology you need to understand a bit of all of these to get the most from a hobbyist device, just as early computer users needed to be competent with a soldering iron and writing assembly code. Here we look at ten of the most interesting 3D printers around. There is a mix of technologies, and some are not yet shipping, but it goes to show just how diverse this nascent industry is.
3D Touch 3D printer
This is an extruder-type printer that does Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) using ABS or PLA thermoplastic from a spool. It’s unusual in that it is quite good looking and has up to three heads, meaning it can print in three colours of plastic at a time. The extruders use a screw mechanism and the heat comes from the platform. Colours are “spot” colours and they cannot be mixed. Files are printed from a USB stick and there is a touchscreen user interface. It is beautifully finished in stainless steel and aluminium, and is particularly targeted at education. The device has an exceptionally large print area of 27.5x 27.5x 21cm.
More info 3D Touch at Bits from Bytes
Steampunk styling and aluminium construction give this Polish printer a special feel, with the exposed parts adding to the design rather than making it look unfinished. The handle on the top makes it transportable rather than portable. Individual parts seem particularly well finished, and an innovation is the self-tensioning belts. As an FDM printer it uses ABS or PLA thermoplastic from a spool. It will print models of up to 20 x 26 x 18cm albeit slowly at 100mm/minute. Two nozzles are available in 0.3mm and 0.5mm. These machines have been shipping since summer 2012.
More info CB Printer
Still in an early prototype stage - sorry about the photo, folks - but included here for its innovation and coolness, the File2Part Gutenberg is the first full-colour hobbyist printer. Designed by a team of industry veterans, it is a Fused Deposition Modelling device but after outputting each layer of plastic it does a second pass with a conventional inkjet printer head to colour the plastic. While the Gutenberg will use standard ABS and PLA the company has formulated its own plastic. Future plans include using chemicals in the inkjet to treat the plastic and produce variable flexibility within a single model. The machine can build things as big as 13.6 x 13.6 x13.6cm. File2Part's inventors are selling software to fund development of the technology.
More info File2Part
This is a hotly anticipated stereolithography printer for first-time hobbyists. It fires a laser into a tank of noxious Acrylate Photopolymer liquid resin, causing the material to harden as an outline is drawn and the platform is raised. The accuracy and finish are much better than the output of extruder-based printers because, while the size of the laser dictates that the smallest possible part is 300 microns in size, the edge of the laser can be controlled within that allowing for very accurate detailing down to 25 microns. Formlabs promise exceptionally slick software, and on the back of some huge Kickstarter success – where it looked for $100k and raised nearly $3m – it has tripled the size of the software team. Resin will initially be available in grey. The build volume is 12.5 x 12.5 x 16.5cm. Initial shipments to Kickstarter backers are scheduled for February – litigation from rival 3D systems notwithstanding – and are otherwise sold out until May.
More info Formlabs
Makerbot Replicator 2
This is the Tandy TRS-80 of the home 3D printer market: it is by far the most well-known hobbyist device. Makerbot recently upgraded its Replicator to the Replicator 2, and then announced the 2X at CES. It's a Fused Deposition Modelling printer with a metal chassis to reduce shake and increase print speed. It is optimised for PLA filament but will print in ABS. The Replicator 2 has a 100-micron output resolution through a 0.4mm nozzle. A dual-extruder model prints in two colours, but cannot mix colours. Makerbot provides excellent support through a helpline and comprehensive online videos. The maximum build size is 28.5 x 15.5 x 15.3 cm.
More info Makerbot
Objet Connex 350
This is the Bugatti Veyron of desktop 3D printers and costs at least £100,000. What makes this Connex machine really special is that it can jet two materials at the same time, which means you can mix colours, although the choice of coloured resins is limited. A single object can have 14 levels of flexibility within it, and this machine is therefore ideal for making bendy things such as hearing aid parts. The results, however, are not that durable and they have a shelf-life. The resin is UV cured, and expensive, and loading and unloading resin uses noticeable amounts of material. Objet quotes resolution in dpi – 600 dpi for the X and Y axes and 1600 dpi for the Z axis. The build size is 34.2 x 43.2 x 20cm.
This is an ultimate budget 3D printer at around £300: this device will only print in PLA, which has a lower melting point than ABS. It's made of wood and is a little flimsy; the output quality may be undesirable if you go beyond the recommended top speed of 210mm/minute. The Printrbot jr has a ceramic nozzle too, which is unusual, and it’s good for tightly packed workshops as it can be folded up. There is a portable version for those really pushed for space, although it's much more expensive as it prints from batteries. One wonders what you would want to produce if you, say, took it on an aeroplane as hand-luggage. The maximum build size is 11.4 x 14 x 10.2 cm.
More info Printrbot
Stratasys Mojo 3D printer
This is beyond the reach of most hobbyists as it is an industrial-grade Fused Deposition Modelling printer. As with traditional inkjet printers, a new print head is attached to the consumables, which in this case is a filament spool available only the colour of ivory. The Mojo uses ABS with a water soluble material that acts as a support while printing, so that shapes that overhang can be printed. A separate device called WaveWash is supplied to clean out the support material. Print resolution is 0.17mm and the maximum object size is 12.7 x 12.7 x 12.7cm.
This British Arduino-powered printer is sold as a kit, either with an unpainted wood frame or significantly more expensive aluminium one. Sumpod estimated it will take about a day to build the machine from the parts. As well as FDM extrusion there is an option to mount a Dremel and use it as a CNC device, which helps smooth the not-particularly good extrusion finish. The platform is not heated, so will need to be rigorously cleaned between prints, especially if you have been using the Dremel. The build speed isn’t great but for a low-cost entry into the market for someone with decent engineering skills, it’s a great way to start.
More info Sumpod
Up! 3D Plus
Here we have one of the simplest 3D printers, but made of steel and it's quite robust. It takes in single colour FDM – either ABS or PLA - from a spool with a heated build platform and small desktop footprint. It's possible to construct objects with layer thicknesses of 0.2, 0.25, 0.35 and 0.4mm. There is no onboard data storage nor warning lights other than an LED that flashes when it’s up to temperature. The output quality is excellent for such a cheap printer; this might be helped by the comparatively slow print speed. The supplied software calculates an estimated print time and amount of material needed per job. It allows quite large models for a budget printer with sizes up to 14 x 14 x 13.5cm. ®
More info Denford