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The Ultimate Guide To Buying a 3D Printer

Choosing your first 3D printer is tough.

But here’s the good news:

It turns out you can become a 3D printing PRO in just 9 chapters.

Here’s what one of our clients told us:

“I'm so glad I found this guide. I used to rely on Best 3D printers style guides, but I had no confidence these 3D printers were right for my projects. Now I fully understand the pros and cons of the chosen Ultimaker 2 and just built my third engine prototype. Thank you so much!”

We hope you’ll get a similar result.

Chapter 1. Where to start?

You should start by determining what projects you want to complete with your 3D printer. Of course, it is enticing to choose a device that offers as many functions and possibilities as possible. However, such machines don’t come cheap.

And that’s why you shouldn’t be dismissive when it comes to narrowing down your choices to specific printers, preferable for solving your tasks.

Here's a useful analogy:

In my youth days, I wanted a computer that would have the most powerful CPU, the best graphics card, the maximum number of memory slots, plenty of PCI ports for all possible peripherals, and other advanced computer stuff. 

In 2019, IBM's Summit is the world's smartest AI machine. It cost $200 million to build. Credit: Wired.

But what in reality?

The real life experience taught me that having sufficient configuration capable of running office software and a handful of video games is pretty much enough to make me happy. And this costs much less than top-notch configuration.  

Same thing with 3D printers. You may dream of the largest print area possible. But in fact, a build volume up to 300 x 300 x 300 mm is more than enough to solve the majority of 3D printing tasks. For example, the following Iron Man suit was created using Creality Ender 3 which has a maximum build volume of 220 x 220 x 250 mm.

Credit: @melbourne_ironman / Instagram

Printing models in parts and then assembling them together can take you far in 3D printing. Physicist Sterling Backus used the same approach to build a Lamborghini.

The same goes for dual-extruder 3D printer. Surely, printing with multiple filaments offers great opportunities, but printing with two materials at once is generally very slow and adds extra cost. If you’re not planning to 3D print complex expensive objects on a regular basis, it may not be reasonable to buy one. 

Ask yourself: Is it for hobby or professional use?

If you have a lot of free time and just want to have fun and experiment with the machine, learn its potential, figure out how it works, the quality of parts plays less importance. In that case cheap DIY kits might be a good option for you. The journey might be rough, but you'll learn all the ins and outs of the 3D printing world.

Anet A8 is one of such machines. Although it costs less than $200, you'll be able to make quality prints:

And write Yoda-level posts like the one below:

If you're not the tinkering kind, consider pre-assemsbled or ready-to-work machines. 

If you are going to use a 3D printer for professional purposes, the first thing to consider is the quality of printing as well as reliability of the equipment. In this case, it’s all about ready-to-work machines, which you just need to switch on to start printing.

Semi-assembled or DIY kits are not very good for professional 3D printing because they take a lot of time to assemble and adjust (as you saw in the example above). In contrast, machines like Ultimaker, Zortrax, Craftbot and many others are built to work around the clock. For example, Australian lighting firm, LimeLite, has a farm of 30 3D printers, producing roughly 20 lamps per day. 

Credit: Zortrax

It does not mean that you need to buy the most expensive 3D printer! It only means that you should make a well-considered decision.

So, it is essential to determine the exact tasks you want your machine to perform.

Here are a few examples:

  • If you concern yourself with foundry engineering and want to use your printer to build master models, you will likely need a device with a large build volume (though, other options are also available). 
  • If you want to create highly precise prototypes, you may need a printer with dual extrusion because it is necessary for printing with soluble support materials. 
  • Suppose you are going to deal with low-scale production of small parts. Then it is reasonable to look for a machine that can work round the clock with minimum maintenance. 

Chapter 2. Which kinematic type to choose?

The history of FDM 3D printers began in 2004 when Darwin, the first FDM machine, was created as a part of the RepRap project.

XY-Head Z-Bed

The first 3D printer had the XY-Head Z-Bed design. The extruder of this model sits on the X-axis and Y-axis, while the print bed moves along the Z-axis (up and down). The chief shortcoming of the printer was insufficient rigidity of the construction and too intricate configuration.

In the photo above you can see that the first printer was basically a complex construction consisting mostly of rods and plastic corner brackets and fixators.

The drive mechanism of the print bed was also quite a bulky construction. The RepRap project designers realized that it was a major downside and started the development of a new version of the printer that would have less drawbacks. We will tell you about that a bit later. 

However, the design with the platform moving vertically and the extruder sitting on the X and Y axes proved to be the most promising. 

As of today, most of the industrially manufactured 3D printers are built precisely according to this design. The unstable construction was replaced with a rigid frame, which allowed to fully unlock the potential of this scheme.

The extruder mechanisms can vary. However, the design remains the same - the extruder is designed to move along the X and Y axes and the print bed is travelling up and down (the Z-axis).

This design was chosen because it allows to easily implement a rigid frame. Most industrially manufactured models are now built this way: 

Credit: Zortrax

Today, 3D printers feature frames made of plywood or metal. Some of the recent designs feature machines with metal frames of maximum rigidity and different decorative panels. This helps to reduce vibration and increase the accuracy of extruder positioning. Accuracy is one of the main factors of high quality 3D printing.

Another advantage of such a design is that it is more suitable for including an enclosed chamber. The enclosed casing allows to print with plastics that have a tendency to shrink. For example, ABS is a rather capricious material.

Today, there exist types of extruder movements’ kinematics. And they all have their pros and cons.

Kinematics used in Ultimaker 3D printers is considered by many the fastest and most accurate today. But its great potential is revealed only when it’s equipped with a Bowden extruder that also has certain weaknesses. 

Credit: Ultimaker

Makerbot 3D printer built according to H-Bot kinematics

However, it turned out that the most important thing in a 3D printer was not the extruder kinematics but the quality of its design. For example, I saw a 3D printer with H-Bot kinematics, it had an awful print quality and a very slow print speed! It completely debunks the myth about advantages of such a design! At the same time, there are 3D printers with very simple kinematics, but they print very well and at quite a high speed. 

XY-Head Z-Bed kinematics is the most popular nowadays and for a good reason.

Let’s return to the RepRap project. In order to increase the construction rigidity and simplify the assembly process, they created another version of their 3D printer and called it Mendel. Attempts to increase the firmness of the construction and get rid of Darwin’s drawbacks, however, led to a much worse result. 

XZ-Head Y-Bed

Mendel 90 3D Printer. Credit: Nick Miller.

The new 3D printer was constructed based on the XZ-Head Y-Bed design. In such a scheme, an extruder moves along the X-axis and travels up and down, while the print bed moves along the Y-axis. 

This scheme has several inherent drawbacks. One of them is the difficulty of installing an enclosed chamber. Usually, these printers featured hand-crafted casings. Because of its bulkiness, an enclosed chamber in such a design wasn’t very widespread. 

The second drawback is that the print speed with such kinematics is much lower compared to the XY-Head Z-Bed design because of the necessity to move the large platform.

And the most important thing is that this design is more subjected to wobbling. It occurs because of bearings and rods misalignment along the Z-axis,  which makes the extruder slant and wobble. 

The first iteration, Mendel 3D printer, couldn’t even exceed Darwin’s frame rigidity. However, problems with assembly and setup only became more numerous. The design featured only one mechanism for moving the Z-axis and it was strapped with belts. This lead to a very complicated adjustment and configuration.

Nevertheless, the XZ-Head Y-Bed design is still popular. 

Why did this happen?

A Czech inventor Josef Prusa modified this design and shifted away from the RepRap’s legacy. He created a rigid frame upon which other parts were installed. He also equipped the Z-axis with two bearings for increased stability and simple configuration. 

Here is what he got:

This design has the same limitations: 

  • problems with installing an enclosed chamber, 
  • a very slow printing speed compared to the XY-Head Z-Bed design, 
  • wobbling issues. 

But thanks to its low cost and simple design, users are ready to put up with the inherent disadvantages of the kinematics. For most users, the price difference outweighs the downsides, making this design among the most popular nowadays.

The modern version of the Prusa 3D Printer. Credit: Prusa Research.

X-Head YZ-Bed

X-Head YZ-Bed is yet another kinematics design featured in 3D printers. Its popularity is plummeting, since it doesn’t have any prominent advantages over other versions. In fact, X-Head YZ-Bed is very similar to the previous design we talked about; however, one difference is apparent. In the X-Head YZ-Bed design, it is not the extruder that travels up and down, but the print bed itself. Along with moving vertically, the bed can also shift along the Y-axis. 

This scheme originates from milling machines. It is widely used to simplify the design by keeping the movement of the milling cutter to a minimum. This is why milling devices generally have moving work platforms. Milling speeds are fairly slow, so it doesn’t matter how fast the platform moves. 3D printers don’t have spindles, and there is no necessity to process solid materials. However, having a good printing speed is crucial. This is where problems with the X-Head YZ-Bed design arise.

This design has all the disadvantages characteristic of Prusa kinematics not to mention its own weaknesses.  

The print bed moving vertically and traveling up-and-down does not contribute to the stability of a printing process. Very few 3D printers are produced with this design.

For example, such printers are produced by Felix, a Dutch manufacturer. Though their design is not very advanced, these machines demonstrate decent quality of printing and are quite compact.

Small dimensions is the answer why these 3D printers print so well. With small sizes, it is possible to mitigate the disadvantages of the X-Head YZ-Bed scheme and create a working construction. However, the bigger the size and speed of such a printer, the lower the quality. 

Therefore, the design works well only in small 3D printers. That is why today, there are only few manufacturers that try to develop this scheme further. 

XY-Bed Z-Head

The next scheme is a blast from the past. It’s a 3D printer with the XY-Bed Z-Head scheme. In other words, its print bed moves horizontally and the extruder travels up and down.

In the photo above, you can see one of the first Makerbot 3D printers called Cupcake.  This design of 3D printer kinematics is directly related to that of milling machines. Milling is an industry where the XY-Bed Z-Head kinematics is widely adopted due to its effectiveness. However, this doesn’t really do anything for 3D printers. The main disadvantages of the XY-Bed Z-Head design include the excessive outer dimensions that don’t match the small build volume, not to mention other critical shortcomings characteristic of kinematics with a moving print bed. 

Currently, 3D printers with the XY-Bed Z-Head kinematics are out of production, since they don’t have any advantages over other designs. 

Delta

Credit: All3DP.

Delta was introduced to the market in 2013.

Delta was promoted as a revolutionary design that would replace all others. However, it didn’t live up to the expectations. 

Let’s talk about its main strength first. 

  • Theoretically, the design allows for very fast printing and eliminates wobbling.

As for weaknesses,

  • it has very complex settings and troublesome calibration.
  • the build volume is utilized inefficiently. Because of the levers, Delta printers have to be much bigger in order to provide the same volume as 3D printers with a classical design. 
  • the Delta design requires a more powerful control board, since the calculation of the complex lever movements consumes much more resources than regular machines; this, obviously, adds to its cost.

Although, Delta failed to dominate the market, these printers still managed to find their own niche. They are used in many professional settings where large printing areas are required.

Here is an electric guitar printed with the Rostock Max Delta 3D Printer.

Credit: @classic_kid / Instagram.

Exotics

Finally, let’s talk about some exotic 3D printer kinematics. For example, Scara. In this guide, we won’t be discussing this design in depth, since it didn’t get much traction and is used only by a number of enthusiasts. None of these machines is mass produced, but if it catches your interest you can find more information about the devices and their assembly on the Internet. 

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