If you don’t have any plans to spend your leisure time, I’d recommend getting a 3D printer. Among other things, it’d make use of your free time in a meaningful and fun way.
But first, what’s 3D printing?
If you’ve watched a baker icing a cake, or a plumber caulking a bathtub, that’s the basic idea of 3D printing. In a nutshell, you extrude temporarily soft material on a surface into a shape of a 3D object and wait for it to congeal.
In 3D printing — and I’m talking about the technology used in consumer-grade 3D printers — the concept is the same, but the process is much more intricate and controlled. The material is called filaments. They are basically easily melting and fast-congealing plastic strings that normally come in spools. The surface is the build platform, the size of which determines how large the 3D objects you can print. And finally, the print head, also known as the extruder, will do the actual job of building the 3D object.
During a print job, the print head pulls the filament string from the spool, melts the plastic, and extrudes it onto the platform. The platform lowers gradually depending on the height, and the print head moves around depending on the width and shape of the object being built. As the extruded plastic piles onto the platform layer by layer, it congeals almost instantly to gradually form the object. This process is called fused deposition modeling (FDM), also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF) and is the current 3D printing technology used in all consumer-grade 3D printers.
As you can imagine, for the 3D printer to work accurately, the build platform needs to be at a consistent distance, neither too close nor too far, from the print head above. Some printers require you to adjust this yourself in a process called calibration; other printers can do that themselves or ship precalibrated. In my experience, manually calibrating a 3D printer can be a tricky and time-consuming process.
A 3D printers print head may have just one nozzle (single extruder) or two nozzles (dual extruders). The former can only print from one spool of filament at a time, while the latter can handle two and allows you to print objects in two colors. The print speed, however, remains the same: VERY slow, even for a fast 3D printer. On average, it takes about an hour and half to print a simple iPhone 5 case. Larger and more complicated objects can take tens of hours to print at the default filling level, which is 10 percent (hollow in the middle) for almost all printers. If you want to print with a higher filling level, or solid, they can take even days.
If you think about making something you can buy, getting a 3D printer makes no sense at all, both financially and practically. For example you can drive to the store and buy an iPhone case for just a fraction of the cost and even in less time than printing one yourself. Furthermore, a 3D-printed case is generally not as good as one that you can get from the store.
But 3D printing is not about making daily objects; it’s also about being creative and making things that are not readily available. And watching what you intend to create being meticulously realized in real time, albeit very slowly, can be very fun and satisfying. As for what to print, you can get yourself a 3D scanner, create your own model with special software or just visit Thingiverse.com,where 3D enthusiasts exchange their 3D models.
With that in mind, here are a few 3D printers that I have reviewed in 2014, listed in the order of my personal favorites.
XYZPrinting Da Vinci 1.0 AiO
The Da Vinci 1.0 AiO is my most favorite — not only because it’s very affordable — at just $800 (available in the UK for £649; pricing and availability for Australia will be announced later), it’s by far the cheapest full-featured 3D printer on the market. I like it also because it works consistently well right out of the box without requiring you to manually calibrate its build platform (it’s precalibrated). It can also print very large objects and is the first 3D printer that can do 3D scanning, too. If you can deal with its rather large physical size and the use of proprietary filament cartridges, this is the best deal on the market so far.
The DeeGreen is my second favorite thanks to its very high level of ease of use. The printer is capable of calibrating itself and quickly does that prior to each print job. The included software is also one of the easiest to use. The main drawback of this machine is the fact that it costs around $2,000 (£1,400 | AU$2,700) and has a relatively small build platform. But if you want something truly plug-and-play, this is it. It’s actually easier to use than a regular printer.
There’s a lot to like about the Ultimaker 2. This is the most compact 3D printer I’ve seen that yet has the largest build platform. The machine is very well-built, has great design and looks good, too. Unfortunately, you have to manually calibrate it, and at $2,500 (that price price converts to about £1,600 and AU$3,000), it’s just too expensive.
Monoprice Dual Extrusion
The Monoprice Dual Extrusion, as the name suggests, is a 3D printer with two extruders. This means it can handle two spools of filament at the same time and can print objects of two colors. What’s more, at just $1,200 (Pricing for the UK and Australia is not available at this time, but the US price converts to £725 or AU$1,290.) it’s likely one of the most, if not the most, affordable dual-extruder printers on the market. Unfortunately, the printer is very much like a half-done do-it-yourself project. It takes a lot of time to put it together and it’s also very challenging to calibrate it properly. Expect to spend around 5 to 10 hours to get it ready before you can start printing.