You’re shopping for a personal 3D printer. What do you need to know?
It’s the same problem as buying a car, washing machine or camera or any other complex machine: what are the key characteristics upon which you can compare the options? We already listed some questions you’d better ask yourself first, but here are questions you can ask about the prospective 3D printer you’re drooling over:
- Assembled? Is the machine a kit or fully assembled? If it’s a kit you’d better be prepared to build it.
- Layer Size? How fine detail can reliably be produced on the machine? Most plastic extrusion machines these days can (or should) hit 100 microns (or 0.10mm). Good machines might be able to do less, say 50 or even 20 microns if settings are correct.
- Single or Multiple Materials? (For a plastic extrusion machine) How many extruders are included? Many machines include only one, and that’s ok. Some include two, which enable the ability to print in two colors or even two materials. Dual extruder machines are typically more expensive and trickier to operate.
- If printing ABS Plastic, Heated Bed? If you’re thinking of printing strong ABS plastic instead of the more common and sometimes brittle PLA plastic, the machine must have a heated bed, if not a heated chamber to prevent the accursed ABS warping problem.
- Size? How big do you want to print? In reality, this question is not particularly meaningful unless you have a specific project that involves large pieces. Most people print smallish objects simply because it takes far less time. That said, machines typically have “large”(over 150mm per side) or “small” (under 150mm per side) build chambers. Also, some machines are designed to print tall objects.
- Proprietary Materials? Some machines can accept only the manufacturers plastic, which might be priced higher (and occasionally much higher) than generic plastic. You’d better decide if you want to go for cheap plastic or not.
- Control Panel? What’s the physical interface like on the machine? Is it easy to read? Touch panel? Color? Object previews?
- Software? What software is included? Is it dedicated software for this machine or is it generic open source software? Will the software work on my Windows/Linux/Mac?
- Availability? Is the machine actually available? Some machines may have been announced but not yet shipped. Others may be shipping but have a significant delay until you receive yours.
- Support? What type of support is available? Typically machines do not come with extensive warranties and you’ll have to depend on some form of support as most machines will eventually break. Is there a significant online community to lean on? Can you pay for extra support?
- Cost? How much does this machine cost? What are typical repair part costs?
If you know the answers to those questions, you’ll be in a lot better shape when you evaluate the options. And there are always more options these days in 3D printing.