Written By: Raymond Tsui
3D-printing has begun to be an interesting hobby among tinkerers and STEM enthusiasts alike. Ever since affordable cartesian printers began popping up on the market, prices have been falling drastically as print performance increases. No matter if you’re a robotics team member finding a solid printer for printing parts or a simple hobbyist looking for a printer to print decorations, a good printer is very important towards success. Finding the best printer There are three main types of consumer printers (you’re probably not going for industrial printers): Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Digital Light Processing (DLP), and Stereolithography (SLA). The most common printer type is FDM. FDM works by having plastic filament (spools) fed through an extruder and into a hotend, in which the filament is melted down and extruded onto a plate. DLP and SLA both use resins and a projector that “cures” the resin layer by layer into a 3D shape. My expertise is on FDM, not DLP or SLA so I will be focusing on FDM throughout the article. If you want to have a strong part that is easy to post-process, FDM is the way. DLP and SLA both have superior print quality but both lack in ease of use and the resin will not be fully cured sometimes. Post-processing is also a pain to deal with if you are using resin. DLP and SLA printers have identical builds in which a tub of resin is used and a laser mounted on a gantry/elevator moves down to cure the resin in the selected area on the tub. However, for FDM, there are cartesian and SCARA type printers.
For the sake of simplicity, I will be using the cartesian style for my explanations. There are two main types: bowden and direct drive. Bowden-style printers have their extruder, the set of gears powered by a stepper that pushes filament into the hotend, mounted onto the side of the printer gantry. The extruder is separate from the hotend, in which the hotend moves but the extruder does not (rigid). The second type is direct drive. As described by its namesake, the extruder directly feeds into the hotend, meaning that the extruder is mounted directly onto the hotend. As a result, the extruder moves along with the hotend in one single assembly called the printhead. Bowden printers have much lighter printheads due to the extruder being moved to the side, while direct drives have significantly heavier (and larger) printheads due to the giant extruder just sitting on the hotend.
Both types have their own advantages and disadvantages: bowdens allow for lighter print frames (cheaper!) and a faster travel time over retraction reliability (the filament cannot have snappy retraction, this is an issue while printing flexible (TPU) parts) in which the filament can’t be reversed as quickly, while direct drives (pricey!) can print at much faster speeds with excellent filament retraction over the cost of higher inertia (big and heavy printhead) and the tendency for your prints to be slightly inaccurate at very high speeds.
Generally, if you want a general purpose printer that can print PLA reliably that won’t make you or your parent’s wallets cry out in pain, pitch in for a bowden printer. The speed and flexible material support of direct drives are less of a concern for general purpose and are usually made for STEM/robotics team students.
You can certainly buy a cheaper, knockoff model from Amazon or Ebay, but do keep in mind that print quality would take a hit and it will cost you much more money long-term. Spending a bit more money on a sturdier and good-review printer is the optimal way. However, you can’t just hop onto Amazon and search for printers there. Before you even touch the shopping cart, please do some research. Now, printer research takes pretty long as there are many good models out there. Reputable sources are also pretty rare. As a result, I have compiled a short list of recommended printer models on price range based on several sources and my personal preference.
Generally, you should be looking for printers that have a HEATED BED (very important because you need to make sure your parts will not detach mid-print), good print quality, isn’t made of cheap plastics, will not make your wallet cry, won’t catch on fire, won’t set off the fire alarm because of a bad power supply unit… ...you get the idea.
Okay, but seriously, don’t go for printer looks. Do not buy printers that are fancy, have small print bed space, and have wack tolerances. Most high-performance printers look ugly and have no coverings at all (extrusions and gantries exposed). Remember, don’t judge a book by its cover!
$100-$300 Creality Ender 3/3Pro. Pros:
Good bowden performance
Good print quality
Reputable by a lot of hobbyists, favorite low cost printer for many.
Bowden, poor performance on flexible filament
Poor/subpar retraction performance if untuned
Low support of materials (can’t print PETG because the teflon heartbreak will degrade
Wonky print quality in fast speeds
Lead-screws are kind of weird
Alternative low-cost printer with small print volume: Cetus Mk. 3
Artillery Sidewinder X1 (Personal favorite)
EXTREMELY FAST AC HEATED BED!
Good glass bed technology (makes parts easier to remove)
Filament runout sensor
90% assembled so you don’t need to put together a lot of parts
Excellent print quality
Lightning-fast max print speed
Very quiet operation
Mega thick gantry extrusions, excellent structural performance
You get what you pay for
Worrisome AC heatbed supply cable
Worrisome gantry ribbon cables
Wonky filament holder
Average support of materials (can’t print nylon/polycarbonate at high temperatures because the teflon heartbreak will degrade)
Lead-screws are kind of weird
The gantry may come in warped during assembly
Isn’t recognized by CuraSlicer (as of 11/9/2020, probably because it is a fairly new brand) for quick setup
PRUSA Research Mk. 2/3s
Spring-steel build plate, easy part removal
Highly respected by print hobbyists
Absolute legend of printer reliability and quality
Very, very fast max speed
If you have the budget, PLEASE get this
You get more than what you paid for
Medium print volume
Medium size, slight downgrade from large format printers like the Sidewinder X1
Alright! For the sake of simplifying and shortening article length, we will be splitting this article up in 3 parts. Part Two will guide you through what filaments are best. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below. Best of luck!