Everyone seems to want a 3D printer these days, but unfortunately the market is at least 50% comprised of 3D printers that are little more than partly-functional prototypes. Also, there is no printer out there that works 100% out-of-the-box like an inkjet or laser printer would, and most printers require additions and modifications in order to get good-looking prints or any prints at all. So unless you are willing to “tinker” with your printer, I’m afraid 3D printing technology for the consumer isn’t quite at the “out-of-box” level yet, and may never be. But if you are willing to put up with the problems & challenges inherent with 3D printing, and are willing to “tinker” with your printer, here are a few tips for you in order to increase your chances of buying a good printer.
NOTE: This article is about FDM (fused deposition modeling) aka FFF (fused filament fabrication) 3D printers – the kind that melt then extrude molten plastic filament. If you are in the market for an SLA or SLS 3D Printer (the kinds that use liquid resins or powder), parts of this article may not apply to you (but some parts will).
Tip #1: Buy a Brand that Offers a Warranty and Tech Support
Unfortunately, most brands of 3D printers are manufactured by companies that offer no warranty or support. Sure, they may say they do, but “talk is cheap” and electronic print on a sales page is even cheaper. Make sure you research the company and printer by reading reviews and reading forums and Facebook groups for that company/printer. This leads to tip #2.
Tip #2: Buy a 3D Printer that has at Least One Active User/Support Group
Before you settle on a printer, do internet searches to see if that particular printer has a Facebook group, forum or forum section devoted to that printer and make sure that group is active and frequently visited by others. This ensures that you get additional support for your printer beyond what the manufacturer may give. In fact, you will probably find you will get better support from other customers in some cases.
Tip #3: Don’t Bother with 3D Printers with 12 volt Power Supplies (aka PSU)
3D Printers that have only a 12-volt operating/output voltage are usually not trustworthy in the long-run. They usually tend to malfunction or even burn-out rather quickly. One of the major reasons for this is because the lower the output voltage means that a higher current (amperage) is needed to achieve the power specific components need to operate. This higher current tends to wear-out/burn-out electronic components more quickly and, in some cases, can even be a fire hazard. This is especially true with 3D printer under $500 since it’s very likely some or even all the components are going to be bottom of the barrel as far as quality is concerned. A lower operating voltage also means you have to wait longer for your hot end (aka nozzle) and heated print bed (see Tip #7) to warm up to operating temperatures. As such, many people end up replacing their 12V PSU with a 24V PSU (when possible) for these reasons. Unless price is a huge factor, you may want to consider just skipping printers with 12V PSUs altogether. But the fact is, most 3D printers under $500 are going to have a 12-volt power supply.
Tip #4: Bowden vs. Direct Drive – Get the Right Extruder Type for Your Needs
The extruder on a 3D printer is the mechanism that feeds the your filament to the hot end (aka nozzle). There are essentially 2 types of extruders: Bowden and Direct Drive. A direct drive extruder is mounted right above the hot end (aka nozzle) on the printer, therefore there is little distance between the extruder and where your plastic filament is heated and extruded from the hot end. This means that it is possible to use flexible filaments (like TPU) in such a printer.
However, a Bowden extruder is located as much as a foot away from the hot end (aka nozzle) and therefore has a tough time (actually, usually impossible) feeding flexible filaments to the nozzle without problems. Usually a Bowden extruder works well for PLA and ABS (or other similarly rigid filaments) but not for softer, flexible filaments like TPU. While it can be possible to modify a Bowden extruder to successfully feed a flexible filament, most of the time there will still be problems resulting in down-time and even breakages.
So if you plan on using soft, flexible filaments in your 3D printing project, you’d be better off buying a printer that has a Direct Drive extruder. On the other hand, of you don’t see yourself ever wanting to print using flexible filaments, then a Bowden extruder could suit you just fine.
Tip #5: Buy from an Authorized Reseller or Directly from the Manufacturer
Manufacturers (especially electronics manufacturers) do not offer warranties on products bought from non-authorized resellers. As such, don’t buy your printer from just any marketplace seller or website. Make sure that the reseller you’re buying from is authorized by the manufacturer to sell their printers. Otherwise, you may find yourself with no warranty and no support from the manufacturer. If in doubt, buy from the manufacturer directly and avoid buying a non-supportable, non-warrantied printer.
Tip #6: Enclosed vs. Open-Frame 3D Printers
If you are looking to print just PLA material or other similar materials where the ambient temperature isn’t so much of a factor in your print quality, then an open-frame style printer should be OK for you. But of you are looking to print in ABS material, you will need a printer with an enclosure. ABS has a tendency to split and curl unless it has a warm ambient temperature (an no air drafts) when it’s being printed. So an enclosed-style printer is imperative when printing in ABS. Unfortunately, enclosed printers usually have significantly smaller print bed volumes than their open-frame counterparts. So if you need the larger print volume that an open-frame printer can offer, but you want to successfully print in ABS, you’ll have to be willing to buy or make an enclosure for times when you want to print with ABS filament.
There are many tutorials on the internet that show how different folks have constructed their own enclosures – just do a search. Otherwise, shop around for something that can be used as an enclosure – many folks buy server cabinets because they come in smaller sizes and look good, too. Most 3D printer fit well in a 12U or 15U server cabinet, however make sure you measure the size of your printer (taking into account moving parts and your filament spool) so you buy the proper size cabinet/enclosure for your printer. One major attribute about server cabinets that make them really attractive for use with 3D printers is that they usually have side panels that are easily removed. This makes it more convenient to access the your printer from the sides. If you use an enclosure with fixed side panels, there is a chance you will have to remove your printer from the cabinet more often when servicing the printer or when you otherwise need access your printer from either side.
If you are looking to buy an enclosed-style printer, make sure it is in fact enclosed. Some open-frame 3D printers are designed with a full frame and might resemble an enclosed printer, but since they they lack any windows on the cut-outs, they won’t offer any the benefits of an enclosed 3D printer since air and other elements are free to access the print area. Just make sure it’s truly a fully enclosed before you buy it.
Tip #7: Heated vs. Non-Heated Print bed
A heated bed on a 3D printer enables proper adhesion of the printed object to the print bed, which greatly ensure a successful print from start to finish. Generally speaking, PLA filament does not necessarily need a heated bed, so if you are only planning on printing in PLA, a heated bed isn’t 100% necessary. However, even if you are just printing in PLA, it’s still advisable to use a heated bed as PLA can still have adhesion problems without it, depending on various factors.
On the other hand, many other filaments do require a heated bed (this is especially true for ABS filament). So if you require printing in filaments like ABS or other materials that absolutely require a heated bed, well, you’ll need a printer with a heated bed.
Tip #8: Metal vs. Wood or Plastic Frames & Enclosures
Although most (but not all) enclosed-style 3D printers these days are manufactured in metal, there are still many open-frame style printers that are being manufactured with wooden or acrylic (or other plastic) frames. Plastic and wood have a tendency to warp, crack or split over time, which affects the stability of your printer and therefore the quality of your prints.
The first 3D printer pictured here looks like a black metal-framed printer (click on the image for a closer look). However, upon closer examination of the picture, you will find reflections of parts on the shiny acrylic plastic frame, thanks to lighting and angle of the camera when the picture was taken. You could say that perhaps it is metal glossy paint, but 3D printers are rarely painted with a glossy paint. You can also see that other parts are constructed of cheap, pressed wood. This is an example of a 3D printer you should definitely avoid buying.
The bottom line is: JUST AVOID WOOD AND PLASTIC FRAMES.
Tip #9: Kits or Assembled Units?
There is no such thing as a printer that comes shipped fully assembled and ready to print right out if the box. The reason for this is mostly because of shipping costs. Shipping costs today take into account volume as well as weight – the smaller the package, the cheaper the cost of shipping. Because of this fact, 3D printers come shipped in 2 different ways: Kits and Mostly-assemble.
Kits are completely non-assembled units. They can take anywhere from several hours to many days to assemble and calibrate, depending on several factors including the specific printer and your abilities. While you might save money when buying a kit, you pay for it in time (and maybe even frustration). Kit’s a a great choice for DIYers but can be a curse for those that just want to get up and running ASAP. However, there is a positive side to kits even for the impatient: they allow you to get a good feel of the different parts of your printer and, as such, are a great learning experience. But, admittedly, kits aren’t for everyone.
You’ll also see “mostly-assembled ” and they are just that – mostly-assembled. There aren’t many (or possibly any) printers that come shipped 100% fully assembled. Some assembly will always be required on the user’s part. However, they usually only require 20-90 minutes assembly, which means you can get up and running much faster than with a totally non-assembled kit. How much assembly that will be required depends on the model and your capabilities. To get some idea of how much assembly is required, search Youtube for the specific model of 3D printer you are looking to purchase. You can usually find a least one or two “unboxing” or assembly videos for just about any model.
However, how much assembly that’s required should never be a main deciding factor in your purchase decision. If you know a specific model is a good fit for your needs, refraining from purchasing it just because it’s going to take you longer to assemble over your second choice isn’t really a sound decision. Also, if you do buy a mostly-assembled unit, don’t just assemble the parts you are supposed to assemble, but make sure you go through the already-assembled parts and check for loose screws. Many times, screws will be left loose so as to hinder breakage or bending of parts during rough handling in shipping or simply from lazy workers. Loose screws or otherwise shoddy assembly will cause your printer to shake (even if only slightly) and therefore cause bad prints.
REALITY CHECK: If even some assembly makes you cringe in fear, I’m afraid that 3D printing simply isn’t for you. Even if you find a printer that comes fully assembled, you will need to maintain and service your printer (there is no doubt about this as there is no such thing as a service-free and maintenance-free 3D printer). You would be better off looking into another hobby. 3D printing is a very involved hobby that requires a lot of learning and troubleshooting and tweaking. The 3D printing manufacturers want you to believe that 3D printing is as care-free and trouble-free as ink printing, but nothing could be further from the truth. 3D printing is for tinkerers, tweakers, DIYers and just generally-curious tech and engineering geeks. Those who get into 3D printing JUST because they want to “print stuff” usually get bored or overwhelmed within a few days to a few months.
Tip #10: Avoid the Budget Models, if you can.
As with anything, you get what you pay for, and this is certainly true with 3D printers. When you buy a 3D printer under $400, you’re likely going to buy something that is going to turn you off to 3D printing. If it works at all, it may not work for long or without a lot more frustration than normally comes along with 3D printing today. Save your money and buy a 3D printer at the $500 price point or above. However, realize that the higher price point does not guarantee you’ll get a good printer. You still need to do your research (as with any other product) before you shell out the cash. There are many unscrupulous sellers and manufacturers out there claiming you’re getting the best of the best, when all you’re actually getting is an over-priced heap of junk.
Tip #11: Used 3D Printers are a Headache
If you are already knowledgeable about 3D printers, a used printer can be a good deal, but if you are new to 3D printing…not so much. Used products, including 3D printers do not have a manufacturer’s warranty, you can rarely ever return them and you are usually buying someone else’s problem. This goes for Amazon Warehouse Deals (AWD). Products bought on AWD are usually technically brand new but are not covered under warranty by the manufacturer and they will not provide you with any support, either (see the article about Amazon Warehouse Deals). If you are new, you need all the support you can get, and because many printers do have problems, you need a warranty. Just stick with a brand new 3D printers until you get experience.
On the other hand, if you are buying from a friend who will be there to help you with any problems, a used printer in this case might be a good idea if the price is right. Just remember that any electronic product loses a lot of value in a short period of time due to the fact that it doesn’t carry a warranty and because technology becomes outdated quickly. Typically speaking, never pay more than half the current going brand new price for a used 3D printer. People who sell used items tend to think their stuff is worth more than it actually is. But don’t be a fool, if it isn’t half of the going brand new retail price (and that includes sale prices), move on. Chances are on 6 months to 1 year it will be considered outdated and you will be in the market for another one anyhow.
BONUS – Tip #12: Potential Health & Safety Risks of 3D Printer
This isn’t as much a tip about buying your first 3D printer as it is a PSA, but…
Consumer 3D printing is a relatively new thing. No one really knows the health risks that are involved with melting plastics inside your home. Oh sure, you’re going to find all these “internet experts” on the Internet that are going to tell you everything is fine, it’s 100% safe and there’s nothing to worry about. But the fact is, these people are merely excited, passionate hobbyists. While they may be experts on how to 3D print successfully, they are merely hobbyists and not health or even plastics experts.
One seemingly-plausible idea of reducing risks is to make sure you learn to use your 3D printer properly so that you do not heat your plastics more than they need to be. For sure, of you are overheating your plastics to the point where they are smoking, this isn’t good – not only for your health, but for the quality of your prints.
Your best bet is to be cautious and, at the very least, place your printer in a room where you don’t spend a lot of time. And as far as the risk of fire due to malfunctioning electrical/electronic components, never let your 3D printer operate when no one is home and aware it is running. In fact, is also probably best to unplug it from the wall when it’s not in use (better safe than having a bured-down home, right?). You have to understand, 99.99% of these 3D printers are manufactured in China and it’s a well-known fact that Chinese exporters get away with a lot that exporters from other countries cannot. Just because the shipping box claims their product complies with US safety standards, it doesn’t mean it’s actually so and customs officers often turn a blind eye with Chinese consumer products. The internet is full of forum posts and videos that divulge poor soldering techniques and poor-quality or improperly used components. Just be careful and use common sense.