Best 3D printers
By Katie Waller
3D printing is in its infancy, but the first consumer 3D printers are now emerging. Which models stand the chance of making 3D printing mainstream?
With a 3D printer, you can create 3D objects from plastic, metal or even food. The most advanced models are used in industry and medicine, but home 3D printers that print in plastic are now available.
3D printers transform 3D models created on a computer into real-world plastic objects. If you have the skills, you can create your own designs using many CAD software packages, including the free Google Sketchup.
You can download ready-made objects from 3D printer manufacturer or enthusiast websites. You can print everything from phone cases and toy figures to jewellery and door knobs, though the objects may not be particularly strong, waterproof or durable. Many people use them to prototype ideas, or create their own 3D art.
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3D Printers compared
There’s a decent choice of 3D printers, though most work in the same way. Designs are sent to the 3D printer using an SD card or a USB connection. The printer then runs a spool of coloured plastic through a heated nozzle, which squirts the molten plastic onto a printing plate to build the object up, layer by layer.
Makerbot Replicator 2
Price from £400
One of the first consumer 3D printers, the Replicator 2 uses a spool of Polylactic Acid (PLA) to print objects layer by layer on a printing plate. It has a choice of quality settings, with big differences in speed: a simple mug took nearly two hours to print in high-quality mode.
It can be difficult to align the printing plate with the printhead and hold the print in place – the manufacturers advise using builder’s tape. Get it wrong, and the object prints badly, while wisps of molten plastic and snags on the spool also cause problems. This means getting good prints takes practice.
You can only print in one colour at a time and you can’t change the colour mid-print, but the plastic is available in a range of colours.
Pros Can produce high-quality results, lots of colours available
Cons Getting good prints takes practice, slow in high-quality mode, difficult to set-up and align
Cubify Cube 3 3D printer
Price from £1,008
The Cube’s party piece is printing two colours at one time, using two different pools of PLA or ABS plastic. What’s more, each spool comes fitted with a brand new print jet, reducing the likelihood that prints will be spoilt by the accumulation of molten plastic debris in the head.
The Cube prints a column of plastic alongside your print as a means of cleaning the head with every layer, and while this raises the cost of your print, it also makes it more likely that you’ll get a usable result.
It’s reasonably fast, and can turn out objects of up to 15cm cubed.
Pros Easier to work with than rivals, two colour printing, new printhead with each spool
Cons Spools and prints slightly more expensive
Da Vinci Jr.
Price from £300
At just £300 the DaVinci Jr is the cheapest consumer 3D printer around, and while it lacks the ability to print multi-coloured objects or more complex shapes, it’s simpler and easier-to-use than other 3D printers.
It has two print modes for quick drafts or more precise, high-detail work, and while it’s slower and uses more PLA plastic in the latter mode, you can still get impressive results.
The manufacturer’s site hosts plenty of ready-made designs, plus a good library of tutorial videos to get you started.
Pros Cheap and easy to use, lots of designs to download
Cons Lacks advanced features, slow in high-quality mode
Price from £1,000
This £1,000 printer can create a huge number of designs and claims to work up to 300% faster than rival 3D printers.
It requires less time to set up than many other printers, but we found the calibration process fiddly, and while small objects print quickly larger objects take time just to transfer to the printer, let alone print.
Plus, while the printing plate is heated to prevent the base of objects curling up, this doesn’t always stop them doing so. In fact, we weren’t all that impressed with the final quality when we tried this 3D printer.
Pros Easy to set up, fast with small objects
Cons Slow with larger objects, disappointing print quality
Price from £2,195
While most 3D printers heat plastic from a spool and squirt the molten material out onto the printing plate, the Form1+ uses lasers to harden a layer of resin in the correct shape, building up the object layer by layer. This creates very detailed prints, and the software supplied estimates how long the finished print will take.
Unfortunately, this tends to be a very long time, and with expensive resin, a resin tank that needs replacing and ispropyl alcohol required to clean the prints, this is an expensive 3D printer to keep running.
Pros Looks good, easy-to-use, creates high-quality resin objects
Cons Slow, difficult to clean, expensive to run
Price from £300
RepRap printers use a free, open-source design and can print most of their own components, so once you have a RepRap working you can create another one for a friend – or even print your own spare parts.
This DIY approach means RepRaps are cheap, with kits on eBay going for under £300, while there’s a big community sharing tips and models to print.
The downside is that you have to get your hands dirty and do much of the work yourself, while the printers themselves aren’t that polished or easy-to-use. One for enthusiasts.
Pros One RepRap builds more RepRaps, lots of help and objects available
Cons DIY approach, not that polished or easy-to-use