Not all 3D printers are made equal, and not every machine is right for everyone!
🛒Prusa i3 Kits
🛒Original Prusa i3 MK2
🛒Printrbot Simple 2016
🛒Ultimaker 2 Go
🛒Full-color printers and mcortechnologies.com
There’s always someone commenting on the price of the 3D printers that have been tested on this channel, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a 400, 800 or 2000 or $14.000 3D printer. And while there are many machines that, on paper, are very similar to each other in pretty much every price range, there are differences in the hardware and aspects other than the actual, physical machine that might not be all that obvious. So let’s check out what the different price brackets and classes of 3D printers are, what you should expect with each of them and which one is right for you.
Now let me preface this with a bit of psychology and human nature. We’re all biased. Everyone is, whether you like it or not. Depending on your approach and past experiences, there might be a bit more or less reason behind whether you think a machine is worth the money or not. And that’s going to be a very individual thing – if you’re looking for a hobby to learn new things, and mostly looking at the finished 3D printed parts as sort of a side effect, then you are going to be looking for an entirely different product than someone who is buying a 3D printer to use in an industrial prototyping environment. I think it’s awesome that the entire area of 3D printing spans such a wide range of uses, but of course that is also going to create, uhm, misunderstandings, when people looking for different things start discussing which one is the better printer. I called a specific model the best 3D printer because I think it’s in an awesome sweetspot where, no matter which area you’re coming from, you will most likely be able to put it to good use, and going up or down on the pricing scale, you start to specialize the machine itself towards different use cases and eat away at that universal appeal.
So I’ve sort of plotted out the different brackets of 3D printers and what you should be looking for in each one. Of course, this is not set in stone, and depending on, for example, whether you get a kit or a ready-built machine or want some specialty feature or can do without some, you’re going to have some leeway either way. Let’s start out at the bottom with printers and kits that sell for less than about 500 $, €, GBP; whatever. These are typically either import kits and machines with extremely limited features or build sizes. The biggest part of the cost of these is going to be the raw material costs for motors, motion components, electronics and the cost of actually shipping the machine and materials around, especially if you’re importing something from foreign countries or continents. In that case, you should always also keep imports and customs duties in mind, which can easily add 100 bucks or more to your base purchase cost. And if you’re unlucky, since most machines lack FCC or CE conformity, you might not be able to import them at all. The low cost of the 200 to 300 buck kits just leaves very little room for anything else than the parts themselves. And that does often mean you’ll have to make compromises on things like good print settings, after-sales support from the manufacturer or even just a manual on how to build the thing. Quite often, though, there are avid communities around these low-end machines because there are simply a lot of them out there, but you do really have to put the research in and work things out yourself. And even though you’re rarely going to get a genuine hotend, good electronics or linear components, it’s usually enough to build on and expand on, if you’re interested in treating the machine like a hobby, don’t need a perfect out-of-the-box experience and are willing to buy an upgrade part here and there. Typical choices would be something like the Anet A8, TEVO Tarantula or all the other Prusa i3-style kits on Amazon or Aliexpress, links for all of these in the video description, by the way.
The other class of machines that fit in here are something like the super-cost-optimized mass-production machines, some of which use a razors and blades business model with chipped filament cartridges, but most of them are basically “take it or leave it” offers, with proprietary parts that you can’t modify or upgrade without major hassles. Prime example: daVinci’s machines, which they will even throw in as a freebie if you buy a few spools of filament.
Next up, the “middle class” of 3D printers, which range from about 500 to 1000 bucks, and these are a good step up from the super-low-end options. Of course, there are still duds in this price range, but if you pick the right one, you can get an incredibly robust and reliable workhorse that maybe isn’t the shiniest and most sophisticated machine, but will have all the basic features ticked, like electronics that won’t burn your house down and some “bonus” features like an LCD screen, reliable autoleveling and just generally fewer questionable design choices. Simply because the manufacturer will need to spend less of your up-front purchase price on raw components, there will be more left over for improving the machine’s design, writing manuals and documentation, optimizing print profiles and providing after-sales service and support. There are still a few tradeoffs to be made, especially feature-wise, but in general this range of machines shouldn’t come with any glaring flaws or omissions. This is also sort of a sweetspot for open-source machines, as the cheaper options often just care to release source files for hardware and firmware, while many higher-end machines don’t dare to release anything.
So while that means that you still can modify parts and add community-developed features on your own, you don’t have to, and you should be able to expect great print quality out of the box, with at least a set of print profiles for different materials and layer heights, ideally even with a ready-to-go software package. For me, this would be the go-to category of machines, I’m just tired of debugging printer after printer with the same set of issues and it’s nice to have that sort of tedious work done by the manufacturer every now and then. Obviously, the prime example here is the Original Prusa i3 MK2, which you can get as a kit or a ready-built machine, or something like the Printrbot Simple which trades a heated bed and a bit of the print volume for smarter electronics and a more professional look.
The next range of “semi-professional” machines feels like it’s in a bit of a tough spot – many machines that sell for between 1000 and 2000 bucks are either new manufacturers trying to sell gimmicky feautures or trying to simply market old designs with a “Pro” sticker for a 50% markup. There are a few nice choices in here that are suitable for a true professional environment, where the sub-$1000 machines typically feel out of place, but with a more professional machine, tinkering and modding are much less of a focus than with the lower-priced options. Things like complete software packages or even proprietary slicers and processing tools are much more the norm then the exception here, and you can expect that the manufacturer will have put significant effort into tweaking, testing and iterating their design before releasing a machine.This is also the price bracket where mechanical components will usually be brand-name parts, especially belts and linear guides, making for a smoother-running machine and a longer service life. Some of the high-end manufacturers release smaller machines to compete here, like the Ultimaker 2 Go or the Lulzbot Mini, but you’ll also be able to find machines like the Zortrax M200, which are a bit more focused toward industrial use. Bonus features like WiFi and cloud functionality and apps and fully enclosed chambers for printing ABS exist, but they are and will usually come as a tradeoff for missing other bits.
Now, $2000 an up is sort of a vague category, but I think that’s about the threshold where you’re just not going to find maker-oriented machines anymore, simply because, well, they’re too expensive unless you’re using them to make money. So at that point, you should expect everything about the machine to be properly engineered and built for reliability and the companies making these machines will usually have proven over the last few years that they can actually make a decent 3D printer. Obviously, you pay as much as you want when buying a 3D printer, but even under $5000, there are some nice options like the Ultimaker 3 or, if you don’t want a filament-based machine, resin-based SLA printers like the Form 2 or even laser-sintering machines like the Sintratech. Or above and beyond that, of course, with something like the Markforged machines printing continuous fibers or full-color gypsum or paper printers, but those really shouldn’t be the focus here.
What I want to get to is basically this: Yes, there are always cheaper options out there if you just look at the raw physical components of a 3D printer. Sure, you can get a Prusa MK2 instead of an Ultimaker 3. Sure, you can get TEVO Tarantula instead of that MK2 and of course, you can source all the parts individually and build it even cheaper, but you do have to keep in mind that with every penny you save, you will need to say goodbye to some aspects of your purchase, even if they aren’t immediately visible or even relevant for you. Where your needs and desires fit in and how much you’re willing to spend on getting them fulfilled is entirely up to you. But whether you’re a maker or a professional user, they will be different and based on that, different machines and classes make sense.
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