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3D printing is a modern marvel, providing you with the ability to print original creations and designs by other users out of all sorts of different materials. Best of all, there’s no need to go anywhere to get it done – a 3D printer fits right into your home or office workstation, connecting to your computer via USB or WiFi, and letting you see what was just a blueprint a few minutes ago now coming to life right before your eyes.
How Do 3D Printers Work?
The best 3D printers share many of the same intrinsic features as a regular paper or photo printer, but with a few notable differences. Here’s what you need to know.
Kits: A kit is a 3D printer that you assemble yourself, and it can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple days to set up for a beginner. On the upside, this is the absolute best way to get to know a 3D printer literally inside and out, and can help you troubleshoot if anything goes wrong in the future. But if you just want to get printing right out of the box, it’s best to avoid the kits and go with a pre-assembled model (which will be a little more expensive). Note that there’s most always going to be some assembly required, but tightening a few screws is entirely different than starting from scratch. Deciding if your printer is going to be for professional use or just a fun hobby is a good first place to start.
Material: PLA (polylactide) is a common build material for beginners, as it doesn’t warp easily, or require a heated bed. However, at a certain point, it can’t stand the heat, and starts to lose its structure around 140ºF. ABS and PETG are some other options for stronger material, but for those you’ll definitely need a heated bed.
Heated Bed: For printing with materials like ABS, a heated bed is a must, and can get hot – up to 284ºF. A heated bed gives you greater control over how the cooling process might affect your creation, and can cut down on things like warping and collapsing. But if you’re not planning to use ABS materials, you may not even have to worry about having one.
Size: Consider the size of what you’ll be printing and make sure there’s room for it. Printers can range from 110mm to 500mm and upwards, with some even featuring adjustable headroom. 200mm (in all directions) is around the most common, which is fine for small things, but for larger parts, you’ll have to think big. Also keep in mind that plastics such as ABS have a tendency to shrink too.
Extruders: The extruder is the nozzle from which your printing material is sent through in order to create your final product. If you’re looking to print something intricate, with two colors or two materials at the same time, a printer with dual extruders is the way to go – even though it’ll take longer and likely cost more. Since the nozzle is what regulates the flow of your pre-loaded material, size matters here too: wider nozzles mean more material in higher layers for a faster print, while thinner nozzles take longer but are better for finer details.
Axis and Accuracy: A quick refresh here: X is side to side, Y (often times the printbed itself) moves back and forth, and Z moves up and down. These coordinates are not only important for planning how to print your product, but be aware that an unstable unit can wobble and shake, risking unwanted results on your final creation as it works its way up. Stamina is another aspect to think about too, especially if you’ll be printing products around the clock.
A 3D printer is a total game changer, giving manufacturing power to the average consumer, along with the opportunities to create things at home which were impossible only a few years ago. We’ve selected four units here to start printing your ideas to life.
1. BIBO 3D Printer with Dual Extruders
The BIBO isn’t a kit printer, and this is nearly ready to go right out of the box.
The 6mm thick aluminum frame gives the unit a sturdier feel than plastic, and the acrylic window and hood control the inner temperature, while letting you safely monitor your project’s progress.
The unit can handle two filaments at once, letting you craft creations with two different colors, and having two extruders means you can print dual identical objects simultaneously to save time.
The fully enclosed BIBO features a full color touchscreen, and “resume functionality” in case of a power outage. For the big projects, no need to constantly monitor how much material is left, as the BIBO will pause printing until you reload with fresh filament.
The flat and heated glass bed is removable, and makes it easy to print with plastics that call for sticking and setting down in one place. You can also control what you print right from your phone or PC over WiFi, with connectivity ports for USB and SD Cards too.
This works great with metal, bronze, bismuth, and carbon fiber, and the laser engraver is an extremely cool add-on.
2. Comgrow Creality Ender 3 Pro 3D Printer
The Ender 3 holds its own against the competition, with superb print quality and an ever-growing, open-source online community that’s always there to answer questions and offer support. It’s also a great place to learn all the lesser-known things that this little machine can do (including printing parts to repair the printer itself).
This 3D printer arrives mostly pre-assembled – a huge perk for newbies to the 3D printing world. Plus, it heats up the bed to 230ªF in five minutes, and the recently-updated extruder design leaves little chance of running into an annoying clogged nozzle.
Leveling the bed to a perfectly flat plane can be finicky, but once you get going, prints tightly stick to the magnetic plate and are just as easy to peel off when done.
As far as software, this comes with an older version of Cura, which is fine for printing downloaded models. But to create your own you’ll probably need to either upgrade or get any one of the many 3D printing applications like Blender or ZBrush. Users say there are setup instructions hidden on the SD Card, so be sure to take a look there before beginning your projects.
3. FlashForge Finder 3D Printer
One of the most infuriating aspects of 3D printing is a bent or bowed build plate, which ideally needs to lay perfectly flat. A minor lopsided tilt could throw your whole project off. That’s where the FlashForge’s Intelligent Assisted Leveling System is a life (and stress) saver. The system detects calibration as it guides you on the 3.5″ color touchscreen display to tighten and loosen the surrounding screws, signaling a series of beeps when it’s ready. Once that’s done, it measures distance in relation to the nozzle to confirm the non-heated plate is precise and you’re ready to print.
Its eye-catching red plastic alloy build does a decent job stabilizing it while printing, running surprisingly quietly. Sending 3D files is super-fast over WiFi too.
The Flashforge also features a convenient slide-in build plate, which makes it easy to carefully take it out when your project finishes, and minimizes the chance for damaging your creation or offsetting the plate.
Finally, users reported that customer service is always there to help if you (or the printer) get into a jam.
4. ANYCUBIC MEGA X 3D Printer
Right out of the box, all it takes is a few tweaks and twists to get this model up and running.
The Mega X’s Dual Lead Rail Design on its Y-axis and rigid metal frame provides much-needed stability for printing your projects, but also a cool and clean aesthetic as well. Its sensitive touchscreen lays out all your options right in front of you, while the Z-axis dual screw rod design decreases the likelihood of print errors.
When a project calls for careful precision, the unit’s oversized leveling knob gives a good grip and makes small adjustments infinitely easier.
Don’t fear running out of filament either – the sensor will safely pause your printing until you reload.
When you’re done, the patented heat bed’s microporous coating allows for your creation to effortlessly unstick once it’s cooled down.