There are a growing number of “prosumer” 3D printers on the market, such as 3D Systems (DDD) CubeX Trio 3D printer that’s capable of printing in 3 different colors of plastic at once. But this machine goes for a hefty $3999 — you could buy a used car for that. Even the best 3D printers will never see widespread adoption at such a high price point.
While relatively affordable 3D printers once meant enclosures made of wood and user assembly required — like the Thing-O-Matic from Stratasys (SYSS) acquisition Makerbot — manufacturers are now targeting consumers with a series of lower-priced 3D printers, hoping to spur growth.
3D Systems and Stratasys are currently the big players in the 3D printer market, but everyone is waiting for the shoe to drop when a traditional (laser and inkjet) printing giant enters the market. It’s only a matter of time before Epson (SEKEY) makes its move, and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has already sold a HP-branded 3D printer (made by Statasys) and committed to releasing its own by mid-2014.
Even without familiar printer names like HP, Epson or Canon (CAJ) in the game, there are still some compelling 3D printers that consumers can choose from that won’t break the bank. Here are five of the best 3D printers that you won’t need to take out a loan to buy.
Best 3D Printers: Solidoodle 4
Appearance-wise, the Solidoodle 4 looks something like a microwave or toaster oven — a metal enclosure with a glass front.
As the name suggests, this Solidoodle 3D printer is now in its 4th generation, meaning that most of the bugs should have been worked out by now.
According to the manufacturer, it has a new extruder, concealed components and thumbwheel calibrations. It uses 1.75mm plastic filament (ABS or PLA) to print objects up to 8 x 8 x 8 inches. MSRP is $999, making it one of the more affordable options currently available.
Then again, when Slate’s Seth Stevenson tried out the Solidoodle 4, all he managed to produce with the 3D printer was “plastic goo.”
So maybe there some room for improvement yet, but it’s still good enough to land on our list of best 3D printers.
Best 3D Printers: Cube
I reviewed the Cube 3D printer from 3D Systems back in December, after spending the better part of a month with the machine.
With its colorful options and high-tech look, the Cube is a deliberate attempt by DDD to design a 3D printer aimed squarely at the home. It looks bright, cheerful and non-threatening. The company has even managed to get them on the shelves of retailers like Best Buy (BBY).
I’m probably a little more technically savvy than the average person, but I honestly don’t think it takes someone who knows a lot about computers or electronics to operate the Cube. 3D Systems has made it very easy to operate and opted for proprietary filament cartridges (more expensive, but easier to use), making this one of the best 3D printers available for beginners.
I didn’t have any pile of “plastic goo” moments with the $1299 Cube, although I did have one print job quit halfway through (four hours in) — much more frustrating than having your laser printer quit halfway through printing a page.
Best 3D Printers: Afinia H Series 3D Printer
At $1599.99, the Afinia H Series 3D Printer is pushing the envelope in terms of affordability. Although it’s carried by some big-box electronics retailers, there probably aren’t many consumers ready to shell out that much money.
Connection to your printer is via USB only (no Wi-Fi), print size maxes out at 5.5 x 5.5 x 5.5 inches, and the exposed print plate can get very hot.
In the Afinia H’s favor, the manufacturer includes a full tool kit for finishing those 3D printed models and it offers 2.2 pound spools of ABS filament for $31.99 — 3D Systems charges $49 for a Cube 3D printer ABS cartridge.
Best 3D Printers: Makerbot Replicator Mini
The industry may be relatively new, but when it comes to any list of the best 3D printers or influential 3D printing companies, Makerbot will be there.
Evolving from a “maker” favorite and Kickstarter funding to one of the most recognized names in the industry, Makerbot is even more influential after its 2013 acquisition by Stratasys.
The additional muscle and money is evident in the new Makerbot Replicator Mini, a $1375 3D printer that’s aimed squarely at the consumer market, with DDD’s Cube 3D printer square in its sights.
The Replicator Mini won Makerbot multiple awards at CES 2014. Its design is attractive; Makerbot has worked hard to make the printer the closest thing possible to an easy, pushbutton experience; and the price is right. The big downside to the Makerbot Replicator Mini is the size of models it can print, which are limited to 3.9 x 3.9 x 4.9 inches.
Best 3D Printers: 3Doodler
Let’s say upfront that the 3Doodler is not going to be keeping DDD or Stratasys awake at night. When it comes to the models this 3D printer produces, well they tend to look terrible. Sloppy and imprecise is probably being charitable in describing the output.
So why is the 3Doodler on a list of the best 3D printers?
Because the starting price for even the most affordable consumer 3D printers is currently in the $1,000 and up range –and the 3Doodler costs $99. That’s right, under $100 for a 3D printer. Not only that, but rather than $30 to $50 for the raw materials, you can buy packs of colored plastic filament for the 3Doodler for less than $10.
The catch is that the 3Doodler is actually a hand-held pen. This 3D printer has no print tray, no motorized print head and no digital files to print from. It extrudes melted plastic, but it’s up to your hand –and your skill– to build the model. As you might expect, that doesn’t always end well.
Another successful Kickstarter project, the 3Doodler is now being sold through online retailers, and at $99, it is undoubtedly the best 3D printer you can buy for under $100. It may seem like child’s play compared to the advanced models like the Cube or Replicator Mini, but the 3Doodler offers consumers an entry into the world of 3D printing that’s priced almost as an impulse buy.
That’s the sort of price point needed for 3D printing to take off (think of what happened once inkjet printers dropped from $1,000 to less than $100), and even if it’s relatively primitive, taking that important step lands the 3Doodler on our Best 3D printers list.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.