Finding the best dirt-cheap, field-tough 3D printer for science and conservation work: six months later.

A fully upgraded Ender-3.

Four years ago, I had the chance to lead a research cruise on Lake Superior to explore the potential of low-cost, open-source tools for marine field work. This was the proving ground for the OpenCTD, the Niskin3D, the OpenROV 2.7, and the idea that, rather than packing cases and case of gear, we could put everything we needed on a flash drive and print it at sea. 

During that cruise, as my trusty Printrbot, was churning out Niskin bottles, we caught a wave and the 3D printer was thrown to the ground. I came down hours later to find it upside down on the floor of a retrofitted fish hold, happily chugging along. I picked it up, put it back on the counter, and went back to sleep. The print didn’t even fail.

That is the kind of beast we need. 

Over the years, whenever someone asked me what the best 3D Printer for field work was, the answer was always the same: The Printrbot Simple Metal. But Printrbot is gone (for now) and we needed a replacement.

Half a year ago, we completed an exhaustive review of the cheapest 3D-printers on the market, with an eye towards low-cost, robust tools that would endure the rigors of field work without blowing our grant budget. We wanted 3D printers that were workhorses. They didn’t have to be pretty, they didn’t have to produce perfect prints, they just had to spit out strong serviceable parts with minimal fuss. They had to be reasonably portable. And they had to be able to take a beating and keep on printing.

We never found a replacement for the absolute tank that is the Printrbot Simple Metal, but after months of testing, settled on a pair of good alternatives (notably for a fraction of the cost of the Printrbot when it was still in production): for those who need big build volumes, the Creality Ender-3. For those who need portability above all, the Monoprice Mini-Delta

But that was six months ago. I promised to put these two machines into heavy use. After several hundred hours of printing, we’re ready to update our review of both machines. 

Executive Summary. My recommendation still stands, both both printers need a few modifications before you can call them the ultimate field machine. 

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