Welcome to our 2018 Digital Fabrication Guide. This is our sixth year of testing and reviewing 3D printers and third year testing other digital fabrication tools. In that short amount of time we’ve seen incredible leaps in the industry, starting with wood-framed kits dominating the landscape and moving to the current pack of machines with purpose-built metal cases and injection-molded parts. It’s not just the machines, either — the average 3D printer user is changing too, now expecting a higher quality, more reliable tool because they tend to be more interested in the print than the printer itself.
Each year our team gathers for our shootout testing weekend, three straight days of putting these machines through our continuously improving process to try to see how they stack up against each other. For the second straight year, we held our shootout in Digital Fabrication Editor Matt Stultz’s home hackerspace, Ocean State Maker Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The team consisted of other makerspace members who have extensive experience with 3D printing, CNC milling, laser cutting, and other digital fabrication processes. For the fused filament fabrication (FFF) machines, the initial testing is just the start, leading to blind print scoring of our test probes, comparing our notes, and really diving into the details of the machines to find the standouts. Our Digital Fabrication Guide is one of most popular issues every year. We continue to try to improve our tests based on reader feedback and are always looking for new machine types that we think you will be interested in. I hope you enjoy this year’s guide and that it will help you find that special tool you’ve been looking for.
Our FFF test probes allow us to quantify how well the printers will produce parts. Here is a breakdown of the tests we use and how we score them.
With this probe, we look for echoing or banding on the surface of the print. These will be located along the letters or the holes in the back. The worse the disruption, the lower the score.
There are three sections to this test, a slope, a flat section, and a dome. We are looking to see how cleanly those sections are formed. Any holes, pimples, or ridging will lower the score.
This probe allows us to measure how accurately the printer produces parts to size. The second step should be 20mm wide in both directions. For each .1mm the printer is off on average, it loses a point.
The overhang test starts out at 30º and continues to 70º. We look for how cleanly the back of the print comes out. Drooping and looping especially in the lower numbers will reduce the score.
Bridging is a printer’s ability to span a gap between two points. Each gap on this probe is wider apart than the last. A good part should have all the gaps bridged cleanly. Drooping and lost infill reduces points.
Negative space tolerance is important for things like bolt holes and creating print-in-place features. Each hole in the test is .1mm smaller than the last. The more pins that can be pushed out, the higher the score.
Poor retraction can cause stringing, jamming, or the inability to extrude fine features. These spikes test your machines retraction performance. Any of the issues listed can reduce the score of the print.
This is an updated test for this year. This tree tests how well support material is formed to a print. It tests four conditions that are a combination of flat and textured print areas. The print is scored based on how cleanly the material can be removed.
This test is one of two new tests for 2018. Five squares are printed around the bed, each are measured with an angle gauge to see how close they are to 90º. The further off they are from 90º, the lower the score.
This is our other new test this year. We heard feedback from our readers who wanted to make sure the printers could print out to the edges and also stayed accurate with big prints. We measure this print and the less accurate, the lower the score.
Z Wobble Test
This tower tests to see if there is any wiggle in your z-axis causing repeated ridging along the sides. This is our lone pass/fail test now and scores a 0 (fail) or 2 (pass).