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
Until 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
Light-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
With 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
Until 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.
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.
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.