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Choosing a 3D Printer

3D printing is a great way to bring your ideas to life, whether it's creating a custom cookie cutter, a new toy for your child, a prototype for your business or items for your Etsy shop. The first step in getting started with 3D printing is choosing the right printer. There are a wide range of options available, from budget-friendly models to professional-grade machines. In this guide, we will focus on the most popular consumer models that are priced between $200 and $1500 and explain some of the key features that distinguish the lower and higher cost printers.

Bed Leveling Systems: One feature to consider when shopping for a printer is the type of bed leveling system it uses. Despite the name, bed leveling is not about making the bed level, like a shelf, but about ensuring that the bed (where the object is printed) is the correct distance from the nozzle (where the filament is extruded) on all four corners of the bed. If the distance is too great, the object won't stick to the bed, if it is too low, the filament will be overly squished into the bed or not extrude at all.

3D printers will either require manual bed leveling, or include an automatic bed leveling system. Manual leveling requires you to adjust the bed manually using knobs or screws. There is nothing wrong with this method, however, it can be a bit of a hassle and may require some trial and error to get right. Automatic bed leveling, makes the process much easier and more accurate. With automatic bed leveling, the printer can scan the bed and compensate for small differences in level or bed flatness. You will still need to adjust the distance between the bed and nozzle (called Z-Offset), but this is a simple process with an automatic leveler.

Bed Materials: The most common bed materials are a textured mat (usually black and flexible and feels a little like sandpaper), glass, smooth PEI and textured PEI, steel sheets. These will differ in adhesion (how well the print sticks), release (how easy it is to get the print off once you are done), and durability (how easy it is to damage).

  • Textured Mat: Some people are fine with the textured mat, but they are our least favorite bed type, they offer good adhesion, ok release (unless you print too close), and low durability.
  • Glass: Glass provides a nice surface finish for your first layer. Adhesion is good but some people find it challenging to get good adhesion (the trick is to ensure it is perfectly clean, dawn dish soap and isopropyl alcohol will help). It provides very good release but you will need to wait for the bed to cool. Durability is excellent.
  • Smooth PEI (on spring steel): This is our recommended bed for anyone starting out. It offers excellent adhesion, excellent release (just bend the sheet to pop off your prints), and good durability. You can keep it clean with dawn dish soap and water and isopropyl alcohol. If it seems to lose its stick-ability, an occasional wipe down with acetone will restore it to its original condition.
  • Textured PEI (on spring steel): This is also a great surface and leaves a nice texture on the bottom of your print. However, like glass, it can be challenging to get PLA to stick well (to improve adhesion the surface should be very clean, we've found it also sticks better after the first few prints. Glue stick can be used to improve adhesion). Durability is very good.

Filament Runout Sensor: Another feature to consider is a filament runout sensor. This sensor is designed to detect when the filament runs out and automatically pauses the print, allowing you to load new filament and resume the print. This can be a useful feature if you're worried about running out of filament in the middle of a long print.

Extruder: The extruder is the part of the printer that feeds the filament into the hotend. Low-end extruders are single gear and will have less pushing force. Higher-end extruders can be dual gear or have a gear ratio to provide a greater grip and pushing force on the filament. This allows faster flow rates and may prevent clogging in certain situations (such as when there is a small, temporary resistance to flow).

Hot End: The hotend is the component of the printer that melts the filament. The quality of the included hotend will vary between models. Many low-end models have a design feature (a poor design, in my opinion) where the long tube (bowden tube) that guides the filament from the extruder goes all the way down into the hotend until the nozzle. These tubes can easily back away from the nozzle, causing underextrusion and clogging until it is reseated. Higher-end hotends separate that tube from the guiding system within the nozzle, avoiding that problem. High-end hotends will typically come with better cooling systems, which make them less prone to clogging, and better part cooling, which can improve print quality.

Community: It is highly recommended that you choose a printer with a large community of support behind it. This will be invaluable if you run into any issues. If the printer has a large community on social media, you will likely be able to find help from peers for any issue you encounter.

Current Models and Recommendations: There are many printers on the market and there are more and more new releases. 3D printers are getting better all the time! If you are looking for a workhorse printer that will work great out of the box and comes with support from the company as well as a large community, consider the Prusa line of printers. If build volume is not a concern, the Prusa Mini is a great budget printer. For a larger printer, look at the MK3S. The budget category of printers is crowded, but the most popular historically has been the Creality Ender 3. These days, there are many "Ender 3 clones", printers similar in construction to the Ender 3 but may include additional features at the same price. The Elegoo Neptune line of printers is a good choice for a budget printer. For a medium range, you can consider the Elegoo Neptune Pro, the Anycubic Vyper, and Creality CR6-SE. These typically come with textured PEI beds and automatic bed leveling.

While there is a learning curve when it comes to 3D printing, anyone can learn it - from teenagers to adults. With a little bit of patience and practice, you'll be able to create all sorts of amazing objects. By understanding the key features of different 3D printers, you'll be able to make a more informed decision and find the right model for your needs and budget.