Latest thinking on 3-D printer options?

CD community,

I need advice on the fast-changing 3-D printer landscape. I know this has been a topic of discussion here but it seems this technology is changing by the day and I need the freshest outlook.

I teach a robotics/applied physics course that prepares students for FRC as the winter term challenge.

In the future, perhaps this year, I’d like to expand our use of 3-D printing such that we have multiple printers so that all students have more time.

Last year we got our first printer through FIRST Choice. The time devoted to assembly, re-assembly, fussing around, clearing clogged filament, adjusting heated bed etc was unacceptably large. When it worked it was a super teaching tool but more time was spent trying to maintain and calibrate the machine than actually using it to print. Eventually, we stopped using it.

I’m trying to target our investment appropriately. This may mean waiting for a couple of years and in the mean time concentrating on design and using one of the many printing companies.

The ideal for the learning goals of our program would be to have 5-10 printers that are:
-relatively simple to operate
-small footprint
-easy-to-use software
-stripped down features/options

I don’t want the Lexus, I want the corolla. (OK, maybe eventually we will want one Lexus to do push the upper end kids, but we need to have a stable of corollas first)

Does it exist? Are any non-filament printers close to affordable?

Thanks for the input!

If you want non filament based, I’ve heard great things about the Form 1 printer. There’s also the significantly cheaper LittleRP, currently on kickstarter.

On the FDM side, I’ve had very few issues with PLA parts on my Ultimaker. The lack of a heated bed makes it a poor choice for ABS printing, but the newer version addresses this issue.

The vast majority of “hobby-grade” 3D printers use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and thus use filament. There are only a few “Carollas” out there using other additive manufacturing technology. Formlabs’ stereolithography-based (SLA) Form1 line is the noteworthy exception. If you’re willing to invest more (I’m not sure where you’re drawing the line between “Carolla” and “Lexus” in the wide world of additive manufacturing), Stratasys’ Mojo is supposed to be relatively hassle free. It’s still uses FDM (Stratasys being the company who pioneered FDM), but it’s designed to function similarly to a traditional printer. You replace cartrdiges of material, rather than spools of filament, and those cartridges include the extruder (so you don’t have to worry about extruder clogs and maintenance as often), and the software is supposed to be incredibly simple and intuitive. However, this does drive up the cost of material, since you’re limited to buying from Stratasys. My favorite feature is that it supports soluable support materials.

Disclaimer: I have no first-hand experience with either the Form1 or Stratasys Mojo… yet.

Also, try the used market.

There are plenty of companies that want to stay on the forefront of technology and keep buying the latest. You can probably pick up the “old” Lexus at a Corolla price.

The RoboWranglers use the old “Lexus” that IFI used to have. IFI has moved on to much newer and higher end machines, but the old (at least 6 years old) high end printer is better than any of the hobby grade versions out there today.

Printers like the makerbot/FIRST choice printers tend to be geared toward hobby grade projects, where accuracy, uptime, and maintenance aren’t important. From talking to people and internet research, I agree with what you’re saying, that these printers are difficult to calibrate and have issues clogging, and aren’t suited well to making lots of parts without spending time watching the printer and fixing issues.

We have a stratasys Mojo printer, which is awesome. We use it at school for engineering design students to make prototypes and interesting models. We’ve made propellers, combination locks (that work!), planetary gearboxes (not for robot use), geneva cam assemblies, motor mounts, 8mm keyed CIM shaft to .500 hex adapters, phone cases, raspberry pi cases, and my favorite, a multi-part mold for a urethane shooter wheel.

Setup is extremely easy, you just need to install two cartridges (support material and construction material), which is done using no tools in under a minute. The print wizard software takes your model (or multiple models) and lets you rotate and arrange them on the printing tray for maximum efficiency before automatically slicing and generating the path. The software automatically chooses where to insert support material, which is dissolved and removed from the part after printing. The updated version of the software contains settings to increase/decrease use of support material. It is super easy to use and requires no maintenance, calibration, or other work.

It is however, more expensive, than a makerbot. You must purchase both support material and construction material, neither of which are cheap. They must also be purchased as “QuickPacks”, which is a fully contained filament spool connected to a extruding head, that is replaced each time you swap filament. It is also set up so you can’t cheat (easily), and you must buy their very expensive refills. You also need to buy trays for printing onto and pellets to dissolve in the included part washer to dissolve the support material.

It also prints ABS"plus" plastic, which is strong.

After a quick search it seems the Form1 is about 1/3 the cost of the Mojo. Prices change quickly so I may be off. Both seem to offer much of what we are looking for in terms of simple operation.

Does any one have direct experience with Form1 and building parts for robots? I wonder how their material holds up as compared to PLA and ABS. I’m waiting for a call back from the company for more info.

After reading this thread I requested a test part from the Form 1 and they emailed me within an hour. You might get a faster response through that avenue, and you get the convenience of having time to think up all the questions you may have. Turn around on test parts is delayed a bit but they said it should be to me within a month. I’m going to wait to get my hands on that test piece, but for the price I am pretty excited to offer a stereo lithography alternative to the FDM Stratasys machine that I have in my classroom now.

Once you fight through some of the issues with the low-cost FDM printers they can actually be pretty useful. Yep, there will be jams and such, usually at the least convenient time, but I’ve found PLA to be a pretty reliable material over the past couple years. If you keep a couple spare print heads on hand, you can always clear one while printing with another.

Perhaps the question is “how do I turn printer jams into a learning opportunity for my students?”


I agree…we have had very few problems with our Replicator 2, and the only material issue we’ve had on a fabricated part was a battery box for which the PLA was just too brittle (it basically shattered after multiple impacts). The only thing I’d like that I don’t currently have is the ability to print with ABS or possibly even nylon.

If simplicity, reliability, and ease-of-use are your main goals for students, I’m not sure you can do much better than the Replicator 2. We were printing within a 1/2 hour of opening the box, and have printed dozens of projects with no trouble or tinkering at all. Have cleared a couple of clogs, and of course alligned the table regularly, but that is all. Makerbot’s goal was to make a true use-it-out-of-the-box appliance that almost anybody could use, and I think it is that. Yes, it is toward the high end of the price scale for PLA printers, probably for a reason.

I’ll chime in on the Replicator 2, since we have several of them and hundreds of print hours. For what they are, they’re not bad. Leveling is a pain, no soluable support, prints of certain geometry can warp, large flat prints delaminate from the build platform, and the extruder can sometimes clog, or run out of material, or disassemble itself and crash into the print. But, we have not had any serious issues with the machines that we could not resolve rather easily (add more Kapton tape). Some of the printers squeak and make odd noises at times, but they keep on printing just fine. If you know what you’re doing, you can probably achieve a 75%+ success rate with it. The quality can be surprisingly good at times, but it does not hold the tolerance of higher end machines. A 1" hole in a part could print as much as 40 thou small.

We’ve made plenty of neat little parts and a decent number of actual functional parts on it. For the price, we’ve been happy enough with them.

They are way faster than our old Dimension SST 768, in every way.

We just got a uPrint SE Plus 3D printer (Used). Although I don’t know how much it cost us (I know it was a lot), the machine is incredible. It’s temperature controlled, which is a huge plus. And printing multiple parts at once is easy on this machine. One downside though, is that the printing platforms are not reusable. Once you print a part on one section of the platform, that section cannot be used for printing again, so you have to carefully plan out your prints to get the most out of your platforms before you have to replace it. They are very cheap to replace though, only a couple bucks each.

The plates are reusable. In fact I have a box of brand new ones but I print on the old ones because part removal is easier. The key is to remove the support base when the plate is still warm/hot. Or you can soak them in the chemical solution and wash them. Once they are used a few times the surface changes a little and material doesn’t stick quite as much. Still enough to work fine, but a quick twist of the plate corner to corner will pop any part off with ease.

EDIT: I also agree that the uPrint is a fantastic machine. I have had one failed print in three years and over four hundred print jobs. It truly is a print and forget machine.

I’ve dealt with lots of 3D printers from my time starting My advice is to stay away from any 3D systems desktop 3D printer, like the CUBE or CUBEX. As others have mentioned, right now your best bet is probably a Makerbot replicator 2. They are the most common ones right now, and they are fairly reliable. That being said all of the desktop models are quite glitchy at the moment. It will take a year or two before they get to be more reliable.

On a side note, I’d like your opinion on an upcoming initiative we are doing on We are opening up our platform for teams to share 3D printable files with other teams easily for free. We can stream files to printers or have the files available for download. I envision teams sharing and updating things they find useful throughout the season to help everyone improve their builds.

Let me know what you think.