As the name implies, 3D printers print in three dimensions. Rather than printing images on a flat piece of paper, they can print 3D objects and shapes using plastic, metal, wood or even edible food.
The most advanced and versatile 3D printers are used in industry, but more basic home 3D printers - that print in plastic only - are just about cheap enough to be worth considering.
With a 3D printer you can transform 3D models created on a computer (either from a downloadable pattern or one you’ve designed yourself) into real-world plastic objects.
You can print everything from phone cases to figurines, jewellery to laundry baskets. However, the quality can vary immensely and you may struggle to find much practical use at home for a 3D printer.
MakerBot is one of the best known and most established 3D printer brands. It offers a wide range of different 3D printers, including the Makerbot Replicator Mini+ and the Makerbot Replicator+, along with the Makerbot Replicator Z18, aimed at professionals. Makerbot’s Replicator uses a spool of Polylactic Acid (PLA) filament to print objects layer by layer on a printing plate.
They typically have a range of different quality settings, but you’ll pay for the privilege of owning one. The cheapest Makerbot Replicator Mini+ costs well over £1,000. Alongside its 3D printers, MakerBot also operates the Thingverse community for sharing 3D printing designs.
The Cube’s party piece is printing two colours at one time, using two different spools 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.
Made by 3D Systems, the Cube prints a column of plastic alongside your print as a means of cleaning the head with every layer. While that raises the cost of your print, it also makes it more likely that you’ll get a usable result. It can produce objects of up to 15cm cubed. You can pick up a Cubify Cube 3 now for around £1,000.
At just under £300, the DaVinci Jr. is one of the cheapest consumer 3D printers available. 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. It’s slower and uses more PLA plastic in the latter mode, but 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.
This £1,000 printer can create a huge number of different designs. We found that it requires less time to set up than many other printers, but the calibration process is fiddly.
Small objects print quickly, but larger objects take time just to transfer to the printer, let alone print them. 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, although we haven’t checked out the more recent versions released by the brand.
While most 3D printers heat plastic from a spool and squirt the molten material out onto the printing plate, Formlabs' Form printers use 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.
Alongside costing well over £3,000, the Formlabs Form 2 isn't exactly a cheap 3D printer to run, as the resin tank often needs replenishing and you'll need isopropyl alcohol to clean the prints.
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 less than £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. This is a 3D printer brand more for enthusiasts.
The object you want to print has to be designed first. Pre-designed 3D prints are available to download from 3D printer websites so you can get going straight away. The list of designs is extensive, but if you’re looking for a design that isn't already available, you can create your own on a computer using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.
You don't have to spend lots of money to design, either. Free CAD software, such as Sketchup, can be used to model your own creations. Bear in mid, though, that prints will come through the printer from the bottom up, so tailor your design accordingly.
Designs are sent to the 3D printer, where they’ll be crafted layer by layer. Most 3D printers use heated plastic to create your structure, with replacement spools of plastic available online.
Depending on your printer, it may be possible to combine colours and even material. The more complexity you add, however, the longer it can take for a 3D print to be completed.
Pretty much anything, from phone cases to screwdriver tips, jewellery and sculptures. There are limitations with a home 3D printer though.
Entry-level models can usually only print in one colour at a time, limiting what you can do with the print and how it looks. If you want to produce a multi-coloured print, models such as the Cubify Cube 3 can print dual colour simultaneously. Alternatively, with careful designing you can print different-coloured parts separately and snap them together later.
You can only print items as large as the printer’s own space limitations allow. On an entry-level model you can expect a maximum size of roughly 15 centimetres all round, depending on the exact model.
3D printers that print by squirting out a string of plastic are the most common type, printing in layers around 75 to 200 microns thick. This gives a stepped look to the surface of the print that can look rather rough.
Also, the choice of materials available to print with at home is also limited. Most printing materials aren't waterproof, nor are they particularly durable. So, don't expect to be printing off load-bearing spare parts for your bike just yet.
If you fancy trying out 3D printing but don't want to splash out on a 3D printer of your own just yet, there are plenty of companies offering 3D printing services.
While you can find 3D printing shops on the high street, most people access online 3D printing services to print off their desired object.
As most 3D printing services use a professional 3D printer, the finish is likely to be much better than objects you could print at home.
Plus, if you’re just starting out, some services will also check the layout of your design to make sure it will print successfully first time.
However, you will have to wait for your prints rather than having the convenience of printing at home and some services have a minimum order cost, which is no good if you just want one small object printed.