[NOTE: Please see our update regarding this printer: Finding the best dirt-cheap, field-tough 3D printer for science and conservation work: six months later.]
Somewhere between the Prusa printers with their paired z-axis motors and the cantilever systems with a gantry arm spanning the x- or y-axis with only a single point of support, lies printers like the Creality Ender-3. Where a more conventional 3D printer uses rails and linear bearings to drive the axes, these printers forgo the standard model.
You won’t find a single linear bearing on the Creality Ender-3 or it’s clones. Instead, rubber rollers pass through v-slot grooves in extruded aluminum, removing the need for complex gantry systems.
This is an incredibly robust method for cutting costs, but it is not a compromise. Roller and v-slot printers can be just as precise as their rail and bearing counterparts, and the mandated all aluminum construction makes them strong and durable.
For a general-use field-ready 3D printer, you could not do much better than the Creality Ender-3.
The Creality Ender-3 retails for $229 on Amazon, but you can pick it up directly from Creality for less than $200. It’s a semi-kit: there’s some assembly required, but most of the components that need precision calibration are pre-assembled.
If I had started this review series with this printer, I probably would have stopped there. Other than a few specific edge cases where I think there are better options out there for less than $200, there’s not much reason to favor any of the other review units over this one. The bed is huge, equal to the Anet A6. There’s no auto-level like the Monoprice Mini Delta, but the bed levels easily by hand and holds its settings. The interface is standard, if uninspired. The build plate is removable, making is very easy to scrape off a print.
And, be still my heart, it has a decent power supply with an actual, honest-to-cod, power switch!
This is a good printer. With a few tweaks, it’s a great printer. If you’re thinking about getting into 3D printing, either for the field or just for fun, this it the printer to start with.
For an explanation of our testing protocols, please see: We’re gonna beat the heck out of these machines: The search for the best dirt-cheap 3D printer for fieldwork.
The Burn In.
Building this printer was a breeze. The instructions were clear and well-illustrated and most of the complex components came pre-assembled. You only really need to assemble the frame and route wires. All the cables have nice, legible labels that make it clear exactly where everything goes.
This is an easy build, taking barely 2-hours to complete.
As a nice final touch, once finished, calibrating the bed height took barely any time at all. The Ender-3 has huge knobs on all four corners of the build plate that make adjustments incredibly easy and comfortable. There’s no pinching you hands into tiny spaces like other printers we’ve reviewed. The first print was going smoothly within minutes of finishing he assembly.
The only complaint I have is that the demo print, a fairly large puppy, required more filament than was provided. It’s a small detail, but if you want to showcase your printer’s performance, you should ship it with enough filament to print the demo object provided on the SD card.
Burn-in Score: A
The Benchmark Test.
I have almost no complaints about this Benchy. It is, by far, the cleanest of any printer tested. The only blemish is a missing pass on the vertical shells which really stands out against an otherwise very good print.
Benchmark Score: B
The Replication Test.
What can I say about these Cute Octos? They came out exactly as they should, 3 times.
Replication Score: A
The Functional Parts Test.
The nut and bolt fit together perfectly, turn freely, and lock up under pressure. There’s not much else you would want from a print like this.
Functional Part Score: A
The Complex System Test.
Here’s where this printer really shines. The Niskin bottle parts printed cleanly and quickly on the Ender-3, with no blemishes. All parts fit together exactly as designed, there were no strange stringy bits, and this printer needed fewer supports than any other.
The Niskin3D printed better on the Ender-3 than it did on the Monoprice Mini Delta, and I designed the Niskin3D specifically to print on the Mini Delta.
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The final #3Dprinter is officially my favorite all-around printer for lab and field. It should come as no surprise that it’s the Creality Ender-3. Only the Delta printed a cleaner Niskin bottle. I beat up every sub-$200 3D printer I could get my hands on to bring you the best printer for field work. Formal review and official recommendations coming. #3dprinting #creality #crealityender3 #ender3 #conservation #oceanography #hacktheocean
Complex System Score: A
The Precision Instrument Test.
I know what you’re thinking: At last! a printer that might just be able to handle the demands of printing a 50 micron vernier for a navigational instrument.
The Ender-3 did the best it could, but it’s not good enough. With a low-cost Bowden-style extruder, it just can’t handle pulling details at that high a resolution.
After five printers that utterly failed to master this test, what’s going on? My Printrbot Simple Metal has a direct drive extruder with custom-milled aluminum gears design for high precision at high torque. The stepper motor on the Printrbot extruder is at least twice as beefy as on any of the test units. The hotend is all metal, with an unbroken throat for even heating throughout the filament path. All of those things matter quite a bit when it comes to precision control on a high-resolution print.
Precision score: C
The Educator’s Test.
Again, there’s just nothing to say here. The Isopod looks good and all the details are there.
Educator’s Score: A
Much like the other kit-based printers, there’s very little to actually tear down on this printer. Most of the components are pretty well exposed. The only major sealed unit is the box that contains the control board, which is clean and largely empty. The intake for the cooling fan does sit right under the build plate, increasing the risk that errant bits of plastic could fine their way in to the housing.
Beyond that, the main moving parts are visible, easy to access, and easy to replace (especially since this printer came packed with spares). After two weeks of extensive printing, there were no obvious signs of wear anywhere on this machine.
The z-axis does feel a little wobbly, and you can tell immediately why high end Prusa-style machines goes for paired z-axis motors. The sloppiness on the gantry means that this printer is never going to produce silky-smooth vertical shells without some serious modifications. But we’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking for tough, reliable, no fuss field printers.
And at that, the Creality Ender-3 excels.
Note: In a lot of ways the Burn In and Tear Down tests for these reviews are redundant. Kit printers get exhaustive Burn In sections and fairly sparse Tear Downs. Pre-builts get the reverse. It all evens out.
Tear-down Score: A
The Trash Test.
The printer has a built in extra extrusion pass before it starts the print, so it wasn’t the least wasteful printer, but it was far from the most wasteful printer.
Total mass of waste filament: 8.69g
I really like this printer. Can you tell? It’s very likely that this will become my daily driver, while the Printrbot is held in reserve for high-precision prints or exotic filaments. It really is that good.
But, there are a few issues that make it less than perfect for field work. The footprint is huge, with a big moving bed that needs lots of clear space. If you don’t need to print big objects, it might be overkill. The design is also not very easy to pack, requiring a lot of disassembly to get it portable. And it’s all open. Circuit boards are exposed and the print area is unprotected.
I haven’t worked much with roller-based printers before, so I can’t give a good assessment of how long the rollers will last compared to linear bearings on rails, but after 2 weeks of heavy use, they looked completely fine.
Those aren’t mission-critical trade-offs, but they are worth considering. For a field station, this printer is perfect, but if you need extreme portability, it might not be the right choice for you.
I’m keeping this printer, using it in my workshop, and taking it into the field. That says it all.
Final Score: A-
- Creality Ender-3 (with upgrades): A
- Monoprice Select Mini: B+
- Monoprice Mini Delta: B-
- Creality Ender-3 (unmodified): B-
- Anet A6: D+
- iNSTONE Desktop DIY: No
Depending on how successful this project is, I may expand to include printers in the $200 to $400 price range. If you want to help make that happen, you can either use the Amazon Affiliate links in the post to buy printers, consumables, anything else or you can sign up for my Patreon and help support Southern Fried Science.