Note: Our best 3D printers round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in May 2015.
3D printers print 3D models, using a process called additive manufacturing or AM. This process uses computer control to lay successive layers of material to build a 3D model.
Two plastics, ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and the more eco-friendly PLA (polylactic acid or polylactide), are the materials most commonly used, but the technology has advanced to the point where almost any material can be printed with, from food to metal – although not necessarily at home.
The most widely-adopted 3D print file format is .stl, which can be exported from most 3D modelling and scanning applications. As well as creating 3D models yourself, you can download a huge selection from sites such as makerbot's Thingiverse.com.
As with conventional 2D printers, resolution and size are all important. A high resolution will produce a higher quality print than a low one, and a large print bed may be more convenient, enabling you to print your objects in one go rather than splitting the print into several parts.
If you're in the market for a home 3D printer then there's a lot to consider. Do you want single colour, dual-colour or more? Do you need a 3D scanner? Do you place a premium on maximum quality or faster printing? Physical size and weight are issues, especially if space is at a premium, and then of course there's the small matter of price.
Here we take a look at ten of the best models.
1. CubePro Trio
Best for three-colour, three-material printing at an incredible price
The bulk of home 3D printers are limited to one- or two-colour printing, but the CubePro Trio has the capability to print three different materials in one session. This can be especially useful if you want to create an enclosed mechanism: nylon can be used for the gears, ABS for the surround and PLA for the support structure that can then be dissolved with caustic soda. The CubePro is an ideal solution for modellers and engineers who need to create 3D prints with moving parts.
2. AirWolf 3D HD2x
Recommended for dual-material standalone printing
The AirWolf 3D HD2x is a sleek multi-material printer designed with prototyping at its heart. The dual material and colour printing make this printer stand out, as does the huge 11" x 8" X 12" print area, an ideal choice for prototyping. The design features a semi-enclosed structure to protect the plastic during the print process, and for convenience print files can be loaded direct from an SD for autonomous printing without a computer. A great choice for product designers who need a large print bed and choice of colour and material.
3. MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer (5th Generation)
Great for higher level education
Makerbot is one of the best-known 3D printer manufacturers, and that's all due to the Replicator. It was one of the first production printers to look like a conventional product rather than something that had been built in a garage. Its ease of use, consistent print quality and auto calibration features make this a popular choice. Now on its 5th generation, the Replicator's semi-enclosed enclosure, slick design and huge support community make this a very tempting choice for anyone in the education market as well as for high-end home enthusiasts.
4. Ultimaker 2 Go
High-resolution compact printer
The Ultimaker 2 took print quality to a new level with an incredible minimum layer height of just 20 microns. It has now been joined by two further models – the Extended, a tall version, and the Go which is a small compact edition. The Go is by far one of the smallest 3D printers on the market, with a footprint of just 258 x 250 x 287.5mm, which makes it an ideal desktop printer.
Unlike the two other Ultimaker models there's no heated print bed, which does restrict the compatible materials to just PLA. The print quality, as with the entire Ultimaker series, is excellent and still hard to match for any other Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printer.
Fully hackable, fully upgradable 3D Printer
Price: £900 / $1300
Buy: E-3D Online
The BigBox has finally arrived and is the result of a collaboration between the extrusion experts at E-3D and the motion system guys at Little Box. The BigBox is big with a 300 x 200 x 280mm build plate, this huge plate enables far larger prints than many other consumer level printers, especially at this price. The printer has been built to be hacked, so if you have ideas about its construction or have ways to improve the design it's easy enough to adapt it to your needs. The modular design means that the printer can be easily expanded to meet the needs of a specific jobs, swap out heads, upgrade the extrusion system, control board or simply when you need to replace parts. The BigBox looks to be the most compatible and expandable 3D printer system yet.
6. SeeMeCNC Orion
Amazing to watch and optional touch tablet
The SeeMCNC Orion takes a different approach to most other 3D printers, with a mechanism that sees the print head suspended between three legs, and it also features a circular rather than more common square or rectangular print bed. Watching the Orion create a print is spectacular. This printer also packs in a heated print bed and can optionally be controlled with the Android-based MatterControl touchpad. This is a great choice if you want something a bit different.
7. Ooznest PRUSA i3
DIY 3D Printer
Price: £450 / $785
The vast majority of 3D printers have evolved from the Open Hardware community as variants of the original RepRap project, and the PRUSA i3 is currently the ultimate example, with complete builder guides available online for free.
However, rooting around electrical stores and ripping parts out of old printers isn't everyone's idea of a good time, so the guys at Ooznest have compiled a complete kit that's ready to build.
Build times vary depending on experience, and the kit comes with clear instructions on the whole process. Once complete, print quality is set to rival that of many printers at twice the price, and the great thing is, because you've built it yourself you can really get a feel for how the technology works, and how it can be improved.
8. BEEVERYCREATIVE – BEETHEFIRST
One for work and home
In general terms 3D printers are designed as boxes with purpose, however BeeTheFirst has created a printer with both quality of print and actual design in mind – this is a machine that really wouldn't look out of place in a modern living room. BeeTheFirst has also thought about how and where people will be wanting to use their printers – at work, home or both – and has incorporated a thin design with a handle that enables the printer to be easily transported.
9. LulzBot Mini 3D Printer
Recommended for the true home print enthusiast
LulzBot printers are based on projects from the Open Source community, and both the printers and the company reflect this ethos. 3D-printed components are part of this printer's build, and while this is a nice nod to its RipRap project origin, it also gives this printer a bit of street cred, while not forsaking quality. The Mini's compact size and 15.2cm x 15.2cm x 15.8cm print area and exceptional price make this an ideal home printer.
10. XYZprinting Nobel 1.0
Affordable SLA printer
Price: £1175 / $1499
The Nobel 1.0 features Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing technology, a process capable of producing prints of far greater detail than the more common Fused Deposition Modelling process (FDM). The Nobel 1.0 produces fine quality prints, and is bolstered by XYZprinting's own software and excellent support.
This technology is more common in the professional 3D printing industry, however, so this high quality comes at a price: the resin is expensive, the choice of materials is limited, print times are slow and each model requires both cleaning and setting to finish. But if you can overlook the time it takes to get your final print the Nobel 1.0 is a more than capable high-quality 3D printer at a great price.
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