These printers have been dragged around, beaten up, put in the hands of children and child-like adults, and run through the wringer to ensure that they stand up to the kind of abuse you might expect from the field. Now we’re really ready to make the call and tell you which are the best dirt-cheap, field-ready 3D printers.
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.
How cheap can a 3D printer be and still function? Although they seemed plucked out of science fiction, there’s not really that much to these machines. A few stepper motors, some switches, a control board, a heating element, and a nozzle are really all you need. It’s the software, and the expiration of a bunch of patents, that kicked the 3D printing revolution into high gear.
Is it possible to assemble the right collection of components to make a functional 3D printer for less than $100? iNSTONE thinks you can, and they are not wrong.
Monoprice, the king of rebadged 3D printers, has two entries in the sub-$200 printer category. We already dug into the guts of the Mini Delta, a great little delta-style printer, and now it’s time for the Monoprice Select Mini! This is a pretty standard cantilever printer, with the x-axis tied to the print bed and an y-axis connected by a single support to a moving gantry. It’s basic, but solid, with a bare-bones set of features that gets the job done.
There is also a Select Mini Pro which, since this review series started, has been discounted to $199. It does look like it has some nice features that make it wort the extra $11, including an automatic bed leveler, magnetic build plate, and touch screen. The budget for this series is blown, but if Monoprice wants to send us one *hint hint* I’ll be happy to put it through the wringer.
One of the reasons 3D printing exploded seemingly overnight a decade ago has a lot to do with the RepRap project, an initiative to build a fully open-source and largely 3D-printable 3D-printer. The idea of a machine that could replicate itself was pulled straight from the pages of science fiction, and yet, here were machines–janky, kludgey, barely functional, machines–assembled from parts clearly fabricated by those same machines. They were conceptually impressive, but not a particularly awe-inspiring sight to behold.
And then came Josef Průša and the Prusa Mendel.
Affectionately known as the Ford Model T of the 3D printing world, the Prusa Mendel was the first of the open-source 3D printers that was designed to be easily mass produced. It looked good and it ran great. Released under an open-source license, it was replicated and iterated on a massive scale. That didn’t prevent Průša from building a successful company. The current Prusa i3 MK2 is among the most successful desktop 3D printers in the world, and certainly one of the best.
Clocking in at $197.69, the Anet A6 is the most expensive printer in this review series. It’s also the biggest, with a massive 220mm by 220mm by 250mm build area. It’s an upgraded version of the popular Anet A8, with a larger build volume and a better user interface, but not much else. From reviews, this printer seemed like a solid representation of what you can get at the top end of the menagerie of sub-$200 Prusa i3 clones. It (and its smaller A8 brother) certainly have the fan-base and hacking community to support its reputation.
This acrylic-framed beast ships as a kit, so expect to spend half a day putting this printer together.
If you’re going off of dollar per cubic millimeter, this is the best bang for you buck by a wide margin. And that’s about the extent of the good things I have to say about this machine.
Monoprice is an interesting organization. They’re a rebadging company that seeks out unbranded or off-brand products, makes a few tweaks, and then sells them to secondary markets under their own brand. They made their mark in the early 2000s selling good, cheap cables and have expanded from there. You can find headphones, cookware, cables, computer accessories, and, of course, 3D printers, under the Monoprice label. But that doesn’t mean their products are cheap knockoffs. Monoprice has a reputation for finding quality equipment.
The Monoprice Mini Delta is a rebadged Malyan M300. From the specs, it doesn’t look like Monoprice changed anything but the logo, and that’s a good thing. Malyan printers have a great reputation.
This is a delta printer, which means rather than having independent X, Y, and Z-axes, three identical stepper motor arrays work in tandem to control the position of the extruder while the bed itself remains stationary. It uses a Bowden-style extruder that keeps the weight on the printhead down. It has an aluminum frame with steel structural elements. The relatively small circular print area is 110 mm diameter by 120 mm height. Controls are integrated into the printer and it allegedly has WiFi capability through an app.
What makes a good 3D printer for field work? It needs to be reliable, it needs to be durable, it needs to be reasonably portable. It also needs to print good, strong parts with decent resolution. They don’t have to be pretty, but they do have to work.
Last year, if you asked me what the absolute best 3D printer for field work was, I wouldn’t have hesitated to tell you it’s the Printrbot Simple Metal. This little beast has traveled the world with me, gone to sea, and taken an absolutely massive beating. And it’s still my main workhorse. At $600 plus a lot of custom modifications, it’s still the best deal in terms of quality, cost, and reliability out there.
If you can find one.
Printrbot went out of business last year, due in large part to the proliferation of cheaper machines that have pretty good quality. The company sat in an awkward niche, too expensive for entry-level consumers, not quite up to par for people looking to drop several thousand on a professional machine. As important as it is to me, “can you kick the crap out of it and drop it off a boat?” is not a criteria that rates highly for most people who want a low-cost machine that will sit comfortably on a desk forever.
But that puts me in an tough spot right now. Conservation Tech, especially low-cost, open-source conservation tech, is booming, and we need machines that work in the field on the budget of a conservation biologist. I couldn’t tell you what the best cheap 3D printer on the market is right now for people who need it for field work, travel, or just want a tough machine that works and doesn’t cost much.
So I’m going to buy a bunch, beat them to hell, and figure it out.
The Southern Fried Science Ultimate 3D Printer Review Process