5 cool 3D printers for less than $500

Most 3D printers will set you back a pretty penny, but there are a few out there for less than $500. Here are five worth looking into.

3D printer printing a turtle

5 cool 3D printers for less than $500

The vast majority of , even those for hobbyists or “makers,” will typically run you north of $1,500 (and often more than $2,500). But a few models can be had on the cheap.

3D printer “kits” tend to be the least expensive models, but they require assembly. Depending on how handy you are with tools and directions, it may be worth paying the additional $100 or so to buy a fully assembled model.

Here are five options for inexpensive 3D printers, both assembled and unassembled. Note that not all of these are available on the retail market yet. Some, like the Buccaneer and Peachy Printer, are prototypes and can only be obtained by donating to their project on crowdfunding website Kickstarter

3D printer

3D printer buying tips

Before getting started, here are some things to consider when buying a 3D printer. You'll want to look at the table or “bed” size (the larger the bed the bigger the object you can print). Also, check OS compatibility and whether the machine’s software is open source or proprietary -- open source is preferable.

The type of polymer used is also important; acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA) are the best known thermoplastics. ABS is a strong and slightly flexible plastic, but some find its odor unpleasant. PLA, a biodegradable polymer derived from sugar, has less of a tendency to warp, so if the printer table isn't heated, it’s the better choice. It is slightly more brittle than ABS, however.

Now, on to the printers!

PrintrBot Simple: $399 assembled

Of the few sub-$500 3D printers, the PrintrBot Simple appears to be the most sturdy, and you get a lot for your money. The printer comes fully assembled and has a 4-in x 4-in x 4-in build volume.

It prints using PLA only and supports Windows, OS X and Linux. Because it comes with an SD card slot, once a 3D CAD drawing is uploaded to it from your computer, you can detach the computer and go on your way while the printer continues its build.

The printer bed is not heated, which could make it harder to detach objects, but, since it prints using PLA, object warping shouldn’t be a factor.

A PrintrBot simple kit is $299, but requires assembly.

Solidoodle 2: $499 assembled

The Solidoodle 2 printer squeaks in with a $499 price tag. Of course, with taxes and shipping, it’ll be over the $500 limit, but it’s still a low-cost option.

What sets this printer apart from other inexpensive models is its nicely sized, enclosed bed area. This printer can create objects up to 6-in. x 6-in. x 6-in. in size. The company recommends using ABS filament, but PLA is an option. The printer has a heated bed for better adherence and less warping, and it has a sturdy metal frame.

The printer comes fully assembled, and its open-source software can be downloaded from Solidoodle’s website. After downloading it, this printer is ready to go.

QU-BD One Up: $199 unassembled.

The QU-BD One UP is the first of the machines now in pilot on Kickstarter. This bargain machine comes standard with a PLA filament. But, for an additional $74 pledge on Kickstarter, you can upgrade the QU-BD One UP to include a heated bed and an ABS printer extruder.

The bed build area is about 3.9-in. x 3.9-in. x 4.9-in., but you can upgrade to the QU-BD Two Up for only $279; it comes with a larger 6.9-in. x 6.9-in. x 4.9-in. bed. The machine uses open source software, either Repetier Host or Pronterface, and supports Windows, OS X and Linux.

The QU-BD is expected to ship Dec. 15.

Buccaneer 3D Printer: $379 unassembled

The Buccaneer is the slickest looking printer of the lot. This Kickstarter prototype has a see-through Plexiglas base and brushed aluminum top. And it prints without a USB cord. That’s right, wireless 3D printing.

It has a decent bed with a 5.9-in. x 3.9-in. x 4.75-in. print area. The machine prints using PLA and an unheated table, but the company plans to offer ABS support with a heated table in the future. The machine supports Windows and OS X.

This Kickstarter project exceeded its fund-raising goal by almost 15 times: With a $100,000 goal, backers raised more than $1.43 million, which speaks to its popularity among the user community.

The first beta batch will ship in Jan 2014; a main batch will ship in April 2014.

Peachy Printer: $100 unassembled

You’re not seeing things. This Kickstarter prototype costs $100.

The Peachy printer is a photolithographic printer, meaning it uses a laser beam to cure a portion of a pool of light-sensitive resin into the shape of an object -- no extruder or filament required. All you’re buying is a laser printer head and directions on building the printer housing, but it’s not difficult; all you need is glue and some household items, such as two plastic soda bottles. 

Next you plug your computer into the printer head via a headphone jack or microphone and USB cable. You download Freedom Respecting Software, which then translates whatever 3D CAD file you choose into an audio wave file. (Continued on next slide.)

Peachy Printer continued

The audio file drives a pair of mirrors in the printer head that control the laser beam path. The laser beam on the X and Y axes of the object determine its shape. The object's height is controlled by a saltwater drip system -- as the water drips, it passes through a valve and two electrical contacts. The contacts tell your computer the height of the resin, which floats to the top of the salt water. (The video to the left helps clarify this.)

The size of the print platform is limitless. The farther away the print head is from the resin, the larger the object it will create. Peachy Printer works with Windows, OS X and Linux and should start shipping in seven months.

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