- The best overall desktop 3D printer is Formlabs Form 2
- The best filament printer 3D printer is Lulzbot TAZ 6
3D printing has been around since the 1980’s, but the prohibitive price and size of most units kept them out of consumer hands. Over the past decade, 3D printer manufacturers have made a concentrated push to get the devices into consumer hands. Predictably, a flood of cheaply produced models that deliver low quality prints hit the market. These lower-end models aren’t capable of much more than churning out the odd novelty. Luckily, a few professional grade desktop 3D printers are now available at a fraction of the cost of larger industrial units. I’ve detailed the two best to come out in 2016.
Best Overall Desktop 3D Printer: Formlabs Form 2
Formlabs got its start at MIT back in 2011. Since then they’ve graduated to become one of the most innovative companies in the 3D industry. In 2014 they released the Form 1+ SLA Printer. It delivered professional-level printing at a price that small businesses and private consumers could actually afford. This year Formlabs improved on the success of their first effort with the release of the Form 2 3D Stereo Lithography printer.
Stereo lithography differs from most desktop 3D printers, which use ABS or PLA thermoplastics fed from a spool into a heated nozzle then set to cool. Stereo lithography employs a laser to harden resin distributed from a vat. It builds up one layer at a time and solidifies the resin on contact with the laser.
The process is much slower than using the filament spools. It takes the Form 2 12 seconds per layer, which means you might have to wait 20 hours for your product to finish. But the longer time is well worth the wait, especially if you are producing detailed medical equipment. Once your project is done, it needs to be finished in alcohol. Formlabs included an isopropyl alcohol finishing kit with the printer, but be warned that the finishing process should take place in a well ventilated area.
Let’s get into the details. The Form 2 can print 5.7 x 5.7 x 6.9 inches. That’s larger than most desktop printers, but still smaller than industrial competitors. But the real draw is the 25 micron layer thickness, 4x more fine than the latest Makerbot replica. The detail is precise and stunning.
This time around the resin and print area are removable. Each resin tank goes through about 2L of printing before they have to be replaced. The process is simple, and you can switch between types of resin with ease. Each cartridge is quite pricey compared to ABS and PLA- between $150 and $300.
Another big upgrade is a level sensor that guarantees you are printing on a level surface. To level the printer, you have to manually adjust four leveling legs underneath. It also comes with a leveling tool to help in this process. The Form 2 has a touchscreen, and supports Wi-Fi and USB, setting it apart from most desktop 3D printers. Formlabs continues to release firmware and software upgrades to improve the process.
So is the extra money worth the price? Depends on your needs. Professional artists, architects, and doctors benefit the most from the added precision. If you are a hobbyist or new to 3D printing, you can probably stick to ABS for now.
Best Filament Printer: Lulzbot TAZ 6
Colorado-based AlephObjects delivers quality 3D printing with an opensource ethos in the TAZ 6, the latest gen model of its flagship printer line. The TAZ 6 is a rugged fused filament fabrication 3D printer that looks and operates like something you’d see in an engineer’s warehouse. It doesn’t have the futuristic aesthetic of other consumer-oriented 3D printers. This is a printer that is built with quality parts and the clear intention to last. And it’s all the better for it.
The TAZ 6 printer focuses on reliability and quality over speed. This is a large unit with a 12 inch bed that prints objects up to 250 mm tall. The frame is a combination of aluminum with metal brackets and plastic parts parts printed at AlephObject’s massive print farm. The Z-axis is a giant spindle, while the X and Y axis use 2mm pitch belts. The TAZ 6 uses 3mm filament which comes out of hexagonal hot end on a 0.5mm nozzle. It has an LCD screen and SD card reader hooked up to the company’s RAMBo motherboard. The power supply and computer are cooled off by fans, and every wire is crimped and grounded. These extra touches show that AlephObjects care about the electronic components on this unit and have put in the effort to make them
One of the best features is that the TAZ 6 comes nearly ready to use right out of the box. Just fasten the extruder on with a single screw and then attach the surface and you are up and running within 15 minutes. Another plus is the auto-leveling feature which uses the washers at the four corners of the to establish a level surface before each and every print. It also has a reliable auto-cleaning feature that cleans the print head after every use.
The weakest part of the TAZ 6 is the glass bed, which has heated silicone underneath. The heat tends to dissipate away from the center, making it harder to pry the finished product off if its near the edges and achieve a smooth bottom. Other than that the prints are very high quality for a FFF 3D printer, and you can decide between “fast” “strong” and “high detail” profiles.
Finally, AlephObjects prides itself on its opensource policy. The company uses freely licensed designs, specifications, and documentation to make sure your software is never obsolete and you have access to free designs.