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.
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.
The Niskin bottle, a seemingly simple device designed to take water samples at discrete depths, is one of the most important tools of oceanography. These precision instruments allow us to bring ocean water back to the surface to study its chemical composition, quality, and biologic constituency. If you want to know how much plastic is circulating in the deep sea, you need a Niskin bottle. If you need to measure chemical-rich plumes in minute detail, you need a Niskin bottle. If you want to use environmental DNA analyses to identify the organisms living in a region of the big blue sea, you need a Niskin bottle.
Niskin bottles are neither cheap nor particularly easy to use. A commercial rosette requires a winch to launch and recover, necessitating both a vessel and a crew to deploy. For informal, unaffiliated, or unfunded researchers, as well as citizen scientists or any researcher working on a tight budget, getting high-quality, discrete water samples is an ongoing challenge.
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
August’s reward is a row from the tooth plate of a spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari! The original specimen is housed at the University of Tennessee fossil collection, and the 3D scan was shared online as part of the FOSSIL project.
I asked University of Florida/Florida Museum Ph.D. student Jeanette Pirlo about the FOSSIL project:
” The FOSSIL Project is an NSF funded project, based out of the University of Florida and the Florida Museum, devoted to cultivating a networked community of practice in which fossil club members and professional paleontologists collaborate in learning the practice of science and outreach. The myFOSSIL.org website is the platform from which our members can collaborate by sharing their fossil finds, curate their personal collections, and participate in ongoing paleontological research” – Jeanette Pirlo
A full set of Spotted Eagle Ray Jaws showing multiple tooth rows fused into a plate, photo by Cathleen Bester courtesy Jeanette Pirlo at the Florida Museum. The specific individual tooth row that was scanned here, photo by Maggie Limbeck, University of Tennessee Masters Candidate. And the 3D printed version
Learn more about the spotted eagle ray and it’s teeth below!
Figure from Whitenack et al. 2011, the sixgill tooth is the one in the lower right! This paper studied teeth of different shapes using Finite Element Analysis (FEA). When Lisa inputs the shape of the tooth, how elastic the tooth is, and how much force the tooth experiences into her computer program, FEA will map out stress on the entire tooth. High points of stress are where a tooth would be likely to break.
Learn more about the bluntnose sixgill shark and it’s unusual shaped teeth below!
This month’s reward is the barb from a Pacific Cownose Ray, Rhinoptera steindachneri. This particular specimen is a part of the Texas A&M University Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collection, and was scanned as part of the #ScanAllFishes project!
I reached out to Heather Prestidge and Kevin Conway, curators of the Texas A&M collection. They told me that this particular specimen was collected in 1993 by John McEachran (author of the multi-volume “fishes of the Gulf of Mexico“) and Janine Caira (now a parasitologist at UConn). It was collected in Baja California, Mexico. Heather was pleased to learn that I was using their specimen for this project, and said “our specimens have an unlimited number of uses even after their primary project!”
Here’s a picture of another specimen of the same species from this collection, you can see why they’re sometimes called “Golden Cownose Rays”.
It comes from Alex Warneke, the Science Education Coordinator of Cabrillo National Monument! “”Using 3D printing technology has not only changed the way we educate the public, but it has broadened our perspective on what is possible in National Parks,” Alex told me. “We have been able to connect students to nature from an entirely different angle and provide them the tools and context they will need to succeed as scientists of the next generation.” This individual horn shark comes from the ichthyology collection at Cabrillo, and has been used for public education as well as research. The egg case is one of many that wash up on California beaches.
The original horn shark specimen and the 3D model of it, courtesy Alex Warneke, Cabrillo National Monument
Learn more about horn sharks and their egg cases below!