Dr. D-Flo is a 3D Printing Fanatic
Hey everyone! Dr. D-Flo here. Unless you have seen my YouTube videos, then there is a good chance that you have no idea who I am. Before jumping into the guide let me provide some of my additive manufacturing credentials to convince you that I am knowledgeable in this field. I am a huge 3D printer enthusiast. I have 3D printed well over 100 kilos worth of knickknacks and prototypes. I built and programmed an independent dual extruder, known as Zidex. For fun, I 3D printed a 3D printer (yes, you read that right!). I have laid my hands on many of the 3D printers that are commercially available today, and let me tell you not all 3D printers are created equally. Some of the high-end features that are available are gimmicks that allow companies to charge absurd amounts for their printers. For this reason, a guide such as this one is a valuable resource for buying a printer that fits your needs within your budget.
How much is this going to cost?
If you are technologically inclined then you can get away with spending $300 or less to buy an imported 3D printer. Usually, these printers require some TLC and upgrades for reliable and quality printing. If you have a small budget and some electrical tools (wire snips, soldering iron, etc.), then I recommend building your own 3D printer. Check out my Top DIY 3D Printers guide for a list of my favorite printer designs.
If you are new to 3D printing and want a printer that works after a little assembly, then a budget of $500 to $1000 is recommended. At this price range you may not have all the bells and whistles, such as dual extruders, but this is a great entry point for those looking to do a little 3D printing on the side. If you expect to be printing all the time, then it is best to increase your budget to $1000 to $2000, where you can purchase a 3D printer that is designed to be a workhorse. And finally, if you want a tricked out 3D printer that can print multiple objects simultaneously or print high temperature filaments then expect to spend north of $2000. Please keep in mind that these are just guidelines, and great printers can be found at many price points, which is especially true when a printer is on sale.
This post will only include 3D printers that I have used before (unless otherwise stated), so there is a chance I have not experienced the ultimate 3D printer. If there is a glaring omission please let me know over on the forum, and I can make adjustments to this guide. This roundup will only include Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) 3D printers. I hope to make a guide for SLA printers in the near future. Finally, the Amazon and MatterHackers links are connected to my affiliate account, and therefore, provide a small kickback to keep this website up and running. These links may not be the cheapest price, so shop around before purchasing!
Let me save you some scrolling by highlighting my favorite 3D printers from a couple different price points. It is still worth your time to read through the whole list as there are a lot of awesome printers available.
- Reliable but also quickly repairable
- Aluminum and steel frame is robust
- Wifi connectivity
- Onboard computer
- Optional dual independent extruders
- No enclosure
- The 203 x 254 x 203 mm print volume is comparatively small
- Very expensive for a single extruder
A Closer Look at the MakerGear M3
To preface this section, each person and project have different requirements and budgets. Therefore, my pick for the “best” 3D printer could be ill suited for your needs. The reason I am including this section is because I am often asked: If money is no object, then what 3D printer is the best? Now I can point those questions to this article.
This will come as no surprise to my YouTube viewers, but the MakerGear M3 takes the crown for the best overall 3D printer. The M3 adds increased connectivity and auto bed leveling over its M2 predecessor (my current printer). The M3 comes in two flavors: Single Extruder (SE) and Independent Dual EXtruders (abbreviated as IDEX).
Print quality is dependent on the rigidity of the frame. Small deflections in the frame during printing will be translated to the printed part in the form of blobs and scars. While large deflections will result in layer shifting and failed prints. The bottomline is that no matter how much you tweak your extruder settings the frame will always be the bottleneck for print quality. The frame is often the difference between a cheap and expensive printer. The M3’s steel frame is stiff and square.
It's a fact: 3D printers will break. When 3D printers go down or need to be re-calibrated the quicker you can get your printer up and running the less frustrated you will be. MakerGear has implemented tidy wire management that does not impede the ability to switch out an extruder, fan, or heated build platform. In addition, MakerGear offers a no questions asked one year warranty, which I can vouch for. There is a reason the MakerGear has been labeled as a workhorse because it prints and prints without problems.
The independent dual extruders doubles the productivity of this printer, allowing the user to simultaneously print two parts or increase the quality of multi-material parts by moving the second extruder out of the way when not in use.
For homeowners and parents, the idea of a 3D printer extruding molten filament is often associated with fires. The M3 offers connectivity that allows you to monitor the printer wherever internet access is available. The most likely source of a 3D printer catching fire is surprisingly not the hot end but instead a bad connection or poor quality component on the motherboard. MakerGear’s printers are manufactured in Ohio and are wired inhouse.
If you have never heard of the MakerGear M3 you may be thinking: "Hey this is a hidden gem!" Similar to a gem, the M3 carries a hefty price tag with the SE model costing $2,550 and the IDEX variant costing $3,299. After hearing that price tag you may need more convincing. I print a kilogram of filament a week, and it has been months since I have had to do any sort of repair or calibration of my M2. If you are serious about 3D printing and want consistent, fast, and high quality prints I recommend the MakerGear M3.
- High quality prints
- Auto bed leveling
- Trinamic drivers for silent prints
- Passionate community
- Large build volume (250 x 210 x 200 mm)
- Must be assembled
- No enclosure
- A lot of 3D printed parts are used in the build
A Closer Look at the Prusia I3 MK3S
You may argue that spending $749 is way too much to be classified as a budget printer. However, I am hard-pressed to find any printer under $750 that I would recommend to a friend. All printers under this price make huge sacrifices on either the build volume, extruder, warranty or electrical components. These issues will become clear if you read my low priced (<$500) printers section. 3D printing is an addictive hobby, and you do not want to buy a sub $500 3D printer just to have to buy another one down the road due to inadequacies.
One way to get a quality 3D printer for less is by sourcing the parts and building it. The Prusa i3 MK3S kit saves you $200 over the assembled printer. If you have the patience and time, then building your 3D printer will give you a deeper understanding of its inner workings and allow you to better troubleshoot future problems. It takes about 5 hours for assembly, but those who have little experience with CNC motion should allot more time for troubleshooting.
The online community has an obsession with Prusia i3, especially r/3Dprinting, and for good reason. Every part of the Prusa i3 is open source even down to the Marlin firmware, making this printer an ever-evolving project. I find the open source community to be much more responsive and helpful than talking to a company's technical support.
The Prusia i3 MK3S produces some of the best prints out of any 3D printer on the market, beating out printers over $2000. The secret to its flawless prints is a full mesh bed auto leveling system. An un-leveled bed can have deleterious effects on your print, including poor first layer adhesion. Manually perfecting the leveling of a bed is time consuming and a bit awkward. The leveling system of the Prusia can compensate for warps in the heated bed and slopes. It amazes me how this technology is absent from many prosumer 3D printers.
The main drawback of the Prusia i3 MK3S is its single extruder. For such a great printer its single extruder is a real let down. To address this problem, the Prusia team has designed an upgrade ($299) that allows 4 different spools of material to feed into a single extruder. Their approach seemingly overcomes many of the issues associated with multi-material printing with dual extruders
While the assembly can be a little daunting, the Prusa i3 MK3S is a great first printer with a print quality that far surpasses its cost.
Low-Priced Printers (<$500)
This $500 or less category is going to be a little tricky for me to navigate. The communities that surround these affordable printers are very passionate, and I don’t want to step on any toes by throwing too many criticisms at these printers. Most of my problems with these imported printers stem from their unreliability and inexistent customer support. I want you to enjoy 3D printing, which is difficult to do when your prints keep failing. If you have some electrical and coding experience as well as some free time, then you will be capable of tweaking and upgrading the printers found in this category to produce reliable prints at a quality that rivals printers that cost ten times the price. However, if you're not mechanically or electrically inclined, then I strongly recommend buying a printer that is ready to go out of the box from a more expensive tier.
#1 Low-Priced Printer: Creality Ender 3 Pro
- Great community
- Large build volume (220 x 220 x 250mm)
- Heated bed and LCD
- Can print flexible filaments
- Must be assembled
- Poor quality control
- Bed leveling is time consuming
A Closer Look at the Creality Ender 3 Pro
If you are going to save money then you might as well save the most amount of money. At $260 or less the Creality Ender 3 is an absolute steal. It amazes me that this printer comes with both an LCD and heated bed at this price point. Part of the cost-savings comes from the fact that you will have to assemble the printer. Fellow YouTuber Tomb of 3D Printed Horrors put together an excellent build video that should help you build the Ender 3 in under four hours.
Perhaps the best part about the Ender 3 is the community of people that surround it. The Ender 3 subreddit is incredibly active with people posting about their problems and solutions, settings for optimal prints, and modifications they have made to their Ender 3. On the note of modifications, the Ender 3 has a lot of deficiencies, such as lacking any kind of wire management and the absence of part cooling. However, the community has really embraced these short comings by generating hundreds of different parts that can be printed by the Ender 3 to upgrade itself. There is something really awesome about using a 3D printer to improve itself. Check out this list of printable Ender 3 upgrades ranked by importance.
The main drawback for this printer is quality control. From what I have heard, the Ender 3 often arrives with irreparable damage, such as a dented rail or a warped print bed. If you have the time and patience you can just keep sending the printer back to Amazon until you receive one that is undamaged.
#2 Low-Priced Printer: Monoprice Maker Ultimate 2
- Fully enclosed
- Auto bed leveling
- Filament sensor and LED lighting
- Small build volume (200 x 150 x 150mm)
- Poor quality control
A Closer Look at the Monoprice Maker Ultimate 2
The Maker Ultimate 2’s price is at the upper limit for this tier of low-priced 3D printers, but it is often on sale, so be on the lookout for reduced prices near the holiday seasons.
By far my favorite feature about this printer is that it is fully enclosed, filament spool and all. There are other benefits to an enclosure besides the ability to print filaments such as ABS that are sensitive to air temperature. The frames of these low-priced printers are less forgiving to accidental impacts, and therefore, an enclosure provides an extra layer of protection, especially during shipping. Further, the enclosure will keep small children’s fingers away from the hot components and prevent dust and other contaminates from coming in. Unfortunately, you would be wrong to assume that an enclosure will result in quieter prints. It can actually mean the opposite because the enclosure can reverberate and amplify the vibration of the stepper motors.
This printer also features creature comforts like a filament detector to stop prints if the filament has run out and auto bed leveling to ensure a perfect first layer. These features make 3D printing more enjoyable by saving your time.
Unlike the Ender 3, the Maker Ultimate 2 comes factory-assembled and leveled, which means that if you are lucky the printer will work right out of the box. I say lucky because again at this price tier quality control is a huge issue. If you purchase this printer from a retailer like Amazon that allows you to return purchases for free then the lack of quality control will be frustrating but not costly.
- Massive Print Volume (300 x 300 x 400mm)
- Quick prints with the Bowden extruder
- Dual Z-axis motors
- Must be assembled
- Bowden extruder performs poorly with flexible filaments
- Poor quality control
- Difficult to level print bed
A Closer Look at the Creality CR-10S
If you need an affordable 3D printer to make props for cinema, cosplay, etc. then look no farther! The CR-10S has a massive build platform (300 x 300 x 400mm) that will accommodate large objects, such as an entire helmet for an Iron Man suit. Printing large objects would take forever on a traditional direct extrusion printer, where the filament extrusion drive sits on top of the extruder. The CR-10s uses a Bowden configuration, where the filament extrusion drive is relocated to the frame, which makes the extruder carriage lighter. This decreased weight allows the extruder to accelerate much faster and come to quicker stops, which greatly decreases print times. Keep in mind that the drawbacks of Bowden extrusion setups include the inability to print flexible filaments and less responsive filament retractions, which can cause unwanted filament to be deposited (i.e. strings).
I am not going to harp on the lack of quality control that is also present on this printer like I did for its smaller brother, the Ender 3, but I did want to talk about what the larger print bed means for getting this printer up and running. The quality of the first print layer will decide whether the print succeeds or fails, and the flatness of the print bed largely determine the first print layer’s quality. Intuitively, the larger the print bed the more difficult it would be to eliminate high and low spots. This is especially true if the print bed is even the slightest bit warped. For this reason, the absence of an auto bed leveling feature on the CR-10 is definitely a drawback of this printer.
Budget Printers (<$1000)
$1000 is the perfect budget to score a reliable single extruder printer with some bells and whistles. This is also the price point where you can purchase entry-level dual extruder printers for multi-material or color prints.
- Capable dual extrusion on a budget
- Can be fully enclosed
- LCD for computer independence
- Sturdy case and build platform
- 227 x 148 x 150 mm Build volume is small
- Hard to service
- Extruders are not as reliable
A Closer Look at the FlashForge Creator Pro
The new trend in 3D printing is multi-material parts and soluble supports. These prints cannot be done on a single extruder without painstakingly switching filament between layers or using an expensive third-party filament splicer. Dual extrusion is a difficult task for a 3D printer and requires more engineering than simply strapping a second extruder to the print head. A sturdy frame and near perfect linear motion is needed so that the printer can accurately switch between extruders. While there are cheaper printers with dual extrusion, these printers often cut too many corners to allow for consistent prints. FlashForge's aluminum case and dual bearing z-axis creates a stiff environment for clean prints.
With handles on both side, the Creator Pro's form factor allows the printer to be moved easily without fear of damage. My old workplace ordered 10 Creator Pros and they all arrived in working condition, which was aided by the protective design. By adding a small acrylic "hat" to the printer the build space can be enclosed, which is preferable when prints with ABS filament. The enclosure also muffles the vibration of the stepper motors.
The main downside of the Creator Pro is its reliability and serviceability. I was in charge of keeping the aforementioned 10 Creator Pros running, and a common problem was a jammed extruder. From my estimate, the cold end of the extruder was heating up causing the filament to stick within the PTFE tube, preventing retraction. More cooling fins on the cold end or increased airflow could probably fix this problem, but at this price point you have to be willing to deal with some of these problems. Adding to my maintenance woes, replacing a fan or any component on the print head required undoing all of the Creator Pro's wire management or splicing and soldering.
Even though the FlashForge Creator Pro has these issues it is surrounded by an awesome community. If you want a 3D printer that does not break the bank and won't keep you from experiencing the multi-material revolution I recommend the Creator Pro.
#2 Budget Printer: Pulse XE
- Ready for exotic and abrasive filaments
- BMG extrusion drive eliminates ghosting
- Auto bed leveling
- Fully assembled and factory calibrated
- Enclosure is not standard
- Cannot save money by purchasing a kit
A Closer Look at the Pulse XE
The Pulse XE is clearly based off the opensource Prusia platform. And why wouldn’t it be? The Prusia MK3S is the gold standard single extruder printer at this price point. Now I have to be honest, this is one of the printers on this list that I have not actually laid my hands on. But I am able to compare my experience with the MK3S and the technical specifications of the Pulse XE to give an educated review.
What first jumped out to me was the fact that the Pulse XE uses a Bondtech extrusion drive, which is the best in the business. People usually go out of their way to upgrade the stock extrusion drive of the MK3S to a Bondtech, so it’s awesome that this comes stock on the Pulse. The Pulse XE also comes standard with a hardened steel nozzle that can print abrasive filaments, like Nylon, right out of the box.
Because the Pulse XE and the MK3S cost the same fully assembled I was wondering what was omitted from the Pulse in order to have the Bondtech extruder and hardened steel nozzle without eating into the Pulse’s profit margins. I have not been able to confirm this, but I am guessing by the omission of the stepper driver type that the Pulse XE uses run-of-the-mill A4988 stepper drivers. MK3S on the other hand has the silent Trinamic 2130 drivers. This could be a deciding factor especially if you plan to house your printer anywhere near someone’s bedroom.
#2 Budget Printer: Rostock MAX
- Tall Print Volume (Diameter: 280mm & Height: 385mm)
- Premium Duet Wifi motherboard
- Extruder strain sensor
- Quick prints with the Bowden extruder
- Must be assembled
- Bowden extruder is less responsive
- Inherent limitations of Delta Printers
- LCD does not come standard
A Closer Look at the Rostock MAX
Delta printers are named after their trigonometric coordinate system. The way in which a Delta moves its extruder is totally different from the cartesian printers that have made up this list thus far. The position of the extruder changes as carriages move up and down the three towers that enclose the build plate. Maybe you can picture how the angles between the extruder and the towers change as the carriages move up and down. Maybe you can’t. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that the movement of a Delta printer is less intuitive than that of a cartesian printer. For this reason, I am hesitant to recommend a Delta printer for anyone’s first printer.
If I were to recommend a Delta for someone’s first printer, then my go-to choice would be the Rostock MAX. This printer is awesome, but the company SeeMeCNC behind this printer is even more awesome. SeeMeCNC is run by the Wygant family out of Ligonier, Indiana. It would be an understatement to say that this family is passionate about 3D printing and the maker culture. I have always found that working with a small but passionate company is much easier and enjoyable than working with a large, dissociated company.
Sorry for going off on a tangent. Let’s take a closer look at the Rostock Max’s features. The SE300 hotend used by the Rostock is state of the art. It features a strain detector that can sense small deflections in the hot end, which can be used during the probing of the print bed. These strain sensors are one of the more accurate ways to auto level the print bed. The hot end assembly is also setup to hold three fans for part cooling. This triple blower design results in exceptional quality when printing with PLA.
The Rostock Max also features a Duet WiFi motherboard, which is arguably the most premium motherboard commercially available. As its name suggest the Duet Wifi can be controlled wirelessly. It also features trinamic drivers that are capable of near silent operation of the stepper motors.
The Rostock Max is capable of absurdly tall prints, just shy of 400 mm. However, one common drawback common on many Delta printers is the use of a Bowden extrusion drive. As briefly discussed in the closer look of the Creality CR-10S, Bowden extrusion drivers are less responsive than their direct drive brethren.
Prosumer Printers (<$2000)
A couple of years ago if you spent $2000 on a 3D printer you would be considered a high roller. But printers that had existed in this price range those few short years ago have been upgraded and released at higher price points, which makes this “pro-sumer” category a little difficult to define. $1k to $2k in the domestic market will get you a premium single extruder printer or a fixed dual extruder printer. If you purchase an import (e.g. Chinese) printer, then really any feature is possible, including independent dual extrusion. $2k is a lot to gamble on an off-brand Chinese 3D printer, but many people have found success with these machines. My tendency to play it safe with domestic 3D printers that have a long track record is reflected in this lineup of 3D printers.
#1 Prosumer Printer: Lulzbot Mini
- Small and rigid form factor
- Nozzel cleaning apparatus
- Great bed adhesion
- Warranty and customer support
- Small build volume 152 x 152 x 158 mm
- Non-upgradable to dual extruder
- Enclosure has to be purchased seperately
A Closer Look at the Lulzbot Mini
The LulzBot Mini is the perfect 3D printer for a beginner. It is better engineered than competing printers at its price point. An example of this thoughtful engineering is found in the auto bed leveling sensor. Many 3D printers use an inductive proximity switch to determine the distance between the nozzle and the print surface. This proximity switch is a separate component that is factory calibrated to be some known distance from the nozzle. Bumping the inductive switch will completely throw off the printer's ability to find the print surface. LulzBot did away with the inductive switch and used the extruder tip as the probe, simplifying the print head. When the nozzle touches each washer in the four corners of the build platform it will notify the computer that the distance is close to zero. Sorry for geeking out about that, but it was a good way to show how thoughtful the designers were.
Another example of where Lulzbot has strayed off the beaten path is the setup of the Mini’s Z-axis transmission. Nearly every other 3D printer uses a lead screw to lift and lower the Z-axis. Lead screws can wobble and wine, which can impact the quality and sound of the 3D printing process, respectively. The Lulzbot uses timing belt in the place of a lead screw to eliminate those aforementioned problems. To prevent the Z-axis from dropping when power is cut to the 3D printer, the Mini shorts the z-axis stepper motors, which prevents them from rotating. The extruder is also engineered to be smaller and lighter, and this should help with unwanted movement of the Z-axis when no power is present.
The $1500 price tag for this printer is really hard to swallow. The total build volume for this printer is small, there is only one extruder, and you have to pay an extra $200 for an enclosure. If you really value reliability and you don’t expect to print large parts, then this is a great printer to own.
#2 Prosumer Printer: VIVEDINO T-Rex 3
- Dual independent extruders (IDEX)
- Massive build volume 400 x 400 x 500mm print volume
- Trinamic stepper drivers
- AC heated bed
- Underpowered 8-bit microcontroller
- Extrusiond drive is prone to jamming
- Some assembly required
- No enclosure
A Closer Look at the VIVEDINO T-Rex 3
Okay, this is an import 3D printer that I could not resist putting onto this list. For $1600 you get pretty much everything. Like seriously, you name it. This 3D printer has it: Dual independent extruders , Massive build volume , AC heated bed , Auto bed leveling , and Trinamic stepper drivers .
This printer even uses ball screws for the Z-axis transmission, which is a totally unnecessary upgrade over the standard lead screws. At that point it seemed like VIVEDINO was just flexing. But what’s the catch? Well, to pay for all these high end features while still having a low price, VIVEDINO skimped on the microcontroller/motherboard. The T-Rex’s 8-bit microcontroller is underpowered for a machine of this size and complexity. The microcontroller will throttle the speed of the printer to keep up with all of the kinematic (motion) calculations. These reduced speeds will be painfully obvious when attempting to print large objects that take advantage of the 400 x 400 x 500mm print volume. You could upgrade the T-Rex’s motherboard to one that has a 32-bit microcontroller, but this could prove to be difficult with the wiring scheme and connectors that the T-Rex uses.
Nevertheless, the T-Rex 3 boasts an impressive lineup of features at a bargain.
#3 Prosumer Printer: BareXY
- Competitve pricing
- 32-Bit Duet Wifi motherboard
- Trinamic stepper drivers
- BMG direct extrusion drive
- Must be assembled
- Small build volume for a CoreXY (220 x 220 x 210mm)
- No enclosure
A Closer Look at the BareXY
Besides the Rostock MAX delta printer, I have not discussed much, if any, detail about the linear motion setups of these printers. The BareXY is a cartesian 3D printer, which means that it operates off a cartesian coordinate system with X, Y, and Z dimensions. However, the way in which the BareXY’s extruders are moved in the X and Y dimensions differs from a majority of the cartesian printers on this list. I think it is worth a quick look to understand the benefits of the BareXY’s motion setup.
The BareXY’s print bed moves up and down (Z-axis) and the dual extruders move together back-and-forth (Y-axis) and side-to-side (X-axis). In my opinion, the easiest way to design linear motion for two dimensions is to create two separate linear actuators and then place one on top of the other. The drawback of this setup is that the first linear actuator has to move all the weight of the second actuator, including the motor. More weight means more inertia, so the first actuator cannot accelerate and deaccelerate as fast.
The BareXY employs a different mechanical arrangement known as a CoreXY, where some trickery with the timing belting allows for both the X and Y motors to be mounted on the frame. I highly recommend reading this article if you want to learn more about CoreXY, but to skip over all the details, this configuration allows for the extruder carriage to be super light. These CoreXY printers are able to stop and start the motion of their print heads almost immediately, which significantly decreases print times. The other benefit to CoreXY is that the print bed only moves when the printer progresses to the next layer. A lot of the other printers on this list have beds that move back in forth to create motion in the the Y-dimension. Moving the print bed has deleterious effects on print quality and speeds when you get to large print volumes because similarly to the example above, larger print beds will have more mass and will be more difficult to accelerate and deaccelerate.
My issue with the CoreXY design is that most of these printers use a Bowden extrusion drive, where the gears that force the filament into the hot end are located on the frame and are not directly attached to the print head. Again, the benefit of the Bowden extrusion drive is to make that print head as light as possible. However, the Bowden configuration results in less responsive filament retractions and extrusions compared to an extrusion drive that sits on top of the print head. Fortunately, the BareXY combines the best of both worlds with a CoreXY design and a direct extrusion drive.
Taking a closer look at the BareXY, we find premium features at a competitive price. This printer features a Duet Wifi motherboard and a BMG extrusion drive. Both of these components are best in their class. I am actually not sure how this company is turning a big enough profit to survive because the price of their kit is very similar to the cost of sourcing all the parts individually. I am hoping that some sort of economies of scale is working in favor of this company. But if you are interested in this printer, I recommend downloading the bill of materials and STLs the BareXY team has graciously made available for a truly open source printer.
Let’s finish up with some of the limitations of this design. First off, at over $1000 it would have been nice if the printer looked more commercial. This printer looks less official then some of the printers on my favorite DIY list. But what is most disappointing is the small build volume of this printer. I gave this big introduction talking about how CoreXY is great for 3D printers with large build plates, and the BareXY only has a 220 x 220 mm build plate. The company says that they are working on larger design, so it might be a good idea to hold off on this printer until the print bed is larger.
Enthusiast Printers (<$5000)
If you have over $3000 to spend then the 3D printing world is your oyster. At this price point you can purchase a printer with nearly any feature that your heart desires. Even better, these features are brought to you by genuine components not some unreliable knockoffs. You do have to be careful at this price tier because you can start to pay for aesthetics or as I say paying for plastic. Paying for plastic is not necessarily a bad thing, such as in the case of running a company or makerspace, where having good looking 3D printers can possibly draw in more customers. However, it can lead to unrealistic expectations. One might assume that a $5K printer is 5x as good as a $1k printer, but this is rarely true.
#1 Enthusiast Printer: Lulzbot Taz Workhorse
- Generous build volume 280mm x 280mm x 285mm
- E3D Titan Aero hotend
- Easy to use
- Auto bed-leveling
- Nozzle wiper
- Single extruder fitted with 0.5mm nozzle
- No wireless capabilities
- Missing an enclosure
- Dated RAMBo motherboard with 8-bit microcontroller
A Closer Look at the Taz Workhorse
People loved the Lulzbot Taz 6. The vibrant 3D printed extruder gear just seemed to draw you in. Enter its successor: the Taz Workhorse. The Workhorse has a couple improvement over the Taz 6, including a 14% larger build volume and a strengthened frame. These additions resulted in two casualties: the aforementioned vibrant gear and my savings account. With a sticker price of nearly $3k ,the Workhorse checks in at almost $500 more than the Taz6. However, this added price allows the Workhorse to natively support exotic filament by coming equipped with a hardened steel nozzle. The sand, wood, and metal filler in composite filaments will quickly abrade a brass nozzle. The Workhorse’s steel nozzle will last much longer when routinely printing these composite filaments.
My main gripe about this beautiful machine is that at $3k you are stuck with a single extruder, and it is uncertain if the dual extruder upgrade kit for the Taz 6 will be compatible with the Workhorse. It seems that Lulzbot is directing customers to the Taz Pro if they want dual extrusion. The Taz Pro did not make this list because at $5k the extruders are neither independent nor capable of reaching temperatures above 300 degrees and the pro is an open air design. Lulzbot’s trend of asking for increasingly higher premiums for features that come standard on competitors’ printers is alarming, but back on topic to the Workhorse. My last negative about this printer is that it is marketed as being highly accurate with its belt-driven Z axis which eliminates "Z wobble" and its ability to compensate for backlash in all the axes, BUT this printer comes with only a 0.5mm nozzle. Inclusion of a 0.35mm or even 0.25mm nozzle would allow customers to test this claimed accuracy out of the box.
At higher price points its much easier to be critical, but I want to end with a couple of positives for this printer. With a build area of 280 mm x 280 mm x 250 mm, the Workhorse has the largest build area featured in this lineup. For me, reliability is priceless and that is what you get with the Workhorse. If 3D printing is not only a hobby but also a source of income, then I highly recommend the Workhorse.
#2 Enthusiast Printer: BCN3D Sigmax
- Dual independent extruders (IDEX)
- Large build volume 420 x 297 x 210mm
- Easy to use
- Great Aesthetics
- Bowden extrusion drive
- Cantilevered bed could be prone to damage
A Closer Look at the BCN3D Sigmax
BCN3D's Sigmax R19 features an aggressive design with LED mood lighting creating a futuristic appearance. At this price point a little style will not result in any trade offs. The Sigma looks about as much as it cost.
After turning on the printer the user is met with an intuitive calibration process including auto bed leveling. The printer will extrude a couple of lines and then you select which layer height looks appropriate. The sleek touch screen is a warm welcome over the cheap LCD screens and plastic knobs that so many other printers use.
When printing in multi-materials, the independent dual extruders stay out of each other's way, preventing color and material contamination. There is no need for an ooze shield that could fall into the print. The extruders each have a small waste bin to purge their nozzles before printing. This waste bin keeps the bottom of the printer free from scraps.
The Sigmax uses genuine open source parts, such as an E3D V6 hotends and Bontech extrusion drives. This will allow the user to source their own components without paying the premium tax that is added onto proprietary parts.
I have found two issues with the design choices for this 3D printer. As I have mentioned in the review of other printers, I am not a fan of the Bowden extruder setup. I won’t belabor this drawback as I have done before. My other concern involves the way in which the print bed is cantilevered. The print bed is quite large (420 x 297mm) and only one edge is connected to the Z-axis. I am worried that if you bump the far edge or forcibly remove a print that is really adhered to the bed then there is a chance that the build platform will bend. This could be a nonissue, but I do not like to see this cantilever design used for print beds larger than 300mm in any direction.
#3 Enthusiast Printer: Raise3D Pro2
- Fully enclosed with HEPA filter
- Dual direct drive extruders
- 7" Color touchscreen
- Camera for print monitoring
- 32-Bit motherboard with WiFi
- No auto bed leveling
- No dedicated part cooling fans
A Closer Look at the Raise3D Pro2
In the review of the BareXY prosumer printer, we discussed the benefits of a CoreXY setup. The Raise3D employs a similar configuration known as a Cross Gantry. For all intents and purposes, the Cross Gantry has all the benefits as a CoreXY. Namely, both setups are best for 3D printers with large print beds. Before we continue talking about the Raise3D, I should point out that the Cross Gantry was popularized by Ultimaker, and I am proud to say that there are no Ultimaker printers on this list. I need to be careful not to get in trouble, but in MY opinion, any printer made by Ultimaker is not the worth the money. Even worse Ultimaker gouges its customers on spare extruders and proprietary filament spools. I hope I didn’t alienate you with this opinion. I just wanted to make it clear why I left out a major line of 3D printers from this roundup.
Anyways, the Raise3D is a sleek and modern cube, sporting an expansive color touchscreen for controlling the printer. The filament is contained within the plastic enclosure, which will keep your cat and/or kid from knocking the filament spools over. Speaking of the enclosure, the air within it is filtered by a HEPA filter that keeps containments off the print bed and filament spools that could prevent part adhesion or clog the nozzle, respectively. The Raise3D has a lot of technology built into it. With two fixed extruders that are fed filament through a direct drive system, this printer is capable of flexible and multi-material prints. A 32-bit motherboard with WiFi capabilities and a camera lets you upload and monitor prints from afar. LEDs keep the print illuminated and make the printer look futuristic.
While a camera, LEDs, and a touch screen improve the user’s experience with the 3D printer, they don’t improve the print quality. It’s kind of a head scratcher why the Raise3D would have these superfluous features and not have auto bed leveling or dedicated part cooling fans. Both of these features would impact the quality of the print. Nevertheless the Raise 3D Pro 2 is a great all-in-one printer, and its brother the Raise 3D Pro 2 Plus is capable of massive 600mm tall prints.
Industrial Printers (>> $5000)
I should point out that I am not qualified to review industrial printers. I have been to trade shows and national labs and have seen these printers in action, but my hands on experience with them is limited. Further, I have never used 3D printing in any kind of production capacity, where the failure of a 3D printer could lose my company money and possibly customers. In these scenarios it might make sense to buy a 3D printer that is twice as reliable as a hobbyist 3D printer even if it cost ten times the price. For these reasons, let’s just admire but not be too critical of these next couple of tricked out 3D printers.
#1 Industrial Printer: Intamsys Funmat HT
- High temperature extruder (up to 450C)
- Heated chamber (up to 90C)
- Can print: PEEK, PEKK, ULTEM (PEI), PPSU, PC, PA
- Auto bed leveling
- Single extruder
- Small build volume for the price (260 × 260 × 260mm)
A Closer Look at the Intamsys Funmat HT
The Intamsys Funmat HT is a hot printer, literally. It is capable of extruding plastics at 450C, which unlocks the ability to print aerospace grade polymers like polyether ether ketone (PEEK). PEEK is strong and very resistant to both chemicals and heat, hence why it requires a blistering 400C nozzle temperature to be extruded. PEEK and other high temperature polymers, like PEI and PEKK, need to be printed in a heated chamber to prevent rapid cooling after being extruded which would cause the printed part to warp. These heated chambers in combination with the high temperatures of the extruders means that these printers need to be engineered to a higher standard as they pose a significant fire and safety risk. It’s difficult to find a high temperature 3D printer for under $5000. The Funmat HT is on the affordable end with a price tag of about $7k.
#2 Industrial Printer: BLACKBELT
- Infinite build volume: (340 x 340 x ∞ mm)
- Fan array for part cooling
- Automatically eject parts
- Single extruder
- Requires a special slicer to generate g-code
- Bowden extrusion drive
A Closer Look at the BLACKBELT
Now this is an innovative printer. By employing a conveyor belt as the build platform you can print “infinitely” long parts (in the Z direction). The only restriction is the X and Y dimensions which are a generous 340mm x 340mm. A printer like this makes you rethink what is really possible with FFF 3D printing. To achieve these print sizes on a printer without a conveyor belt then typically long, large, and expensive linear rails have to be used. If you thought the Blackbelt was expensive, then you should look up how much some of these large format printers cost that can print over a meter in any direction.
Unlike other 3D printer technologies like stereolithography, FFF printers have to sacrifice either time or resolution. You simply can’t print a part with small features quickly due to the fixed nozzle diameter of the extruder. Interestingly, the BLACKBELT Printer comes standard with a 0.4mm nozzle. A 1.0mm nozzle is available, but even at this larger diameter prints that approach the maximum volume of this printer will take a long time. While it is a cool trick that the BLACKBELT can print these “infinitely” long parts, the real benefit of the conveyor belt is how it allows the printer to unload itself. If you are printing hundreds or even thousands of parts as part of a production run then typically you pay someone to unload all the printers in the farm. If you are producing a lot of small parts then the printers have to be unloaded often, and therefore, production will stop when the designated unloader is off duty. The conveyor belt will flip parts off into a bin after the print is finished. This allows for true “lights out” printing to be achieved without using expensive robotic arms.
Other companies are coming to market with these conveyor belt 3D printers. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw clones of the Blackbelt offered for less than $5k. These printers would allow someone to mass produce parts at home without having to constantly unload parts.
#3 Industrial Printer: BAAM
- Insane build volume: (240 x 90 x 72 inches)
- 80 lbs/hour feedrate
- Pellet based extruder
- So it cost almost a million dollars...
- Consumes as much power as a small house...
- Requires a lot of space...
A Closer Look at the BAAM
This 3D printer is the size of a garage and can literally print the car to go in a garage. My guess is that when the company Cincinnati named their printer Big Area Additive Manufacturing or BAAM for short, the first “A” in that acronym probably stood for something else before the marketing department made the engineers change it to “Area” if you know what I mean.
I was lucky enough to see a BAAM in action at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where it was printing the body of a WWII era Jeep. The hungry extruder was fed with plastic pellets by a rotating screw that forced the pellets into the hot end. This method of extrusion is actually very similar to how filament is made just at a much larger scale. It would be uneconomical to feed the BAAM filament because it can print 80 lbs of filament per hour. That is over 36, 1kg spools. The nozzle diameter of this printer is a couple of inches, so clearly, this printer is not capable of high resolution prints. But when you have a build volume of 240 x 90 x 72 inches your only concern is print speed.
The BAAM has printed not only cars but also buildings. I wanted to end this review with a printer that pushes the envelope of FFF technologies and the BAAM definitely accomplishes this.