It seems as though 3D printers can do anything, from prosthetics to airplane parts to sneaker midsoles. Unquestionably 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing. But do 3D printers have a place at home?
Curious, tech-friendly early adopter that you are, you're no doubt eager to try this technology out for yourself. After all, who wouldn't want to "replicate" stuff as if they lived in Star Trek?
An array of 3D-printed tchotchkes created by the author
The problem? Traditional 3D printers can easily cost $1,000 or more to buy, with supplies of filament pushing the long-term price considerably higher. But you don't need to break the bank to get the technology. Some 3D printers priced at under $500 are surprisingly good. We looked at three of them.
New Matter's $399 MOD-t impressed us with its attractive appearance, ease-of-use, and consistent performance. If its sleek façade reminds you of Apple products, you have a good eye.
Frog Design, which helped produce Apple's streamlined look, is behind the MOD-t's design. New Matter's CEO, Steve Schell, told Techwalla that his company's objective was to produce an affordable 3D printer that would be as "pleasant an experience for the user as possible." Mission accomplished.
Though I don't usually mention the unboxing process, the MOD-t is so well packaged that it deserves special attention. An included sheet with diagrams shows you how to unbox the printer properly. Or you can go to New Matter's site and click the unboxing video, where an exceptionally cheerful assistant engineer at the company named Kendra hosts the videos.
The MOD-t comes with one 0.5-kilogram spool of PLA filament (and you can buy more on the site for $20 each). It uses polylactic acid (PLA) filament, a popular environmentally friendly printing material made from corn. (3D printers work by heating up a nozzle that melts the filament, which it then extrudes in patterns specified by a particular 3D print design to create a three-dimensional object.)
Also included with the printer are a plastic scraper (helpful for peeling a printed object off the print platform without damaging the platform), clippers (to peel away support parts), and a wire brush (for removing excess filament from the print end after printing is complete, so you'll be ready for your next printing project.
The printer itself weighs 11 pounds and measures 15.1 inches by 13.4 inches by 11.6 inches.
Getting the MOD-t up and running is easy, thanks to GIFs on New Matter's setup page that show you exactly what to do. First you plug in the MOD-t and connect the included USB cord to your computer. At New Matter's site you'll receive a prompt to download New Matter's software, after which you'll jump to a page showing you how to put together your print platform, where to place it on the printer, and how to load filament. Once you've loaded the filament (using a load filament button on the site), your machine will be ready to print.
Everything related to the MOD-t printer passes through the New Matter site. It's where you select designs, add them to your library, and print them. The site streams files directly to your printer. A lighted button on the printer then flashes rapidly to indicate it has wirelessly received the print design, which you then press for the MOD-t to start.
The main downside of this printer is that the New Matter Store has a limited number of ready-made designs. The company is working on this shortcoming as it seeks to balance the reliability of a curated site against the desirability of having a wider selection of offerings. Fortunately you can upload any ordinary 3D design in the usual STL or OBJ file format. So you can scour the web for compatible 3D prints at sites like Thingiverse and My Mini Factory, download what you like, and try them on the MOD-t.
All three printers successfully printed the tugboat.
The MOD-t did a good job of printing lettering on the tugboat's underside.
The MOD-t was best (but still not very good) at printing lettering on the tugboat's stern.
The MOD-t's noise level was quiet enough that I could work without being disturbed as it printed. The system uses four servo motors, rather than stepper motors, to minimize noise. Stepper motors are "extremely annoying" to listen to, Schell said. And since the MOD-t may take hours to print a 3D object, noise is an important consideration. In addition, a transparent plastic enclosure encases the MOD-t to muffle sound. The plastic box has the further advantage of adding protection if pets or children are nearby.
Twice during printing I ran into an adhesion issue. This is when the object being printed doesn't stick to the print bed. A large object, for instance, may curl up at the ends. A small object, such as a pen, may fall over altogether.
The object at top right shows curling. Printed with a raft (seen in middle) the problem was solved (left).
Fortunately, you can customize print settings with the MOD-t, selecting 'raft' or 'brim' under Adhesion Assistance. A 'raft' builds a large platform and 'brim' builds a small one, like the brim of a hat. After running into a problem with an eggshell holder base (seen above), I chose 'raft' before printing—and it successfully prevented curling. New Matter recommends cleaning the print bed with soapy water after three to five print jobs to remove accumulated fingerprint oil, which can cause printed objects to slide and shift.
The MOD-t can print objects that are up to 6 inches by 4 inches by 5 inches.
My experience printing with the MOD-t was very positive. First of all, watching the printer is fun. The build platform does most of the positioning work. It zips around surprisingly fast on two spiral axes. The extruder moves only on the z-axis as the printed object grows in height. According to CEO Schell, this system reduces part count (which is crucial to reducing costs) and eliminates the need for bed leveling.
For a benchmark test, I printed a tugboat. The print came out very well, and I could read the text on the underside of the tugboat clearly. The tiny printed text on the back of the tugboat, on the other hand, was not quite legible—though the MOD-t did the best small-text printing of the three printer models we tested.
MOD-t's customer support is excellent, too. Early on, I had a problem setting up Wi-Fi and called for help. A rep picked up immediately and helped me through the process. The problem wasn't a Wi-Fi issue after all—the carriage was stuck. At the rep's recommendation, I turned a gear at the back of the carriage to lower it manually and get it unstuck; and after that, the printer worked perfectly. Schell says one customer was so pleased with MOD-t's customer support that he drove 20 miles to bring the techs pizza.
The MOD-t succeeds on many levels. It makes consistent prints and is easy on the eyes. The MOD-t makes 3D printing easy, and it does so at an affordable price. No wonder schools are a growing slice of its sales pie. Hopefully, it will inspire students to go on to create their own engineering marvels.
Da Vinci Jr. 1.0
The $350 da Vinci Jr. 1.0 from XYZprinting is a robust, reliable printer, though its orange candy-colored sides resemble an iMac G3 from 1998. High-quality 3D prints are the da Vinci Jr. 1.0's biggest selling point.
The user manual for the da Vinci Jr. 1.0 comes on a microSD card (XYZ includes an adapter so the card can fit into a standard SD card slot). Unfortunately the adapter that came with our test printer was defective. Swapping it for another SD card adapter solved the problem. But when I submitted a help ticket to the site, I was disappointed to receive an e-mail reply that said, "Our customer service staff will get back to you in 3 business days." Fortunately, and to their credit, that estimation was wildly off. The support team replied within a few hours. The second time I contacted them, they were even more prompt.
The printer's interior is carefully wrapped in strategic places, and you need to remove all of that packing material. When you turn on the printer, it will begin initializing—and if some of the protective material is still in place, it might damage the printer.
After prepping your printer and attaching a spool of filament, you connect the printer to your computer via USB. Then you download the XYZware from either the microSD card or XYZprinting's website. To load filament, use the controls on the printer itself. The da Vinci Jr. 1.0 mixes it up in this way. Sometimes you use the computer, and other times the onboard control panel.
Once you've loaded the filament and it starts extruding, you're ready to start printing.
The XYZware is fairly basic. But it does get the job done. The object you want to print appears in a 3D box. You can turn it in every direction by holding down the right mouse button, or you can use buttons running along the left-hand side of the screen to control view. Other buttons control scaling and other features. Mysteriously, these control buttons may disappear when you click the virtual 3D box containing the object you intend to print—but you can bring them back by clicking the object.
The da Vinci Jr. 1.0 has three print settings: Normal, Good, and Excellent. There's also a raft and brim option if you want to give your structure a firmer base to get things started. Advanced settings let you select the amount of fill, from 'Hollow 0%' to 'Solid 90%', plus infill type, layer height, shells, and speed.
A second piece of free software, called XYZ Maker 1.0, helps you create your own 3D printable objects. It includes some basic geometric objects, numbers, and figures to help you get started.
At XYZprinting's XYZ 3D Gallery, you can find more than 4,500 free 3D models for printing on the da Vinci Jr. 1.0. In addition, you can find printable models on the many 3D print sites out there, such as Thingiverse, My Mini Factory, and YouMagine.
The underside lettering on the da Vinci Jr.'s tugboat test was quite legible.
But the lettering on the stern was virtually nonexistent.
Unlike the other printers we tested, the da Vinci Jr. starts with its support structures set to off. Support structures hold up awkwardly shaped objects and prevent them from collapsing during printing, but you have to remove them after the print is finished, which can be a pain, especially if the object didn't need them in the first place. It takes a few prints before you realize they may not be necessary, so in the end I preferred the da Vinci Jr.'s default support-free approach. You can always turn them on and start over if your print collapses.
The windows and portholes are open in the da Vinci Jr.'s print because supports were set to off.
The da Vinci Jr. lets you print from a PC or directly from the microSD card, but you'll need the microSD card even if you stream objects directly from a PC or Mac because it stores the files. As with the MOD-t, once file streaming is complete you can detach your computer and work on something else with it.
During printing, the onboard screen provides helpful information about such variables as the temperature of the extruder, the percentage of the object completed, the amount of time that has passed, and the estimated time to completion.
Everything is contained within the da Vinci Jr., making it a good choice for schools.
The da Vinci Jr. 1.0 requires that you lay included sheets down on the printer bed. The other printers reviewed here don't require you to apply anything extra to their print beds. The sheets lasted for three or four prints before objects began to curl up, and this became an ongoing problem. To fix it, I applied Elmer's Glue Stick to the sheets—and it worked like a charm. When the sheets give out, you can buy replacements at the XYZ Printing Store (click the 'da Vinci Jr. 1.0 series' link on the XYZ Printer page to see the "print bed tape" options available there). You can also try using masking tape or kapton tape. But make sure you have a glue stick on hand as well. I found that using colored Elmer's Glue Stick was particularly helpful as it goes on purple so you can see the area you've covered. The glue will definitely keep the object in place while printing.
Although this description may make the da Vinci Jr.'s design sound as though it requires extra work (and to a degree it does), I ran into adhesion issues at some point with all the printers. With help from a glue stick, the da Vinci Jr. 1.0 became reliable. I had nearly 100 percent confidence that the object would not be going anywhere during printing—and having that confidence made the extra steps worthwhile.
The printer's interior is well lit so you can watch the printing process if you want to. The light goes off after about five minutes, but you can turn it back on by pressing any of the onboard controls.
The da Vinci Jr. 1.0 comes with a scraper and wire brushes to clean up the extruder. Maximum build volume is 5.9 inches by 5.9 inches by 5.9 inches.
This machine's print results were solid. On the tugboat test, the da Vinci Jr. 1.0 produced legible lettering on the underside of the boat. The lettering on the stern, however, was unreadable—as was the case with the other printers we tested. The da Vinci Jr. is about as fast as the MOD-t, printing the tugboat in roughly the same amount of time. The objects this printer produced had a nice smooth feel, almost as if they had been sanded, and this made cleaning them up a breeze.
Despite some extra work on the prep side, the da Vinci Jr. 1.0 is an excellent 3D printer. At 33 pounds, it's quite large and bulky, but that's also what makes it sturdy and reliable. It feels and acts like a workhorse. It methodically cranked out print after print. Ultimately, the da Vinci Jr.'s work ethic makes it a 3D printer to consider for your home, school, or office.
The Micro 3D, or M3D, is an attractive and remarkably quiet 3D printer, thanks to proprietary motor technology. It's also pintsize at 7.3 inches cubed, and it weighs just 2.2 pounds. If you're going to be operating in tight quarters, the M3D's compactness is significant. To save even more space, the filament spool is housed underneath the print bed. And unlike its rivals, the Micro 3D accepts a variety of filaments. The M3D costs $349 with a three-month warranty. A retail edition is available for $449 and includes a one-year warranty and a spool of filament.
The Micro 3D was a little harder to set up than the da Vinci Jr. 1.0 and the MOD-t, and I eventually asked for help. Connecting the printer and powering it were easy enough, thanks in part to a quick-start guide. But different filament types are set up differently: What the company calls "Tough 3D Ink" feeds to the printer nozzle externally rather than internally.
I recommend checking the video guide and the knowledge base if you have questions about setup—or calling technical support directly, as I did. The company has invested heavily in customer support, and it shows. The engineer asked to see a test border I had printed so I sent him a picture. He then suggested I raise the temperature of the extruder by 5 degrees to get more-solid lines. It was very helpful advice but also not something a beginner would know. So given that fine-tuning may be involved, it pays to call.
Once you have some familiarity with the M3D, you may want to check out the forums where fellow users can help answer additional questions.
Standard PLA filament is stored at the bottom of the M3D printer. The printer bed snaps in over it.
The wings were flexible on this dragon model made with M3D's Tough 3D Ink.
Armani calls the relatively brittle PLA filament, "The look but don't touch technology." The limitations of PLA led M3D to invent Tough 3D Ink, a more flexible filament. M3D also developed ABS-r, a filament good for bonding and rigidity. Normal ABS filament needs a heated print bed and emits a noticeable smell when heated. ABS-r is an odorless substitute that does not need a heated print bed. Armani describes ABS-r as "good engineering material"—something you can drill a hole into without having to worry that it may crack. M3D has also created Chameleon 3D Ink, which changes colors when exposed to heat.
All this innovation serves M3D's goal of finding ways to make 3D printing practical. "If you look around your home, you're not going to find things made of just one material," Armani said. "Ultimately, 3D printers need to approximate that."
M3D's site sells standard PLA filament at $14 per spool, with higher prices for specialty filaments. M3D will double the number of filaments for its soon-to-be-released M3D Pro. Among the new filaments are ones filled with carbon fiber and metal. The new printer will also feature a heated print bed, will print five to six times faster than the Micro 3D, and will offer a larger build volume for prints up to 7.5 inches tall.
Filaments set the Micro 3D apart from its competitors. "We have the most filament choices of any 3D printer company," CEO Michael Armani told Techwalla. Among M3D's in-house offerings are PLA (the industry's standard filament), Tough 3D Ink, and ABS-r. Tough 3D Ink is flexible and durable. And it can withstand temperatures of up to 180 degrees, making it ideal for things like coffee cup heat rings. It feels softer yet more solid than PLA. In fact, as I worked with this filament, PLA started to lose its luster, and not just because of the nice sheen on M3D's Tough 3D Ink.
The M3D also succeeds on the software side, with an attractive interface and good ease of use. Using it is essentially a matter of dragging and dropping the 3D design you want onto an image of the M3D printer. You use your mouse to spin the object around to view it from different angles. If the object is too large for the printer, you can easily scale it down.
The Micro 3D's tugboat had only some evidence of lettering on its stern.
Lettering on the underside of the tugboat is perfectly visible.
Noise levels were excellent. If you are noise sensitive, the Micro 3D deserves a very close look. Though it's open on all sides, the M3D is quieter than either the enclosed MOD-t or the enclosed da Vinci Jr. 1.0.
But the M3D is also slower than those two printers. It took just over 4 hours to print the tugboat, whereas the MOD-t and the da Vinci Jr. took 2½ hours each. Also, the M3D is smaller, but so is the build volume. The print base area is 4.4 inches by 4.3 inches. And as you get past 2.9 inches in height, the print base area shrinks further to 3.6 inches by 3.3 inches.
Another downside is that you have to keep the printer connected to the computer during the entire print cycle. If you disconnect, printing stops; and if your computer goes to sleep, printing stops. The MOD-t and the da Vinci Jr. 1.0 hold a clear advantage here, because they let you start your print and then head off to the coffee shop with your laptop afterward.
The M3D package doesn't include a scraper or cleaning brushes, so you'll have to purchase them separately.
The M3D produces high-quality 3D prints, as did the other printers. It printed the tugboat benchmark test without a problem. The lettering on the underside of the boat was clearly visible, though the lettering on the stern was not.
The compact and quiet M3D is ideal for environments where noise and space matter. However, its slow print speed will test the patience of some users, as will its having to remain tethered to your PC during printing. Ultimately, however, I recommend the M3D because of its excellent prints and its innovative filaments, which put it in a class by itself. If you're willing to take the time to learn the ins and outs of the M3D, you will be rewarded with excellent prints in a variety of materials.