3D Printing & Imaging Workshop

3DP Buyer's Guide

Get your copy of the Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014 here!

Which printer is right for you? The answer largely depends on your goals, budget, and user type. Will your machine be used at home in hobbyist pursuits and projects with the kids, or are you a designer or engineer who is considering a printer for your work? Must it accommodate the needs of multiple users in a school or makerspace? Is it a good value for the price? Are you a tinkerer or do you just want to hit the print button?

We thought carefully about this question as we prepared for our second shootout and decided that metrics alone wouldn’t give us the complete answer. Instead, we opted to review this year’s collection of printers with a more qualitative evaluation of the user experience. We increased the duration of our testing to include a setup period and shootout weekend, to better accommodate the learning curve that comes with every printer. We also focused our testing protocol on what we could realistically evaluate with a team of experts in the time allotted. We tested more machines than ever (adding 3D scanners and filament-making machines as well). Although we were unable to cover every printer on the market, we solicited fully assembled machines from every manufacturer that we were aware of, and if they sent us a machine, we tested it. Ultimately, we wanted to give readers a clear picture of what each machine does well, what it does poorly, and who it would serve best.

Are you ready to start printing? Then dive in and find the right tool. The options abound.

This Year’s Trends in 3D Printing

Developments in desktop 3D printers come at a breakneck pace, and this year’s roundup brought exciting new trends emerging in size, shapes, and print materials.

Small and Affordable

SIP06-PrintrbotSimpleUntil recently, there has been a steep drop off when entering the small, sub-$1,000 3D printer realm. But with a couple new machines in our test, we now have access to printers that aren’t just portable and low-cost, they’re also capable of producing respectable results.

Precise Prints With Liquid Resin

SIP06-Formlabs-Form1Light-cured resin printers, new to our testing, are in a class by themselves, both in terms of the SLA technology used and the quality of the prints produced. Both of the machines we tested in this category are quickly being adopted by designers and craftspersons who require professional-grade details.

Three-Armed Robots and Automatic Adjustments

SIP06-MiniKosselDeltaBot_PIWith smooth, fast-moving heads, delta robot printers also entered the 3D printing conversation this year; we tested the OpenBeam Mini Kossel while keeping our eye on nearly a half dozen more (see our “Ones to Watch” section in the issue).

The Mini Kossel and the more typical Up Plus 2 also introduced auto-leveling features, which eliminates one of the monotonous manual steps required when setting up a print job.

The Prosumer Category Grows

SIP06-MakerbotRep2_piUntil recently, the prosumer selection for fused-filament printers has largely been limited to the MakerBot Replicator 2. However, the new Ultimaker 2 now provides a viable option to those needing high-quality results, onboard controls and intuitive high quality software, with a form factor that is suitable for a professional workplace.

User Types

When reviewing each machine, we considered the following user profiles:

  • Makers: Enjoy creating physical objects and want their tools to get the job done.
  • Tinkerers: Enjoy building machines and tweaking them, more interested in hardware than design.
  • Designers: Accustomed to drafting physical objects, not creating them. More comfortable in software than hardware.

We also found ourselves assessing the needs of beginners, students, educators, makerspaces, prosumers, and professionals who may use the machines as part of a business.

The Testing Protocol

This year our testing on each machine was two-fold; like last year, each tester was a first time user of each machine but we also wanted to leverage the considerable combined experience of our testers to be able to make informed conclusions about each printer’s capabilities within the time allotted.

Christmas Came Early This Year

In order to make sure that the printers were in working order when they arrived at the MAKE offices, the MAKE interns and I performed the “Christmas morning” tests prior to the shootout weekend. We unboxed all the machines and printed a small MAKE robot and ensured that the printer was operational prior to the arrival of the main group of testers. This enabled us to contact customer support early if a machine was having serious difficulty and gave us the lay of the land before we began serious comparison testing.

During the Shootout

After our team of experts assembled at MAKE’s offices, we met as a group to discuss the protocol. Each tester was instructed to carefully read all provided machine documentation and to set up the machine by replicating the Christmas morning test of printing the MAKE robot. Although many of our testers had extensive 3DP experience, we also asked them to try to think like a inexperienced user and to keep in mind what type of user would enjoy using this printer so that the team could assess the audience for each machine tested. During the testing we evaluated the hardware and software using what is known in usability circles as a “Heuristic evaluation”. A Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine an interface and judge its compliance with recognized usability principles or “heuristics.” Although heuristics are not typically used for hardware evaluation, our testers extensive combined personal 3DP experience informed their expectations for hardware ease of use and so this methodology was natural fit for this type of evaluation.

Careful Collaboration 

We collaborated during all phases of the testing process by using shared documentation and recording all of our key findings and testing events as they happened. We wanted to clearly capture any information that could help a new user set up these machines. During the weekend, we paused the testing at several points to regroup and discuss our findings and reorient our expectations. The team also evaluated the challenge prints together at the end of the weekend.

Tips and Customer Support

We asked our testers to contact customer support directly if they ran into any printer issues and document and share any tips on lessons learned from the experience. Time was short, but testers were also encouraged to test the responsiveness of each vendor’s customer support so we could further help our readers evaluate which printer was right for them.

SIP6 Challenge Prints

Meet the Test Team.

Read the results.

Anna Kaziunas France is interested practical digital fabrication focused project documentation (anything that turns codes into things), as well as adventures in synthetic biology, biohacking, personal genomics and programmable materials.

She's currently working on the forthcoming book "Design for CNC: Practical Joinery Techniques, Projects, and Tips for CNC-routed Furniture".

She’s also the Academic Dean of the global Fab Academy program, the co-author of Getting Started with MakerBot and compiled the Make: 3D Printing book.

Formerly, she worked as an editor for Make: Books, was digital fabrication editor and skill builder section editor for Make: Magazine, and directed Make:'s 2015 and 2014 3D Printer Shootout testing events.

She likes things that are computer-controlled, parametric, and open— preferably all three.

Find her on her personal site, Twitter and Facebook.

View more articles by Anna Kaziunas France