The future has arrived. A range of 3D printers are now within reach of ordinary households, but the technology is still in its infancy, albeit developing rapidly. So be warned, whatever option you choose is likely to be outdated very fast indeed. What’s more, we’re not yet at sci-fi levels of performance – printers are slow, offer a limited range of materials (most use two types of thermoplastic, called PLA and ABS) and can build objects of a limited size – about the size of a loaf of bread for the biggest available printers. Nevertheless, if you are an early adopter, there are already plenty of options to jump right in and start making.
1. 3Doodler Pen 2.0
It took just 16 minutes for the Kickstarter campaign to reach its $30,000 target funding in January this year to update the popular 3Doodler Pen 1.0, the first device of its kind in the world. It ended up with more than $1 million in pledges. The pen allows you to “draw” in the air with extruded heated plastic filament that cools almost instantly into a solid, stable structure. The plastic is all 3 millimetres in diameter and comes in a variety of colours.
2. Airwolf AW3D HD
The AW3D HD gains praise for striking the right balance between speed and quality. It also has a large capacity and, at around $3,000, is suitable for home or office use. Speeds can reach up to 150 millimetres per second, while prints can be as large as 30 x 20 x 30 centimetres. It features an LCD screen and an easy to navigate interface. Airwolf provides an online model database or you can create your own using software that comes with the printer.
3. Makerbot replicator
The Replicator is now in its fifth generation so the bugs have been ironed out. It has a steel chassis with an easy-to-use LCD screen display. This is a fast, low maintenance printer with good support from the company. It doesn’t print with ABS, only PLA and is able to print objects up to 15 x 15 x 27 centimetres.
4. Lulzbot mini
Aleph Objects, the Colorado-based manufacturer, says the Mini is aimed at a wide audience – households, schools, libraries and businesses. At around $1,300 it is suitable for modelling prototypes and limited production. The hardware and software the company creates is free to be modified or converted by users.
5. Afinia HD480
The HD480 can print both the ABS and PLA types of thermoplastic and comes with all the tools you will need to design, print and finish your creation. At just over $1,000, the printer is ideal for beginners or people on a budget. One drawback, however, is that the unit can only print small objects. And beware – the HD480 does not have a safety enclosure to protect you from the heated plate or moving parts.
6. Printrbot Simple Maker Kit
The Printrbot is the cheapest 3D printer on the market right now at around $350 for the kit and about $100 more for a fully assembled unit. It’s a no-frills option, stripped down to the bare bones. But the design is user-friendly and attractive in a raw industrial sort of way. A great introduction to 3D printing but you will have to think small – at capacity of 10 x 10 x 10 centimetres you can print a small figurine but not even a case for an iPhone.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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