Small Business 3D Printers: A Beginner's Guide

Thursday Feb 4th 2016 by Ted Needleman
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Curious about 3D printing? Wondering whether a 3D printer makes sense for your small business? We explain how 3D printers work, and we put three basic models to the test.

You've probably heard of 3D printing—it's a pretty hot topic these days. Only a few years ago, prohibitive equipment costs limited 3D printing to engineers and product designers with big-budgets for prototyping parts. Today, prices are falling, and 3D printers are much easier to use. Despite that, 3D printing is not a fit for all small businesses.

Your business might be a candidate for a 3D printer if, for example, you use custom-designed small parts; if you need hard-to-get replacement parts for repairs; or if your small business uses lost wax casting to make metal parts or jewelry—think jewelers and dentists. A furniture maker might use a 3D printer to make custom knobs for drawers and cabinets. It's the ability to design objects in software and then bring these designs into the real world that makes 3D printers so fascinating.

A good way to determine, at least initially, if your business might find a 3D printer useful is to go online and research whether businesses similar to yours use one, how they use it, and what they offer. If it seems like something that might benefit your business, you might want to start experimenting.

small business guide to 3D printers

A Very Basic Primer on 3D Printers

How 3D Printers Work

Fused-filament 3D printers create three-dimensional objects by passing a thin plastic filament through a heated extruder head and melting it. Depending on the type of 3D printer, the extruder head—or the object you're printing—moves in three dimensions while the printer lays down the filament layer-by-layer.

The filament then cools into a solid object, which may contain hollow interior voids to save filament. A glue gun works in a similar way, although glue sticks are much thicker, and you provide manual motion.

Some fused-filament printers work by moving the print head/extruder along all three axes: side-to-side, front-to-back, and up-and-down. The printers we tested move the extruder side-to-side and front-to-back, while the platform—on which the object sits—moves up-and-down.

Most printers use PLA filament, a type of biodegradable plastic, or a slightly stronger plastic called ABS, or even some of the newer filaments such as nylon, wood, or metal-filled plastic. Factors that determine what kinds of filament your printer can use include the extruder's nozzle temperature, the build-platform material (typically glass or metal), and whether the build platform is heated. Generally, the more you can adjust the extruder and platform temperatures, the more choice you have in filament materials.

A problem common to almost all "hobbyist" 3D printers (roughly those priced less than $4,000): getting prints to stick to the build platform—or sticking so hard that they're difficult to remove. Remedies include covering the print bed with Kapton (a type of high-temperature resistant plastic), blue painter's tape, glue stick, or spraying hairspray on the bed before printing.

How 3D Printer Software Works

When you load the model of a 3D object onto the computer, an image appears onscreen in a three-axis grid. The X-axis represents the side-to-side movement of the print-extruder head; the Y-axis represents front-to-back motion; the Z-axis represents the object's height.

The printer software calculates the height component in a process called slicing, and it analyzes how the extruder and the build platform must move to lay down the filament layers. It's called slicing, because the printed object's height needs to be sliced into individual layers for printing. The software then converts the slicing data into a language called G-code—the set of instructions the printer requires. You can send G-code directly to the printer or save it to an SD card to insert in the printer.

Creating your own 3D models isn't easy at first. Autodesk offers a number of free 3D utilities, and Microsoft Windows 10 supports 3D printing.

Expect to invest time, effort, considerable filament, and ruined prints before you successfully create all but the simplest 3D models. Fortunately, websites such as Thingiverse and Makezine offer all kinds of pre-designed 3D models—from replacement oven knobs to chess sets to jewelry.

3 Small Business 3D Printer Reviews

We tested three popular 3D printers ranging in price from $349 to $1,450, and we list the following reviews in order of price. At this price point, 3D printers are good for learning an emerging technology, or for designing initial prototypes that can fit on the print platforms (or be built in pieces). None of them are suitable for volume production on any scale, and the available filament materials won't stand up to heavy daily use.

1. Da Vinci Jr. 3D Printer

Price: $349

The moderately sized Da Vinci Jr.—one of the least expensive 3D printers—measures 16.54- x 16.93- x 14.96-inches and weighs 26.46 pounds. Encased in plastic, the printer features a front-mounted, swing-up door through which you remove printed objects, and it includes a transparent window so you can watch the print process.

The build platform measures 5.9- x 5.9- x 5.9-inches—larger than some much more expensive printers. Da Vinci 3D printers (except for the Pro model) use a coded PLA filament spool that fits inside the unit, and which you must buy from the vendor.

Refill filament spools cost $28 for 600 grams (about 270 meters), enough for several dozen small prints or six or seven larger ones, depending on their size and whether they're solid or have hollow voids. That's pricier than filament from other vendors, which costs $30-$40 for a 1kg spool. Currently, Da Vinci Jr. PLA comes in only translucent white.

3D printer review: Da Vinci Jr

The Da Vinci Jr. provides an affordable entry for beginners interested in 3D printing.

Inside the 3D Printer Box

Additional materials include:

  • A brass brush to clean any melted plastic off the extruder
  • A small metal spatula to help pry the printed object from the print bed
  • Plastic film to help prints stick to the build platform
  • SD Card with printer driver and 3D printing software
  • Minimal documentation
  • A starter spool of filament

Less-expensive 3D printers are generally considered difficult to set up and maintain. That's because the print bed must remain perfectly level in relation to the extruder while multiple parts move in different directions. However, the Da Vinci Jr. comes ready to use right out of the box.

Unlike many 3D printers, the Da Vinci Jr. doesn't require that you level the print bed. Simply remove the various shipping restraints, pop in the filament spool, and thread the filament through a feed tube into the top of the extruder head.

The printer's LCD control panel sports a four-button keypad with an "OK" button in the middle. The "Load Filament" option—listed under Utilities—heats up the extruder head; you must manually push the filament into the part of the extruder where it gets melted, or it won't feed when printing. The "Unload Filament" selection heats the extruder so that you can pull the filament out of the extruder to change spools.

Remarkably Easy 3D Printer Setup

Plug in the power cord, install the XYZware 3D printing software, and connect a USB cable between the printer and your computer. You can print directly from the computer, or store the G-code on an SD Card and print untethered from the PC or Mac. You can print sample objects stored on the Da Vinci's supplied SD Card, which is a good way to make sure your printer works.

The software is easy to use; import a .stl file (the 3D object), resize if desired, and hit the print button. Advanced options let you set the object's layer height or solidity (beginners: use the default settings). The software slices the 3D model into layers and sends the data to the printer.

Larger objects take a long time to print. Our largest object, a desktop pen-and-pencil holder—about 3.5 inches inches in diameter—took almost 22 hours and used about a quarter of the filament spool.

While XYZprinting's proprietary software doesn't offer as many options as open source software like ReplicatorG or Cura, the Da Vinci Jr. is meant for beginners. Most people who choose this 3D printer for it's easy out-of-box experience won't be limited by its slightly less-sophisticated software.

Small Business 3D Printer Reviews

2. Monoprice Dual Extruder Model 11614

Price: $699.99

If you're not afraid of some assembly and adjustment, the Monoprice Dual Extruder 11614 offers good value. The powder-coated black metal printer measures 18.7- x 12.7- x 15.1-inches and weighs nearly 29 pounds. A front cut-out lets you see the build platform and remove printed objects. A monochrome LCD panel below the opening lets you navigate selections using a four-arrow pad; a select button (marked with an "M" rather than "OK") sits to the right of the display.

An SD Card slot sits inside the printer underneath and to the right of the opening. You can print a G-code file from the card or directly from a PC or Mac connected via USB.

The Monoprice 11614 has a lot of parts, and unpacking can be unnerving. Dual extruder heads means you can print objects with two colors, or you can load two different color filament spools and select the color you want. Mounting the extruder heads is a simple operation that requires two screws on each head (already wired) to mount them on the shuttle that moves them left-to-right and back-to-front (Monoprice incudes the small hex wrench you'll need).

Other parts include the two spool holders, spools of black and white PLA filament, filament guide tubes (that you need to install), a so-so manual, and a bag of small replacement parts including a sensor cable that measures the head and build platform temperature.

3D printer reviews: Monoprice Dual Extruder Model 11614

The Monoprice Dual Extruder Model 11614 requires some out-of-the-box assembly and adjustment.

Assembling the printer took us about 10 minutes from start to finish. The next step: level the build platform. The manual explains how, but there are fewer adjustment screws than the manual indicated. Still, leveling the platform added only a few minutes; we were ready to print.

The Monoprice 11614 handles a fairly large build volume—8.9- x 5.7- x 5.9-inches, and a heated platform—a must when you print with ABS. The build platform comes covered with Kapton tape to help the first layer stick to the platform. With many 3D printers, you have to apply the Kapton or cover the build platform with blue painter's tape and possibly use a glue stick so that the prints stick. Otherwise you risk a ruined print.

Monoprice suggests that you download and use the open source ReplicatorG 3D print software; however, the printer's manual doesn't provide directions for downloading, installing, or using the application. We've used the software, and it may be overwhelming for beginners. Cura software (a free download from Ultimaker) is a bit easier, and we recommend it for beginners.

Overall, we like the Model 11614 and its large build platform. It makes decent prints and, by varying the extruder and platform temperatures, you can use PLA, ABS, and even newer filament materials. Plus, you can buy filament spools from any vendor.

However, we don't recommend this particular model for an absolute beginner—you have to be willing to experiment to get the best results and not be put off by some required assembly. Monoprice currently offers two other models—including the Maker Architect, which sells for $299. It might be a better choice if you're just starting out in 3D printing.

Small Business 3D Printer Reviews

3. Ultimaker 2 Go

Price: $1,450

The first thing you'll notice about the Ultimaker 2 Go is the price. It costs more than four times as much as the Da Vinci Jr. and twice as much as the Monoprice 11614.

Considerably smaller than the other two printers, the Ultimaker 2 Go measures 10.1- x 9.8- x 11.3-inches and weighs only 13.7 pounds, which makes it easy to move. It comes packed in a foam container, which doubles as a carrying case.

The build platform is both smaller (4.7- x 4.7- x 4.5-inches) and unheated, which means you can use only PLA filament, not ABS. A glass plate sits on top of the actual platform, which moves up and down during printing. You can remove the glass—a feature we greatly appreciated.

The Go is easy to set up; plug in the power supply, attach the spool holder, and feed the included gray filament through the tube that runs to the extruder head. Cover the removable glass build-plate with blue painter's tape and replace it. Metal clips hold the platform in place, making it easy to remove and replace. Next you level the bed—the excellent printer documentation walks you through the process.

We replaced the tape every half-dozen prints or so. It takes only a few minutes and reduces the chance of ruining the print with torn or buckled tape. We didn't have any problems with prints sticking, and the prints we created were noticeably better (at the default layer thickness) than those produced by the other printers we tested.

3D printer review: Ultimaker 2 Go

The Ultimaker 2 Go offers the most features of any 3D printer in this round up. It also carries a hefty price tag.

The Ultimaker 2 Go control differs from other 3D printers. You spin a rotary dial to move through the menu options (shown on an LCD), pressing down on the dial to make a selection. You can attach the printer to a PC or Mac via USB or use G-code files stored on the included SD Card (it contains sample files to get you started). Ultimaker's 33-page manual (the best of the bunch) makes using the printer a simpler process.

Ultimaker uses Cura's (free) software; it's easy enough for beginners, yet gives experienced users a range of options to tweak. The other printers we reviewed can use Cura, so you might consider it even if you buy another vendor's device.

Of the three printers, Go offers the most features for both beginners and for people with some 3D-printing experience. The price tag, however, may be a deal-breaker.

Ted Needleman published his first review in 1978. Since then, he has written several thousand hardware and software reviews, columns, articles on using technology, and two books. He has no intention of stopping any time soon.

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