10 3D printers under $1000

& -September 19, 2013

Hello everyone, it's Max Maxfield here. When Steve told me that he was writing a column about 3D Printers under $1000, my first thought was "Dang! I wish he'd done that before I purchased my 3D printer!" (LOL)

So, what is a 3D printer? Why might you want one? What can you use them for? How do you use them? And what are the things you might want to consider before plunging headfirst into the fray?

3D printing (which may also be referred to as "additive manufacturing") is the process of taking a digital model stored in a computer's memory and using it to create a physical 3D object in the real world. This is achieved by laying down successive layers of material on top of each other.

There are, of course, a number of different ways of achieving this, most of which are eye-wateringly expensive and are therefore primarily of interest only to companies or to individuals with very large bank accounts. In the case of more modest purchasers, including home and hobbyist users like myself, the most common form of 3D printing employs FDM (fused deposition modeling) technology. This involves heating and extruding a thin filament through a special print head. The most widely-used material for hobbyist users would be a thermoplastic filament such as PLA (polylactic acid or polylactide) or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene); just visualize a large spool of plastic fishing line. (Specialist applications may use other materials such as eutectic metals or even edible materials -- think "printing a cake.")

Most of the cheap-and-cheerful 3D printers are open-source designs derived from the RepRap project and have only one print head (or extruder), which means you can print only one type of material at a time. Some 3D printers brag dual print heads, and we may soon be seeing 3D printers that boast quad print heads. There are two main advantages associated with having multiple print heads. First, you can print objects with different parts in different colors. Second, you can print portions of the design using a special material that dissolves in water, which allows you to create structures that simply aren’t possible using a single print head.

The next thing to look out for is resolution. My 3D Printer is purported to be able to achieve resolutions as fine as 0.1mm in the X, Y, and Z planes, but I haven’t achieved anything close to this yet. The thing is that there is a learning curve associated with temperatures and printer software settings, and I'm still at the lower end of that curve.

It all depends on what you are trying to do. In my case I'm creating simple parts for my hobby projects, and I don’t mind putting a bit of work in smoothing things down after the 3D print is complete. If you want something über-smooth and precise, you may need to look at another technology such as SLA (stereolithography) in which a laser is used to draw on the surface of a liquid plastic resin causing it to harden.

Until recently, SLA-based 3D printers have been horrendously expensive, but the prices are falling dramatically. For example, the folks at FormLabs are now taking pre-orders for their forthcoming Form 1 SLA printer, which offers almost unbelievable specifications with regard to resolution and surface finish. Consider the image below: the upper item was created using FDM technology with an extruded thermoplastic filament, while the lower version was created using SLA technology (this image is courtesy of the folks at FormLabs):

At $3,299, the Form 1 will be beyond the purchasing power of most hobbyists, but it's well within the means of many companies, and it offers a superior 3D printing experience with professional-level results.

Actually, while I think about it, another thing you should consider is the cost of materials. A 1-liter bottle of resin for the Form 1 costs $149. By comparison, a 2lb spool of ABS filament for my 3D printer costs $43. Sadly, I have no way to compare the cubic volume of the objects that can be created using these different materials.

Another consideration is the design flow. I'd originally imagined this to be relatively simple, along the lines of "Use a 3D modeling package to capture the model and then press the 'Print' button." Now, this may be the case with some integrated packages, but it's not quite that simple with mine, and my feeling is that my situation is pretty common. The image below reflects a high-level view of the design flow I use:

We start by capturing the 3D design. There are a variety of tools you can use for this, ranging from free to incredibly expensive. Also, some are relatively easy to learn and use, while others will make your brains leak out of your ears. The one I'm now using is a free, very powerful tool called DesignSpark Mechanical.

Once you've captured your 3D design, the next step is to generate an output file in STL (STereoLithography) format, which is widely used across different 3D printing and modeling interfaces. Be careful here: some 3D design packages like DesignSpark Mechanical support this natively; with some packages you have to use a plug-in module (which may be free... or not, as the case might be); and some 3D design packages might simply not support it at all.

For my first test print, I used a model that a friend had created for me using a very expensive 3D design package. The result was horrible. It turns out that it is often the case that the STL file have "issues" when it comes to 3D printing. I found a company called NetFabb who offer a free cloud-based service to fix your STL file. You upload your model in STL format and they return a fixed version to you. When I used the fixed version, everything came out as I expected.

As I mentioned earlier, in some integrated solutions it may be that a lot of things happen automatically "under the hood." In my case, the printer driver software that comes with my 3D printer requires me to import the STL file and to then run a "slice and dice" utility that converts it into the slices that will be printed. Just to increase the fun, it offers the choice of two different utilities to do this. I don’t understand the difference between them. Thus far I've simply used the default utility along with the default settings.

Last but certainly not least, you click the "Print" button. I'd like to say that everything always works perfectly, but I'm running into a few small "gotchas." I think it's just a case of experimenting with my particular machine and finding the optimum settings for what I'm trying to do. The main thing is that, all-in-all, I'm having a lot of fun and I don’t regret my purchase, so all is well in "Max World" (where the colors are brighter, the bird songs are sweeter, and the beer is cold and plentiful).

So click on and take at look at our list of 10 3D printers for under $1000 - with an 11th device offering a look at the next trend in desktop 3D printers offering stereolithography resolution and finish.

Next: 3DStuffmaker

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