Sometimes called additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the technology that is most often intended for one-off, customizable manufacturing of individual objects from digital files. They are used in various industries, including medical, architecture, education, entertainment and automotive.
3D printers are also used by hobbyists, and they range in price from under $1,000 to over $10,000. Their price largely depends on their:
- Modeling method
Top 8 Best Rated 3D Printers
Afinia 3D was founded with a focus on industrial design, which means they are a good resource for industrial companies hoping to create fast prototypes.
|Read 64 Reviews|
EnvisionTEC, founded in 2002, targets business and industries. They provide a huge selection of large to industrial sized 3D printers perfect for large businesses.
|Read 34 Reviews|
LulzBot, created by an open source hardware company, is a 3D printer company that provides printers, parts and plastic filament. They believe people should have access to free 3D printing software.
|Read 16 Reviews|
Tinkerine, a Canadian based company, provides 3D printers for an affordable price. They also provide other services besides 3D printing including glass engraving, tile engraving, and more.
|Read 10 Reviews|
Since 2009, MakerBot has focused on making 3D printers for the innovator in everyone. They offer hands-on courses about how to use their printer and its software, to ensure each customer gets the most fulfilling experience.
|Read 66 Reviews|
3D Systems is a company that creates 3D printers, printer parts, accessories and software. The company provides a variety of printers that target different consumers needs, from desktop printers to industrial sized printers.
|Read 143 Reviews|
Founded in 1989, Stratasys is one of the oldest and largest 3D printing companies. Stratasys has a reliable reputation backed up by their premier printers and their knowledgeable experts that are available for customer support.
|Read 17 Reviews|
|Out of Business|
Founded in 2012, Cubify is a 3D printer company that focuses on hobbyists and artists. While other companies focus on more practical uses, Cubify features a variety of fun uses for their product including fashion and décor.
|Read 57 Reviews|
What features matter most?
While 3D printers utilize quite advanced technology, they are available to consumers at a range of prices. Cost can be dictated by the size of the objects that can be printed, the materials it can be made with and the speed at which it can be produced.
- Extremely costly ($10,000 and up): The most technologically advanced 3D printers are extremely expensive and are most often acquired and owned by large companies rather than individual users.
- Moderately priced ($1,000 to $9,999): 3D Printing companies with printers in the mid-range of pricing can be used by both large industry companies, smaller businesses and more technologically advanced individual users.
- Affordable printers (under $1,000): Some companies are making smaller, less-advanced 3D printers that individuals can afford to purchase and have in their own home. Kits are available for users to assemble the machine themselves to further reduce the cost.
Size of printer
Machines range in size depending on the build area of the objects they can produce, the technology used to produce them and the materials used in the production of the objects.
- Large, industrial printers: Many 3D printers are large machines that require much room for storage and use, making them best for a business or industrial setting.
- Average-size printers: Average size 3D printers can be used in an office space but do not require an entire room or area devoted to their use.
- Desktop 3D printers: The smallest 3D printers are desktop 3D printers, which are small enough for users to use in their homes. As their name suggests, they are suitable for use on desks. The size of the printable object depends on the cost of the printer.
In order to 3D print an object, a 3D printer requires a model of the object they are going to print out. There are a number of ways to create the model, including:
- 3D Scanner: 3D scanners can scan physical objects using a combination of special cameras, sensors and lasers to create CAD files that can be sent to the 3D printer for printing.
- Photogrammetry software: This technique uses multiple digital photos of an object, to translate those image into a 3D model that can then be manipulated and 3D printed.
- Manual modeling: 3D modeling software allows designers to create their own designs for printing. Examples of this include AutoCAD, Sketchup, 123D Design and TinkerCAD.
3D Printers use a range of technology types to print 3D objects, and many of the different technology types utilize different mechanisms and strategies.
- Stereolithography (SLA): 3D printers that use stereolithography read CAD files, then use light-sensitive liquid resin to convert those images into solid objects using lasers or projected light.
- Fused deposition modeling (FDM): Also referred to as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), this is the most commonly known method of 3D printing with the widest variety of machines. It builds printed objects up layer by layer by heating and expelling plastic filament over and over, similar to how a glue gun dispenses melted glue. This is also the least expensive method of 3D printing.
- Powder bed & inkjet 3D printing: Sometimes referred to as “binder jetting” or “drop-on-powder” printing, this method uses a powdered material (commonly nylon, gypsum, acrylic or ceramics). This method has a bed of the powdered material with a print head that sprays either a binding agent (with or without color depending on the machine) to build up material in the powder bed one layer at a time.
- Selective laser sintering (SLS): With selective laser sintering, lasers are used as a source to heat powdered material that creates the 3D objects.
3D printers can create a range of objects using a huge selection of materials.
- Plastic: Many of the most popular desktop 3D printers create objects using different types of plastic materials including ABS, PLA and nylon. A lot of developments in mixing various compounds with plastic has created new forms of printing material that can be printed on desktop printers rather than strictly industrial machines.
- Ceramics: Objects can be printed for glazing and firing in a kiln from a 3D model.
- Wax: Wax is regularly used to create cast-able molds for jewelry, dentistry and other purposes.
- Metal: Various powdered metals can be printed with using selective laser sintering methods.
Each printer comes with it’s own software to control and operate the machine.
- Slicing tool: This software allows the user to load a 3D model, adjust the size (scale) of the output and create a set of instructions that tells the printer how to create the 3D object.
- Fix and repair: Depending on the printer, the control software can identify and fix problematic models before they are sent to the printer, saving time and money due to failed prints.
- Onboard vs. tethered: Some printers require a dedicated computer to control the printer operation, while others use memory cards or USB thumb drives to store the printing instructions and have an onboard display and control interface for standalone printing.
- Remote control & monitoring: Many printers can be controlled remotely via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth network connectivity from a computer or smartphone/tablet app to send and monitor print jobs from anywhere in the world.
- Live camera viewing: Onboard cameras on some machines also allow the user to view the current status of the print job from the control software remotely. These also allow the capture of timelapse videos of the print in progress.
What are different types of 3D printers?
Companies that make 3D printers for industrial companies create printers that make fast 3D prototypes so companies can see a quick example of a larger project they are hoping to build.
3D printing companies produce 3D printers sold to individual users that they can use for their own pleasure or experimentation. The line between hobby and industrial/commercial use is starting to blur as the quality of the desktop machines increases and the industrial machines come down in price.
Small-scale customizable 3D printing companies
Also known as a 3D service bureau, there are companies that receive designs from customers and print them in-house, taking the actual tangible work away from the customer and sending them with the finished prints. This is an attractive way to test the output quality of a design or do one-off prints in an expensive material without investing in a high-end 3D printer.
Rapid manufacturing companies
Rapid manufacturing companies create a short run of 3D objects very fast, and the products that these companies create are the actual sellable and useable product, not a prototype.
Who's it for?
Also known as makers, the hobbyist users take advantage of the lower cost of desktop 3D printers for use in the home to experiment with the technology, compliment various projects they are working on, create artistic objects, produce jewelry and other objects for sale or personal use and more.
Biotechnology firms and medical academics
These are companies that are interested in engineering replacement body parts, organs and cells, or learning more about how their work can benefit from 3D printers.
Many industrial manufacturing companies use 3D printers to make quick prototypes of things they will then produce in bulk or at full size.
Artists and architects
Artists and architects use 3D printers to make works of art or smaller versions of creations, which they will then expand upon later.
Started 2009 and based in Brooklyn, NY, MakerBot was one of the first commercial companies making affordable desktop 3D printers in a variety of price points for users of all levels.
- Best for Hobbyists, biotechnology and medical academics, artists and architects.
Headquartered in Rock Hill, South Carolina, 3D Systems creates 3D printers and their parts and accessories. The company was the first to commercialize the Stereolithography printer in 1989.
- Best for Biotechnology and medical academics and industrial manufacturers.
Envision TEC is headquartered in Dearborn, MI. The company also has a European headquarter in Gladbeck, Germany.
- Best for Biotechnology and medical academics, industrial manufacturers, artists and architects.
Stratsys is a large-scale professional 3D printing company. The company uses FDM technology to produce its creations.
- Best for Biotechnology and medical academics, industrial manufacturers, artists and architects.
Lulzbot is 3D printing company that is headquartered in Loveland, Colorado. The company is a product line of Aleph Objects, Inc, an open source hardware company that was started in January 2011.
- Best for Hobbyists, biotechnology and medical academics, industrial manufacturers, artists and architects.
Afinia is a 3D printing company that was founded in 2009. Today, the company is a subsidiary of Microboards Technology, which has been in business since 1989.
- Best for Hobbyists, industrial manufacturers, artists and architects.
Tinkerine is the largest 3D printing company based in Canada. The company sells a range of 3D printers and printing accessories.
- Best for Hobbyists, artists and architects.
Information in this guide is general in nature and is intended for informational purposes only; it is not legal, health, investment or tax advice. ConsumerAffairs.com makes no representation as to the accuracy of the information provided and assumes no liability for any damages or loss arising from its use.