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You have to admit, 3D printers are pretty magical pieces of technology. These devices allow you to literally create physical, three-dimensional objects using “ink” (in this case, typically plastic) for a multitude of uses in the workplace and at home. From printing a new part for a machine to a new serving platter for a housewarming gift, having a 3D printer is kind of like having a tiny factory on your desk.
Like with most gadgets, there are different models of 3D printers available and diving in can be overwhelming if you don’t know the first thing about what separates the various types.
An FDM printer (one that uses fused deposition modeling) is a good beginner gadget to try if you’re new to the world of 3D printing. It uses heat on a filament and shapes it along X, Y and Z axes to print your object. Another option is the Cartesian FDM printer, which actually moves the printing bed on an axis while moving the other two axes using their own motors. This can result in highly precise printouts.
But before you go out and buy the first FDM 3D printer you see on sale, remember that some of these types can yield rough results.
If you want to print objects that boast many intricate details, you may need a stereolithography printer, usually called an SLA printer. This type actually uses a chemical reaction to create layers of the object. Another variety is the digital light processing printer, or DLP printer, which uses light to target a specific geographic part of resin in order to harden it in place as part of the object. SLA and DLP printers can create incredibly smooth objects.
Not sure which 3D printer is right for you? Our sister site Don’t Waste Your Money has a team of experts that spends hundreds of hours analyzing, testing and researching products to help consumers like you make informed purchasing decisions. Here are their top picks for the best 3D printers.
This 3D printer is designed for professional use and got top marks. It’s made with a sturdy frame of solid metal and runs incredibly quiet, which isn’t always the case with these devices. This popular Anycubic model 3D printer can not only print objects, but also has the capability to do laser engraving.
If you’re new to 3D printing, this top-rated model is an excellent choice. It runs quietly and can also connect to Wi-Fi. The printer has quick leveling with one button, so it’s easy to operate and comes with two different types of extruder assembly, which is the essential part of the printer that melts and pushes out the plastic filaments (i.e., your ink).
This printer from Ender comes semi-assembled, so you have an opportunity to learn about how 3D printers are constructed as you finish putting it together. But don’t worry if you’re a total rookie because the kit is apparently a snap to use. Once finished, this 3D printer features a resume-print button, which comes in handy if you encounter an unexpected power outage during a long job.
This 3D printer is aimed at beginners. It arrives fully assembled and lets you start printing right out of the box, whether from one of the built-in projects or from a plan you download online from a site like Thingiverse. The model’s fully enclosed design also makes it attractive for those with little ones as the heat used by 3D printers to create objects is often severe.
If you’ve ever dealt with a 3D printer stopping partway through a job due to a power outage, you know how important it is to have good failure protection. This Artillery 3D printer has just that and enables you to start back again where you left off.
This 3D printer boasts a stable, built-in power supply, which helps the nozzle and hotbed to heat up quickly. It also helps protect the printer from power surges. Savol says you can have the whole thing assembled and ready to print in less than 20 minutes.
With a full-color intuitive touchscreen, this 3D printer from FlashForge is easy to operate. It is constructed with sturdy plastic alloy, allowing for stable printing. Plus, safety is top of mind with a non-heated build plate. This printer can connect to Wi-Fi, USB and flash drives, all options that make it more convenient to find projects and get them right to your printer in short order.
From printing human corneas to cake decorations, space tools to vegan steaks, there is pretty much no limit to what you can create if you have the right design and materials. For example, if you have a 3D printer that uses a filament, you can use polylactic acid (PLA) which is a type of plant-based plastic. This is ideal for anything you print that will be used indoors because it will begin to deteriorate as a result of sun exposure.
If you’re interested in printing plates, cutlery or dishes, opt for polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), which is graded safe for food. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is ideal printing any items that will be used outside, such as tools. When it comes to resin-based printers, go with standard resin for small objects such as decorative items. Professional-quality resin is ideal for more high-impact applications. If you’re making medical devices, then it’s best to use a medical-grade resin.
Whichever 3D printer you go with, you should be happy with the results of any from the list above. Have fun with it and welcome to a brand-new hobby!