3D Printers Overview – Affordable and Feature-Packed

The technology has been around for a while, 3D printing systems have been around for over 25 years, in the form of highly specialized 3D printing solutions, and could be found only in industrial, medical or research environments. Recently the technology has made the leap towards the consumer market with off-the-shelf 3D printers available at affordable prices. You can even build one yourself using most robotics development platforms. Rapid prototyping has become more affordable than ever and almost any kind of item can be created with a 3D printer, be it for sheer entertainment, functional purposes or various types of research. In this article we will focus on some of the consumer and enthusiast-grade 3D printers available on the market, talk about their specs and pricing. But first of all let’s take a look at some general features of consumer 3D printing.

CubeX Duo | Photo: Cubify

CubeX Duo | Photo: Cubify

A few words about 3D printing

Just like standard printing, or 2D printing, 3D printing is, in short, the process of transposing a numerical 3D model of an item or structure in a tangible form with the aid of a 3D printer. Well how can this be accomplished? The straightforward method is to decompose our 3D model into layers, just like slicing a loaf of bread or a piece of cheese with a knife, and then sending this information to our 3D printer, which is essentially a highly specialized type of robot. The thickness of these layers is the resolution at which the 3D printing is done, also known as z-resolution. 3D printers on the market can be found capable of printing anywhere between 100 to 500 microns (0.1 to 0.5 mm), with 200-250 microns capability as an industry average and 100 microns being paper-thin. 500 microns resolution is usually employed for very rapid prototyping or parts that are not surface critical, or have little variation throughout the Z-axis.

Layers are created by the 3D printer on top of each other until the item is constructed. This is the main difference with respect to the well-known and widely used numerically controlled machining techniques (e.g. CNC mills), 3D printing is an additive process, as material is added layer by layer to form the desired object, whereas CNC machining is a subtractive process, excess is removed or subtracted from the raw material piece until the desired object is created.

3D printing technologies

There are several 3D printing technologies, which also determine the manufacturing material, for instance fused deposition modelling (FDM) can employ a variety o materials like thermoplastics – most common, clay or porcelain. Layer by layer the material is extruded through a heated nozzle head and hardens as it cools down. This is the most common technology employed in consumer to professional-grade 3D printers.

An entirely different approach is used in stereolithography (SLA) where liquid polymer is exposed to a precisely controlled laser light and responds by hardening. A building platform located in the vat of liquid moves down as each layer is completed, leaving a thin film of liquid to pe exposed for the next layer.

Another technology is laminated object manufacturing (LOM) in which even regular paper can be employed as a building material. Layers are cut out of paper sheets, adhesive is deposited onto them and finally they are laminated together into the final object. We will analyze the 3D printing process and technologies in detail in another article, and also take a look at traditional CNC machining techniques.

Raftless printing

Another attribute is the ability of the 3D printer to perform raftless printing. raft is basically an interface between the work platform or bedding surface of the 3D printer and the rest of the model and it is usually printed with a different material than the rest of the model in order to get separated more easily. The role of the raft is to compensate for irregularities in the bed surface, stick the model to the surface and provide a more controlled starting point for the model. Raft printing is not always desirable, especially on more complex models which have a lot of detail, thus making raft removal pretty hard in this case. Raftless printing is employed in up-scale 3D printers, which feature heated work platforms and more tightly controlled material extrusion for printing detailed models straight from the work surface up, eliminating the need for a raft, whereas budget models usually lack such capability out-of-the-box.

3D printing supplies

As stated above, 3D printers aimed at the consumer market are based on FDM technology and employ ABS or PLA plastics as building materials. These materials are delivered in 1.75 mm filaments either bulk or packed into several standard-sized spool cartridges. ABS plastics are used to create more durable models, but higher temperatures of at least 120-150°C are required, while PLA bio-plastics require lower temperatures to work with, around 40-50°C and can be used for soluble model supports or larger elements.

UP! Mini 3D printer

UP! Mini 3D printer | Photo:

UP! Mini 3D printer | Photo: PP3DP

The UP! Mini, created by Chinese company PP3DP, is perhaps the most affordable printing solution for your desktop. At prices between 700 to 900 US Dollars (approximately 660 Euro) this 3D printer packs a lot of features and is also user friendly. It is ready to run out of the box and installation should take a little over 10 minutes. The building bay volume is approximately 1.7 liters, or 120 x 120 x 120 mm. External dimensions of the device are (WxDxH) 245 x 260 x 350 mm. Materials used can be ABS or PLA plastic at 1.75 mm plastic filament, one ABS spool cartridge is included. Layer resolution (thickness) can be selected between 200, 250, 300 and 350 microns (0.2-0.35 mm). Raftless printing is not possible although there have been some reports of successful raftless prints, after altering certain parameters.

The UP! 3D layout and printing software included can open STL files exported from CAD software, and is compatible with Windows XP onward and Mac OSX. The 3D printing software can automatically create break-away material supports if the shape of the model to be printed requires such. Gloves and tools for maintaining and servicing the printer are also included. ABS and PLA spool cartridges are available in different colors at prices of around 30 to 40 US Dollars.

UP! Mini resources

UP! Mini quick specs

  • Build volume: 1.7 liters, 120x120x120 mm (WxDxH)
  • Material: ABS, PLA, 1.75 mm filament
  • Layer resolution: 200, 250, 300, 350 micron – selectable
  • Platform: spring-loaded
  • Connectivity: USB
  • Software: Windows XP, 7, 8, Mac OS X 10.7 and up, STL file support, automatic snap-off support generation
  • Price: US$ 700-900 (660 Euro approx.)
  • Other: Maintenance and repair kit included, 1 ABS spool included

UP! Plus 2 3D printer

UP! Plus 2 3D printer | Photo:

UP! Plus 2 3D printer | Photo: PP3DP

The UP! Plus 2 is a more upscale 3D printer featuring a more sturdy construction and a range of extra features at a price tag just shy of 1 700 US Dollars (approximately 1 200 Euro). It has a slightly larger work volume of 135 x 140 x 140 mm is compatible with ABS or PLA plastics. Layer resolution is 150 microns (0.15 mm) making very high quality prints possible. The work platform is heated, it has raftless printing capability.

The 3D printer is delivered almost ready-to-run, only a calibration of the work platform and nozzle head needs to be performed, by mounting the provided platform level and nozzle height sensors, included in the box, and running the automated routine. UP! Desktop 3D Printer Plus software is included and STL files of the printer’s own spare parts are also added.

UP! Plus 2 resources

UP! Plus 2 quick specs

  • Build volume: 2.6 liters, 140x140x135 mm (WxDxH)
  • Material: ABS, PLA, 1.75 mm filament
  • Layer resolution: 150, 200, 250, 300, 350, 340 micron – selectable
  • Connectivity: USB
  • Software: Windows XP, 7, 8, Mac OS X 10.7 and up, STL file support, automatic snap-off support generation
  • Price: US$ 1700 (1200 Euro approx.)
  • Other: Nozzle and platform calibration kit included, Maintenance and repair kit included, 1 ABS spool included

MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D printer

MakerBot Replicator Mini | Photo: MakerBot

MakerBot Replicator Mini | Photo: MakerBot

The Replicator Mini, coming from the American company MakerBot Industries, now a subsidiary of 3D printing giant Stratasys Ltd., is a very compact device designed for home or office use. The price tag is of about 1 400 US Dollars (about 1 000 Euro). The building bay dimensions are 100 x 100 x 125 mm (LxWxH) translating intro approximately 1.2 liters volume. The layer resolution is 200 microns and can employ only PLA plastic for the builds.

MakerBot products are very connected, this should not come as a surprise since Thingiverse has become a massive community where everyone can share or download 3D models directly to their printer. The Replicator Mini even comes equipped with a 320 x 240 camera for sharing or monitoring different print stages, not to mention mobile app and cloud connectivity.

The MakerBot software bundle supports standard STL and OBJ files, as well as proprietary THING and MAKERBOT formats and can run on Windows 7, Mac OS X and Linux – Ubuntu and Fedora.

MakerBot Replicator Mini resources

MakerBot Replicator Mini quick specs

  • Build volume: 1.2 liters, 100x100x125 mm (WxDxH)
  • Material: PLA, 1.75 mm filament
  • Layer resolution: 200 micron
  • Connectivity: USB, WiFi
  • Software: Windows 7, 8, Mac OS X 10.8 and up, Ubuntu, Fedora, STL, OBJ, MAKERBOT, THING file support, automatic snap-off support generation
  • Price: US$ 1400 (1000 Euro approx.)
  • Other: Onboard 320×240 color camera, Mobile app and Cloud enabled

MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D printer

MakerBot Replicator | Photo: MakerBot

MakerBot Replicator | Photo: MakerBot

The Replicator is the latest product from MakerBot. A mature product, at its 5th generation it features a massive 7.5 liters build volume, or 252 x 199 x 150 mm (LxWxH). It is compatible with PLA plastic filaments and layer resolution is at 100 microns and it features a 3.5 inch color display interface. It also has a 320×240 onboard color camera and features an Ethernet connection. Its price is just shy of 3 000 US Dollars (a little over 2 000 Euro).

Just like in the case of the Replicator Mini, the software is packed with features and connectivity and runs on Windows 7 and upwards, Mac OS X and Linux – Ubuntu and Fedora operating systems.

MakerBot Replicator resources

MakerBot Replicator quick specs

  • Build volume: 1.2 liters, 252x199x150 mm (WxDxH)
  • Material: PLA, 1.75 mm filament
  • Layer resolution: 100 micron
  • Connectivity: USB, USB stick (untethered), Ethernet, WiFi
  • Software: Windows 7, 8, Mac OS X 10.8 and up, Ubuntu, Fedora, STL, OBJ, MAKERBOT, THING file support, automatic snap-off support generation
  • Price: US$ 3000 (2000 Euro approx.)
  • Other: 3.5 inch color display interface, Onboard 320×240 color camera, Mobile app and Cloud enabled, assisted levelling

Cube 2 3D printer

Cube 2 3D printer | Photo: Cubify

Cube 2 3D printer | Photo: Cubify

The new Cube 3D printer comes from 3D Systems, a company from South Carolina, US. This 3D printer is a great choice for beginners, being priced at a reasonable 1 400 US Dollars. It is compatible with ABS, PLA and recyclable plastic, layer resolution is 200 micron. The 3D printer takes advantage of the proprietary plastic jet printing (PJP) technology.

Maximum build size is 14 cubic cm and the software, included with the printer, automatically adds supports if the model requires them. The software creates proprietary .CUBE files. The software is compatible with Windows XP onwards and Mac OS X 10.8.

Cube 2 resources

Cube 2 quick specs

  • Build volume: 2.7 liters, 140x140x140 mm (WxDxH)
  • Material: ABS, PLA, other plastics, 1.75 mm filament
  • Layer resolution: 200 micron
  • Connectivity: USB stick (untethered), WiFi
  • Software: Windows XP, 7, 8, Mac OS X 10.8 and up, standard STL files, CUBE format, automatic snap-off support generation
  • Price: US$ 1400 (1000 Euro approx.)
  • Other: Free 3D models to start with (registration with Cubify necessary)

CubeX 3D printers

Cubex Trio  triple head 3D printer | Photo: Cubify

Cubex Trio triple head 3D printer | Photo: Cubify

The CubeX 3D printers come in three flavors, the standard CubeX with a single printing nozzle, the CubeX Duo and the CubeX Trio with two and respectively three printing nozzles for multiple color prints. The building bay area is very large, at over 17 liters for the single-nozzle model and no less than 11 liters for the 3-nozzle variant. Prices vary between 3 000 to little over 4 000 US dollars, depending on the variant chosen.

User-friendly software converts 3D models, also delivered via STL files, into G-code instructions to be used with the 3D printer. Numerous online resources exist for modelling or upgrading your printer.

CubeX resources

CubeX quick specs

  • Build volume:
    • Single head: 17.49 liters, 275x265x240 mm (WxDxH)
    • Double head: 14.6 liters, 230x265x240 mm (WxDxH)
    • Triple head: 11.7 liters, 185x265x240 mm (WxDxH)
  • Material: ABS, PLA, other plastics, 1.75 mm filament
  • Layer resolution: 100, 250, 500 micron – selectable
  • Connectivity: USB, USB stick (untethered)
  • Software: Windows XP, 7, 8, Mac OS X 10.8 and up, standard STL files, CUBE format, automatic snap-off support generation
  • Price: starting at US$ 2900 (2100 Euro approx.)
  • Other: 1, 2 or 3 spool cartridges included – depending on model, tool kit included

Resources