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Power to create

With print quality going up and device prices going down, 3D printers are steadily gaining popularity. Which model should you stock?

Even though large, industrial 3D printers have been around since the 80’s, personal desktop models specifically aimed at the consumer market are relatively new. In essence, however, they do the exact same thing. They facilitate computer controlled shaping and creation of three dimensional, physical objects by successively adding layers of base material.

Objects can be of almost any shape or geometry and are generally produced from a 3D model or computer file. The base material that 3D printers require, varies from different sorts of plastics to metals, ceramics and even edible substances. 3D printers can be used to create 3D objects that are difficult, or even impossible to create with traditional manufacturing techniques.

Having a 3D printer create an object from scratch is a slow business. Depending on size and complexity, waiting times of 10 to 15 hours are no exception. As a result, 3D printing hasn’t yet been applied on a grander scale for serial, mass production. Nonetheless, 3D printing is ideal for the manufacturing of a small number of objects, such as prototyping.

How does 3D printing work?

In order to convert the base material to a physical object, a number of techniques are possible. There are 3D printers that use lasers or electron beams to heat up a powdery base material, but these devices are far too expensive. Other models use lamination, or even stereo-lithography to produce an object.

By far the most widely used method to produce physical, 3D objects is called Fused Deposition Modelling. FDM technology uses a source material called filament, which is initially supplied on a coil as extremely thin wire. This filament is then heated up in an extruder and ultimately brought to a liquid state. Finally, the molten filament is placed on the platform of the printer where it will solidify and form the base for the next layer.

The biggest advantage of FDM over all the other ways of 3D printing is that both the printers, as well as the filament, are relatively cheap. One kilogram of filament will cost an approximate R300 and is available in several different materials, such ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Poly Lactic Acid). ABS is the same hard plastic as used in Lego blocks while PLA is a brittle, bio-degradable material. While printing, ABS will produce that typical burnt plastic smell, so an adequate ventilating is advised. PLA, on the other hand, will produce a light, sweet scent.

 

What's the need?

Although prices of 3D printers are going down, the key question remains: why would anybody need one? Well, the possibilities are in fact endless and the industry sectors that can benefit numerous. For instance, in the medical domain 3D printing can be used to explain and visualise medical procedures, prosthetics or body parts. Dentists can even print individual teeth, a crown or complete dentures. In the field of engineering and architecture, being able to print prototypes, spare parts or models yourself will be a great advantage. 3D printed object can also be applied in the educational sector, to help students grasp certain concepts. In addition, designers and artist can realise or refine ideas with the help of 3D printers. And then there’s also the fashion industry where they can be used to create unique, tailor made accessories, new shoes or even frames for glasses.

Test conditions

This comparative review only focuses on desktop FDM-based 3D printers that support either ABS or PLA as their primary filament. The overall rating for each device is based on various aspects like its specifications, features, build quality, ease-of-use and ultimately, performance. This performance aspect was covered by measuring how accurate each device is. For that, the devices were manually configured to print at the highest possible resolution and then put to work. All printers had to create the exact same set of objects, each with varying dimensions and shapes. By carefully measuring the actual, physical dimensions of each printed object with a calliper, any deviations from the digital 3D model could be detected.

Zortrax M200 Zortrax M200

Zortrax M200

Estimated RRP: R31 800

Materials: ABS, HIPS, ULTRAT

Build area (cm): 20 x 20 x 18

Heated platform: Yes

Connection: USB, SD

Product page

Distributor: Rapid 3D

This sleek looking, cube-shaped 3D printer features a perforated build plate to help remove printed objects with more ease. Not only does it look great, the device is also very durable because of the metal casing. Printing quality is top notch and the level of detail it can print is impressive. The M200 also features a heated build plate to prevent object deformation when printing with ABS filament.

However, removing objects when they’re done, is a laborious task. You need to turn off, unplug and take out the whole build plate each and every time. Other drawbacks of the M200 include imperfect instructions, a vague progress bar, and magnet and pegs that are tricky to seat properly. While printing, especially for longer periods of time, noise level might become an issue. Setup and installation are a breeze as a result of the fully automatic calibration procedure.

The Z-suite software that is to be used with the M200 is quite limited and offers only the most basic options. Even in advanced mode, the number of configurable settings is very limited. All of this makes the M200 a 3D printer that’s less suited for anybody that wants to tweak and fiddle with various options. Next to a USB connector, the M200 also supports an SD-card as a way to upload 3D models. A nice feature is that the M200 not only handles ABS and PLA filament, but also various other base materials.

Ease of use: 7.5/10

Print quality: 8/10

Overall: 7.5/10

Makerbot Replicator (5th gen) Makerbot Replicator (5th gen)

Makerbot Replicator (5th gen)

Estimated RRP: R60 000

Materials: PLA

Build area (cm): 25 x 20 x 15

Heated platform: No

Connection: WiFi, Ethernet, USB

Product page

Distributor: Rectron

This 5th generation Replicator is a big boy with a frame that is open at the front, side and rear. It is packed with some exceptional features such as wireless and wired network support. This makes it easy to share the device with multiple users. It’s also the only one that is equipped with an on-board camera to keep an eye on printing progress via the computer or an app. The device can be operated with the help of a big wheel that is accompanied by a beautiful 3.5-inch full colour LCD display. This screen not only supplies information on the current task, it can even show a graphical preview of the model.

Although calibrating and levelling the build plate, the surface on which the objects is created, has to be done manually, the process is very easy and well communicated through the display. The included Makerbot Desktop software offers comprehensive features to fine-tune prints, but also has a set of basic presets for anybody who likes to keep things simple. Despite the specifications claiming the Replicator can print layers of just 0.05 mm, the difference with 0.1 mm layers were not visible. Printing time, however, did increase substantially at 0.05 mm resolution. General print quality and accuracy of the Replicator proved to be very good, although we had one misprint during our testing period.  Unfortunately, the Replicator also comes with some serious downsides. For starters, it is very noisy when printing. Also, the objects printed for this comparative review were all very hard to remove from the actual build plate. As a result, the paper sticker on the build plate is easily damaged and needs to be replaced often.

Ease of use: 7.5/10

Print quality: 7/10

Overall: 7.5/10

Ultimaker 2+ Ultimaker 2+

 

Ultimaker 2+

Estimated RRP: R32 000

Materials: ABS, PLA, CPE

Build area (cm): 22.3 x 22.3 x 20.5

Heated platform: Yes

Connection: USB, SD

Product page

Distributor: Build volume

The Ultimaker 2+ features an open frame design, resulting in an unobstructed view of the printing process. It also means you will definitely notice the smell of burning plastic when using the ABS filament. This might become an issue at home, in a classroom or in an office environment. Nonetheless, it offers a great design and feels very well built.

Although general setup and configuration is quite easy, the Ultimaker 2+ unfortunately lacks automatic calibration of extruder height and print bed level. The print platform, however, is easily removable, which will come in handy when taking out 3D printed objects.

The Ultimaker 2+ has a dedicated spool holder that extends outwards behind the printer, and can fit any standard filament spool. Since it supports and open filament system, you’re able to use any kind of base material to get precisely the finish you’re after. It also features interchangeable nozzles for either greater detail or higher print speeds.

The Ultimaker 2+ is the only open source device in this test, meaning there’s an active global community of enthusiasts continuously supporting and improving it. It also comes with the excellent, open source Cura 3D printing software, which is both very easy to use for beginners and offer loads of advanced options for experts.

On paper, the Ultimaker 2+ is capable of producing some very accurate (0.02 mm) and detailed 3D models. In practice, printing in with extremely thin layers occasionally leads to misprints. Increasing the thickness of layers to 0.1 mm immediately solves this problem, but also means slightly less detail in the objects. Although print speed wasn’t officially part of this comparative review, the Ultimaker 2+ did prove to be the quickest of all tested models. In the end, overall print quality of the Ultimaker 2+ is excellent. It’s also relatively quiet when in action.

Ease of use: 6.5

Print quality: 8

Overall: 7

XYZ da Vinci 1.0 AIO XYZ da Vinci 1.0 AIO

XYZ da Vinci 1.0 AIO

Estimated RRP: R15 999

Materials: ABS, PLA

Build area (cm): 20 x 20 x 19

Heated platform: Yes

Connection: USB

Product page

Distributor: Mustek

 

 

The XYZ da Vinci 1.0 AIO is a closed case printer with just a single door at the front. Although the device is one of the most affordable in this test, it is the only device to feature an on-board scanner. The device can convert a physical object placed inside into raw data. After that, the object can be edited using the included XYZscan software. All of this sounds great in theory, but unfortunately the scanner delivers poor results in practice. For instance, it has great trouble accurately scanning dark objects. Supposedly, a new version of the software should be able to fix this issue.

Print quality ranges from mediocre to good. The printer occasionally experienced some trouble with complex shapes. Despite the closed system, there was also some incidental curling of the material. As a result, certain filament layers did not connect properly. Of all the tested models, the XYZ da Vinci 1.0 AIO delivered the highest number of misprints. This can be mitigated by manually calibrating the device more often, but that’s not a very user friendly job. Even though actual print quality leaves some to be desired, the rest of all the printed objects looked good, especially when keeping the low price of the device in mind.

Ease of use: 7

Print quality: 6

Overall: 6.5

Tiertime UP Box Tiertime UP Box

 

Tiertime UP Box

Estimated RRP: R43 995

Materials: ABS, PLA

Build area (cm): 25.5 x 20.5 x 20.5

Heated platform: Yes

Connection: USB

Product page

Distributor: 3D Printing Systems SA

The imposing UP BOX 3D printer is the only one that doesn’t have an on-board display, meaning most operations need to be done via the computer. It does have three buttons located on the side and uses LED’s to indicate its status and progress.

The UP BOX features two doors: one on the top and one on the front, providing access to the interior. The front door includes a tinted plastic panel that allows for a view of the inside, but only when the LED lighting is turned on. On the right side, a round panel covers the filament spool. The size of the print area is the largest of all the tested 3D printers.

Initial setup is very easy because of the fully automated platform levelling feature. It even checks the level of the print bed and determines the distance between the print nozzle and the surface. Since the actual print bed is covered by a detachable sheet of perforated plastic you can easily detach this perforated board after the print is completed, and then remove the print from the board outside the printer.

The UP BOX was able to produce some great prints in our test, consistently producing 3D prints with good detail, smooth surfaces and very few glitches. In action, it’s also as quiet as a fridge, mainly because it is fully enclosed, which additionally also keeps any smell inside. The device did display a few issues during the testing, though. It clearly struggled with some of the fine detail on a couple of the test prints. In addition, the detachable print bed is sometimes awkward to remove and replace.

Ease of use: 6.5

Print quality: 7

Overall: 6.5

In conclusion

From a technical point of view, the Zortrax M200, Makerbot Replicator and Ultimaker 2+ offer the highest printing quality and best features. They do come at a very steep price, though. The XYZ da Vinci 1.0 AIO, on the other hand, won’t immediately break the bank and still manages to produce 3D objects of sufficient quality. Its built-in scanner may sound like a good idea; the actual implementation is disappointing. The UP BOX also doesn’t come cheap, but lacks the quality, features and sophistication of the other devices.

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