Is 3D Printing Expensive?
Tldr; 3D printing is cheaper than you might think!
Just a few years ago the answer to “How much does 3D printing cost?” was “Too much!”. But thankfully, in recent years the price of both 3D printers and the materials they use have dropped dramatically.
3D printers are now commonplace in libraries, schools, colleges, and many teenager’s bedrooms.
For just a little over a couple of hundred dollars, you can have a perfectly functioning, reliable, 3D printer, like the Ender 3, that will feed most of your 3d printing needs without fault.
How does 3D printing work?
Firstly, you start with a 3D CAD model. This is a 3D representation of the object you want to print drawn on your PC or Mac.
3D printers only understand a programming language called ‘g-code’, so you have to translate your 3D CAD model into g-code using another piece of software called a slicer and then transfer the g-code file into your printer using Wi-Fi, a USB cable, or an SD-card.
(All the software needed for this process is free, as I’ll explain later.)
3D printing itself is fundamentally quite simple. 3D printers work by drawing a layer of hot liquid plastic onto a platform through a highly accurate nozzle. This plastic sets almost instantly as it is forced to cool by a fan. Then a subsequent new layer is drawn on top of the first.
This process is repeated hundreds of times until an object has been created.
The 3D printer knows where to draw each layer as it reads the g-code file. This is a kind of computer program that merely tells the printer where to position its nozzle and how much plastic to extrude.
How much is a 3D printer?
In the last decade, the cost of 3D printers has dropped dramatically, from tens of thousands of dollars to just a few hundred. Currently, you can find a vast variety of high-quality 3D printers available from just $200.
Moreover, the quality of the cheapest 3D printers has increased dramatically in the last five years as competition has grown amongst manufacturers and the popularity of budget models has exploded.
Because of the rapid advancement of the 3D printing industry and the wide variety of 3D printer models on the market, choosing the best 3D printer can be a challenge.
The price is mainly determined by the features, reliability, and printing quality. To make your choices simpler, I’ve grouped some of the 3D printers I recommend into five categories. In each category, I’ll review the top three printers.
If you are on a budget and looking for a 3D printer, you are quite lucky, as there are some real bargains to be had. Even though these printers are affordable, they will still give you surprisingly high-quality prints.
The compromises you will make in buying a cheap 3D printer are the maximum size of the object you can print and the amount of DIY tinkering you may have to do to get the best results from your printer.
On the upside, most of these 3D printers have thriving and friendly online communities of owners who are more than willing to help you get the most from your purchase.
In no particular order, here are some of the best budget printers below USD 300.
The Creality Ender 3
The Creality Ender is arguably the best budget 3D printer on the market today. At a price tag close to $200, it comes with features that match many more expensive printers. Some of its most notable features include a printer area of 220 x 220 x 250mm, heated aluminum build plate, power recovery mode, and a tight filament pathway.
The large print area enables you to make substantial objects while the extruder design makes it possible to print trickier filaments like flexible materials. Also, the nozzle is 0.4mm and can extrude the most common sized 1.75mm plastic filaments.
Most 3D printers come either fully assembled or as a DIY kit. The Ender 3 is somewhere in-between, shipped partially assembled. Complicated parts such as the hot end and the base are pre-assembled. You will only need to assemble the frame, PSU, the Y-axis and cabling. The easy to follow instruction manual breaks down the assembly process into twelve stages, and it shouldn’t take you more than half an hour.
The Ender 3 also comes with a full toolkit including a Hex key set, small spanners for replacing and repairing the hot end, screwdriver, modeling snips, and spare bolts and nuts. Besides the additional tools and spares, it also has an 8GB microSD card. The SD card has documentation, printing software and demo files on it so you can get up and print straight away.
Monoprice Select Mini V2
The Monoprice Select Mini V2 is an excellent budget 3D printer that brings a lot to the table. It is designed for people who want to explore the 3D printing world without breaking the bank.
Unlike its competitors, the Monoprice V2 has an imposing design. The all-metal construction makes it sturdy and eliminates wiggling during printing to maintain part accuracy. Also, most of the moving mechanisms are tucked safely behind the metal exterior to hide from view and protect younger users. However, the inner workings can be accessed easily if they need servicing.
Since the Select Mini is designed for novices, it is shipped fully assembled and pre-calibrated. Furthermore, the four-post leveling system eliminates the need for frequent calibration. Also, the initial set-up process it is beginner-friendly with straightforward steps.
One of the most prominent features of this 3D printer is the heated build plate which improves print adhesion and prevents warping. Also, the build surface features a special pad material that makes it easy to remove the finished product.
Like most 3D printers, it’s designed to work with various modeling or slicing software. Some of the compatible programs include CURA, Repetier, Simply3D, and others.
XYZprinting da Vinci Mini
Although the XYZprinting da Vinci Mini is cheap, it offers satisfactory user experience to beginners and casual consumers. It is easy to set-up and use and produces quality prints at an acceptable speed. On the downside, the printer can only work with filaments made by XYZprinting. However, these filaments are inexpensive and come in a wide variety of colors.
The bright pumpkin orange color with black trim makes the printer stand out from the rest, and young children will find it especially appealing. Most of the components are covered by the casing except for the print bed and the hot extruder making it quite safe for inquisitive hands.
The hook that holds the filament reel contains an NFC card reader that tracks the color and the amount of remaining filament.
One advantage of this printer is the automatic leveling of the print bed before each print. However, unlike the Monoprice Select Mini V2, it does not have a special pad on the print bed which can make it a little challenging to remove finished prints as they become stuck to the print bed.
It has an open frame with no window and door on the front to enable the build plat to slide in and out during printing. Despite the open frame, the extruder nozzle is concealed to protect users from accidental burns. Compared to other printers in the same price range, the da Vinci Mini is quieter.
Entry level printers
3D printers in this category are more capable and reliable compared to the budget devices. These printers are ideal for frequent use. Even if they don’t cost much, they’re packed with essential features to get the job done and produce good quality prints.
Prices of 3d printers in this range are between $300 to $500 USD.
The FlashForge Finder is probably the best entry-level printer for children and families. Apart from quality prints, it also offers a variety of connection choices. Even though it is packed with incredible features, it is limited to printing only with polylactic acid filament (PLA). At this price range, ease of use and practicality, it was worth to start with FlashForge printer in this category.
Inside the box, you are given the printer, a complimentary spool of PLA filament, user guide, flash drive, power cable, Allen wrenches, and a USB cable.
Even though the printer is shipped fully assembled, it requires little set up after unboxing. For instance, leveling the build plate. This is to ensure the nozzle is the correct distance from the print bed across its whole surface.
One of the most prominent features of the FlashForge Finder is the slide-in build area which allows you to remove the completed print and bed from the printer as one. The print area measures 140 x 140 x 140mm on every axis which is adequate space in this price tag. Removing prints is very easy due to the smooth print bed.
The Creality CR-10 is a very popular printer in this category and one of my favorites. It is a large Cartesian style 3D printer with a Bowden extruder. The open frame design can expose the printer to dust and other elements. However, the frame is sturdy enough to prevent wiggling during printing.
The controller box is separate from the mainframe and houses the knob-operated LCD screen micro SD and USB slots. The cables are concealed on the side to give the printer a clean look.
Most printers under $1000 have a limited build size. However, the CR-10 really stands out due to its enormous build volume. In this regard, it competes with devices in much higher price ranges.
Unlike the FlashForge Finder in this category, the CR-10 comes with a heated build plate made up of a layer of aluminum with a removable borosilicate glass sheet on top. Adhesion on the print bed is impressive so long as you use some Elmer’s glue or hairspray which ensures the prints stay in place.
Also, and importantly the CR-10 uses an open filament system. This means that you can use any third-party filament as long as it is 1.75mm diameter.
In terms of performance, the CR-10 delivers in a big way. At default settings, it produces quality prints. When configured to optimum settings, the printer produces exceptionally smooth and highly detailed models which belie its large size.
TEVO is a Chinese manufacturer that has made its name for producing low priced 3D printers. Most of their devices have enticing names and bright colors.
Compared to Creality, TEVO is less highly regarded. However they do have a loyal following with plenty of online communities where you can go for tips and advice.
The most distinguishable feature of the TEVO Nereus is the black and traffic cone orange frame. Also, the frame has a minimalistic design with a simple aluminum extrusion as the foundation. The build area is a decent size measuring 320 x 320 x 400mm which is larger than most devices in the same price range.
Other interesting features on the Nereus include a filament run-out detector and a resume printing function. It has a touchscreen mounted on the side of the base and an automatic bed leveling system. These two features make it easy to set up and start printing.
Another important feature of the TEVO Nereus is Wi-Fi connectivity. This feature allows you to use mobile apps to start your prints and monitor the printing process. It also supports dual extrusion that makes it possible to print with two colors. your
Hobbyist level printers
If you have some experience in 3D printing and consider it your hobby, then you’ll want to look at a higher standard of 3D printer that might offer a large build volume, higher accuracy, and proven reliability.
Printers in this category are better, faster and more flexible than the other categories above. Also, the print area is larger allowing you to produce bigger objects like Cosplay outfits.
Hobbyist level printers provide better quality at a faster turn-around time. Besides, you can also use more than one material. This means you can get more creative and produce unique objects.
Prices range $600 to $900 USD.
Original Prusa i3 MK3
It is only fair to start this category with the Original Prusa i3 MK3 due to its popularity. This is a top of the line printer with some advanced smart features which sets it apart from other devices in the same price range. Since it is an open-source model, it is one of the most copied 3D printers on the market.
When you buy a Prusa I3, you will have to choose between a DIY kit or the pre-assembled package. Once you have unboxed the pre-assembled package, it will take you less than an hour to start printing. The printer is factory calibrated and loaded with the latest print configurations. Whereas the kit will take the best part of a day to put together.
Many 3D printers have a poor instruction manual that forces users to resort to the internet for help. However, the Prusa MK3 package comes with a comprehensive guide that provides instructions in a clear and professional way for the DIY kit.
This 3D printer has a couple of features that lacks in most of its competitors. First is the smart sensor that notifies the user when the filament is running out. Also, the printer automatically pauses until a new spool is loaded. Furthermore, the printer can detect if the nozzle is clogged.
Prusa has one of the most enthusiastic customer bases and a reputation for high-quality products and excellent customer service. If you should ever run into any problems with your 3D printer, you can be sure you’ll be helped quickly.
Dremel Digilab 3D20
The 3D20 is aimed at getting kids into 3D printing and the reason it’s in this category is that it’s one of the few 3D printers that can be considered hassle-free. Dremel is a huge brand in power tools, and they have used their years of experience to create a 3D printer that has the same level of reliability as any of their other power tools.
You might confuse the Dremel Digilab 3D20 with the FlashForge Dreamer which is almost twice the price and substantially the same model. However, if you pay attention to the technical specifications, you will notice that the 3D20 has a lot to offer.
Even though it is shipped fully assembled and factory calibrated, it does require some minimal set-up. You can follow the steps which are illustrated in the clear and easy to understand instruction manual. Perhaps the only slight challenge can be leveling the printing bed which is a bit tricky.
The overall construction of the printer is sturdy and prevents shaking during printing. On the downside, the build platform is non-heated. Also, it is only limited to PLA filaments.
Once set up and loaded, the printer is extremely easy to use. Also, the touchscreen interface is responsive and user-friendly. The featured slicing software can be upgraded to produce better results.
The print quality is impressive at this price range. If you have the time to tinker with the settings, you will be amazed at the outstanding results the printer is capable of producing. The lack of heated built plate means that you are limited to PLA filament.
BIBO2 Touch Laser
The BIBO2 has plenty of features that almost sounds too good to be true. Some of the mentioned features and specifications seem impossible in a printer that cost less than $1000.
It is important to note that the printer is available in different configurations. Therefore, be careful when you are making your selection. In this case, I will review the touchscreen-equipped BIBO2 with a built-in laser engraver.
The printer is shipped almost fully assembled with only a few parts that require installation. Setting up everything is easy and only takes one to two hours, depending on your familiarity with electronics. Since the manual is poorly written, you might need the instruction video included in the SD card.
The BIBO2 printer is packed with some very useful features. For instance, it has a smart sensor that will notify you when the filament is about to run out. This feature pauses the process allowing you to reload the filament.
At normal settings, the print quality is accurate and detailed. However, if you tinker with the settings, you will achieve better results. When configured to the optimum settings, the BIBO2 is capable of outshining many printers in the high price range.
Enthusiast level printers
Printers in the enthusiast level are more solid and robust as compared to the previous categories. Also, you will have better quality output and more flexibility in terms of choice of material. These printers are designed for individuals who want to take their hobbies to the next level. Here are some of the best devices in this category.
Prices range $1000 to $2500 USD.
The Ultimaker 2+ is arguably one of the best 3D printers on the market today. It should be your first consideration when looking for the best 3D printer under $3000. This printer has high precision and is able to print non-stop for days at a time making it an ideal choice for 3D enthusiasts.
At first glance, the printer looks full enclosed. On the contrary, it is semi-enclosed with an open top and front. This provides a 360-degree view of the printing process.
It has a very sturdy construction with a single extruder setup. The frame is also firm adding to the overall stability during printing. Below the front opening, there is a dial-operated LCD interface and MicroSD slot.
The USB port is only meant for software updates. Therefore, uploading files is only limited to the SD card option.
Since it comes fully assembled, there is no major set up required. The only challenge during the setup process is the manual calibration of the print bed. Nevertheless, you will only need a few minutes to complete the whole process and start printing.
Due to its high precision, the Ultimaker 2 will produce impressive print quality even at low resolution. The heated print bed provides you with the freedom to experiment with various printing materials.
What the Ultimaker 2+ offers above all else is reliability.
This 3D printer is proof that good things can come in small packages. At a price of around $1500, it is among the affordable choices in the enthusiast category. The performance is impressive and easily competes with high-end devices.
I often use the phrase ‘hassle-free’ when talking about expensive 3D printers, and none deserve it more than the LulzBot Mini.
The overall construction of the LulzBot Mini is reliable and solid to provide maximum stability during printing. This is because of the aluminum frame that makes it more stable. The integration of the power box reduces the machine footprint making it a perfect desktop printer.
There are two main oddities of the Mini that make it unlike almost all other 3D printers, it has to be tethered to your PC constantly as it prints and it has no LCD screen on indeed, any interface. At first, this can seem like a large compromise, but once you get used to it, you realize it simply removes one more thing that’s likely to go wrong in the printing process. All file handling and control is done on your PC.
The Mini printer is shipped assembled from the factory. It is one of the easiest printers to set up and start printing. Even if you are not familiar with electronics, you will take less than an hour to finish the setup. If you are acquainted with 3D printers, the initial setup process should not take you more than thirty minutes.
The Mini uses a direct drive extruder which is generally considered to be more reliable than a Bowden design. This also allows you to print easily with flexible filament such as TPU.
In use, there are a couple of really nice features on the LulzBot, firstly it automatically cleans the nozzle just before it commences printing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a piece of filament gunk mess up the first layer of a print!
Secondly, the print head is calibrated relative to the bed as the bed has no Z-motion. This means it can simply check the nozzle height at each corner of the bed before it commences printing and no awkward manual height adjustment is required.
The MakerGear M2
The MakerGear M2 is produced by an American company. It has an open-frame design and a single extruder setup which can be upgraded to a dual extruder. This printer is a great choice if you are looking for a workhorse 3D printer.
It comes assembled from the manufacturer. The frame is very sturdy, and the spool holder is attached on the side. This helps to reduce the footprint of the machine meaning that it requires limited space.
Electronics, moving parts, and the cables are concealed giving the printer a clean and professional look. The print bed is made from glass which is becoming common in most 3D printers. Moreover, the heated bed allows you to try different printing materials.
The setup process is very easy as you are guided by the instruction manual. You should be able to finish the process in a couple of hours. In case you encounter any challenge, there are a variety of videos on the internet to guide you. Also, there is a very active online community where you can consult fellow users.
This 3D printer has one of the best resolutions. At optimum settings, the printer can produce accurate and smooth models that can only compare with high-end products. However, to consistently achieve high resolution, you should be willing to do a lot of tinkering.
Professional 3D Printers
Printers in this category are designed for professionals and businesses. These printers have a larger build area of more 300 mm in all dimensions. Also, professional printers can use a wide range of print materials while still maintaining superior quality resolution. They are suitable for learning institutions, robotics clubs, and businesses.
Prices range $3500 to $6000 USD
Raise3D Pro 2 Plus
The Raise3D Pro 2 Plus is one of the best professional 3D printers on the market today. It offers a generous build space of 305 x 305 x 605mm which sets it apart from its competitors. Apart from the impressive build space, this printer is packed with other numerous features.
The printer is fully enclosed with a transparent acrylic casing which helps to improve the quality of the prints especially with materials such as ABS and HIPS. For safety reasons, the printer has a new cooling fan with a HEPA filter which traps any contaminants produced.
Inside the package, you will find all the relevant tools and equipment you will need. They include power cables, hex wrenches, two spools of PLA filament, flash disk, heat resistant gloves, tweezers, filament holders and nozzle cleaning kit.
Since it is shipped assembled, setting up is easy and frustration-free. Also, the bed leveling is automatic; you do not need to make any adjustments. The automatic leveling is facilitated by an optical sensor at the end stop of the bed.
One of the most prominent features of the Pro2 is the dual-nozzle system mounted at the print head. This feature enhances the overall printing process. Also, it will enable you to try different materials and colors. According to the manufacturer, this printer can use PLA, ABS, HIPS, PC, TPU and even glass fiber enforced material.
Formlabs Form 2
FormLabs has made its name as a leading manufacturer of SLA 3D printers. Unlike FDM printers, SLA printer uses resin instead of filaments. The prints harden when exposed to ultraviolet light. However, FDM and SLA printers apply the same principle of building layer upon layer to create prints.
This printer has a very simple design with an orange plastic hood and a silver box that houses the laser and electronics. Instead of an LCD display that is found in most printers, the Form 2 has a color touch screen display.
The touch screen display makes it easier to control the printing process. For instance, you can start, pause or stop the prints.
After unboxing, the initial setup process is very easy and straightforward. The first component that you will need to install is the resin tank which simply clips on the base of the printer. If you have different resins, it is advisable to have a tank for each resin.
Once the resin tank is secured in place, you will need to clip a small wiper at the base of the printer. The wiper helps to clean the tank after each layer is built to ensure the resin is evenly spread on the print.
The Formlabs Form2 has become the go-to 3D printer for jewelry making and dental prototypes with its unmatchable resolution and detail replication.
The Ultimaker S5
The Ultimaker S5 an ultimate 3D printing machine that every professional and business should look for. It stands out from the rest due to its amazing features that put its competitors to shame.
One of the most outstanding features is the huge build volume of 330 x 240 x 300 mm which is an improvement from its predecessor the Ultimaker 3. The S5 also has two extruders and sensor that automatically pauses the process when the filament runs out.
The S5 comes with two interchangeable build plates. One plate is made from hardened glass and is meant for general use while the other is made from anodized aluminum for advanced printing materials such as ABS and PC. Both plates easily clip on the aluminum platform. Also, the automatic leveling print bed ensures that the distance between the extruder and the build plate remain in the correct position during printing. This makes the printing process reliable and very efficient.
What are the ongoing costs of 3D printing?
Once you’ve bought your 3D printer there will be ongoing costs associated with its running. From materials to make parts through to the energy to run it. Let’s break these costs down and show you where you can save money.
How much does 3D printer software cost?
All the software you need to start 3D printing is available completely free!
And I’m not talking about budget software that’s severely limited.
The most popular slicer software is called CURA, and it’s incredibly powerful. It has built-in profiles for all the most popular 3D printers and automated settings that allow you to get straight into printing your models without a steep learning curve.
Once you get more knowledgeable, there are plenty of advanced settings in CURA for supports and infills and all sorts that will allow you to progress your skills.
How much does CAD software cost?
You can either design your 3D model yourself using free CAD software such as Tinkercad. Or you can download a free 3D model from an online repository like Thingiverse.
In fact, there are dozens of free CAD programs available that are more than capable enough to design highly complex parts for your 3d printer.
How much do 3D printers cost to run?
There are three main on-going costs of running a 3D printer. Materials, power, and maintenance. Most of the expense of these costs are directly proportional to how much you use your 3D printer. This is obvious when you think of material and power costs, but you may also need to do more maintenance if you use your printer more often.
How much electricity do 3D printers use?
In the US, the average price of electricity is about 12 cents/kWh.
A small 3D printer, like the Monoprice Select Mini with its small, low-temperature hotbed uses around 60W or 0.06 kWh which equals 0.72 cents/hour.
A large 3D printer, like the FlashForge Creator Pro, will use closer to 200W (0.2 kWh) or 2.4 cents/hour.
As you can see, fortunately, 3D printers don’t use a huge amount of power.
Most electricity is used to heat the hot end and print bed, but temperature sensors switch the heating elements on and off to maintain a constant temperature.
Cooling fans and the inefficiencies of the power supply will use some power all the time the printer is running.
And most 3D printers feature up to four stepper motors that control the motion of the print mechanism. Some of these are under constant operation during printing, for example, the XY axis motors, while the Z motor will only operate once per layer.
Adding all this electricity usage up means the average consumer 3D printer uses only around 100W of electricity per hour or 1.2 cents worth per hour.
How much do 3D printing materials cost?
The two most popular technologies used in 3D printing are Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and Stereolithography (SLA). Although these technologies apply the same principle of building layer upon layer to create prints, the materials used are different.
FDM (FFF) printers use a plastic filament that you buy on a large spool. SLA printers use a liquid resin that you buy in a screw cap container.
There is a wide variety of filaments that include PLA, ABS, carbon fiber and many more. Even though the price depends on the material, quality, and manufacturer, the prices range around $20 to $70 per kilogram. PLA is the most commonly used because of its low price.
The most common size of filament spool is 1 kg or 2.2 lbs.
ColorFabb is one of the most popular filament manufacturers. It offers a wide array of PLA filaments which starts at $41.62 per 750-g spool.
These materials are mainly used in Stereolithography (SLA) which was the first technology to be used in 3D printing. The difference between thermoplastics and thermoset is that thermoplastics are melted to form prints while thermosets are in liquid form but solidify when exposed to heat during the printing process.
In terms of price, resins cost similarly to SLS powders. The average cost for resins is $50 per liter. However, it depends on the quality of the material and the manufacturer.