You’re ready to buy a 3D Printer, but which one? There are so many choices available today.
For purposes of this post, we’ll limit the discussion to the kind most commonly thought of, the plastic filament type, formally known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). These are the least expensive type of 3D printer and probably the only kind found in the typical school or library.
Which 3D printer you get depends a lot on what you plan to do with it but probably more on how much you have to spend. Just keep in mind that you get what you pay for.
Great places to start evaluating 3D printers are resources like Make: magazine‘s annual 3D printer roundup and the 3DPrintBoard forum for more interactive and in-depth discussions. There are many, many others out there. Reading multiple years of reviews will also give you a sense of which manufacturers have both been around a while and have had consistently good products.
It is difficult to shop for a 3D printer for your school without coming across the Makerbot Replicator family. Makerbot Industries (owned by industrial 3D printer company Stratasys) has done a very good job marketing to the education sector and has built out an extensive partner ecosystem of software (TinkerCAD), hardware, media, and support. But it comes with a price tag that may put it out of reach for some school budgets. It is important to note that both TinkerCAD (owned by AutoDesk) and Thingiverse (owned by Makerbot) can be used by anyone and any 3D printer.
Many 3D printers, especially those closer to their open source roots, use the same controller software, UltiMaker‘s Cura, which is itself an open source software application. Think of this controller software as a fancy print driver. It controls settings like size, position, quality, and other parameters very similar to settings used by the more familiar laser or inkjet printer, but for objects. The general use and appeal of Cura works in a school’s favor as the software will be familiar as printers come and go.
Remember the ruckus when proprietary inkjet cartridges became a thing? It’s come to 3D printers, too. Some companies have taken stands against the practice. Do you really want a 3D printer with a proprietary filament cartridge system from a company that has been around only a couple years or less? Generally, and like the use of Cura, the closer a printer is to its open source roots, the less likely it is to require proprietary filament. Not all filament is the same, however, so don’t buy it on price alone. The hassle of ruined prints because your extruder jammed from inconsistent filament diameter will get old fast.
For some schools, especially at the high school level, the 3D printer itself may be as important as anything created on it. There are many 3D printer kits available from manufacturers large and small, and even open source projects, such as the Athena Delta printer. While they may come with a lower price tag, these are generally ambitious projects for engineering/electronics course teachers and students who are already familiar with 3D printing technology.
Let us know what features in a 3D printer are important to you in the comments!