Getting Started in 3D Printing: Part 2

Recap

In the first post of this series, I laid out a quick introduction to what 3D printing is, the types of printers model railroaders would find useful, and the advantages 3D printing offers to people who build models. To read part 1, click here. As stated in the previous post, this is not meant to be a “how to” for 3D printing, but rather a short series on my path into the world of 3D printing that shares what I’m learning along the way. For part 2, I’ll be diving into the printers that I’m considering purchasing, so let’s get to it!

What I’m looking for in a printer

Before describing the list of printers, it would be helpful to describe what I’m looking for in a 3D printer that will be most beneficial to modelers. The following are the features of printers that I’m looking for:

  1. Budget friendly price-tag. I will be sticking with a limit of $500 for a new printer as of August 2020. I will not be including printers that can be had used, open box, or refurbished for less than $500. While certainly an option, it is not helpful because used prices are fluctuating constantly whereas new prices will only decrease with time. At the rate 3D printing technology has progressed, the prices of printers has dropped substantially. Now I expect that a decent new printer should cost no more than a computer.
  2. Beginner friendly software. 3D printing is hard enough without having to deal with complicated software and menus. I want something that can easily be linked to a computer via USB or wi-fi and can be controlled either through an onboard screen or through the computer.
  3. Detailed prints. As a model railroader, many of the pieces I’d like to print are small and require great detail. Small pieces are difficult to sand smooth and so I’ll be relying on the thinnest layering possible to get the most accurate prints.
  4. Easy maintenance. Everything requires maintenance, there is no way around it. However, some things need more maintenance than others. I want a printer that I can set up repeatedly in only a few minutes and requires minimal cleaning. The fewer moving parts, the better.
  5. Online help. It would be very inconvenient to purchase a 3D printer only to realize that few people have the same model. Being able to go online and ask for help is more efficient than calling customer support. 3D printing is very much a D-I-Y hobby, so once a person has a printer they have to be able to solve problems at home. Besides online forums, having a plethora of Youtube tutorials and reviews is a big help.
  6. Build volume. While not the most important feature, I would prefer a printer that has a generous build volume. Running out of space for a print is annoying because that means the object being printed would need a redesign in a CAD program, separating it into smaller pieces. I also don’t want a printer so ridiculously large that it gets in the way on the workbench.
  7. Heated print bed. This one is very important because getting small, fragile parts off a bed that they have fused to is a risky process where such parts can break easily. FDM printers especially need this feature, but resin parts remain pliable until cured so this feature isn’t as important in SLA printers.
  8. Quiet running noise. The 3D printer I purchase will be used in close proximity to my desktop and so a tolerable noise level would be preferred. Some printers are quite noisy and are better suited to the garage than the home office.
  9. High quality finish. If the cheapest parts of a printer are still high quality, then the rest of the printer should be as well. This printer is an investment and a tool that should last for several years before being replaced so I’m looking for a printer that offers great quality for the price.
  10. Self-leveling bed. This is another feature that is not a deal-breaker, but it is very useful. Self-leveling beds make the set-up process much quicker and yield accurate prints. A printer on a solid desk surface doesn’t really need this feature though.

The final list of printers that I’m considering became really long after adding in the description and my thought on each one. In fact, there’s over 2000 words still to go in this post. So rather than cramming everything into a very long post, I decided to break my printer list into two sections. The first, written below, consists of all FDM type printers that use filament. The second part of the list will be on the next post and will contain all SLA/DLP printers that use resin. The two types are very different animals for completely different uses, so comparing them to each other is very apples-to-oranges.

FDM Printers:

First up is the company Creality. This is the first 3D printing company I ran across. They’ve been in the game a while and have at least a dozen printer models available on their website. Most of their printers come in at under $500 so finding the best models of the bunch took some time. What’s nice about Creality is that they have great aftermarket support since many Chinese clones of their printers are now on the market. Upgrades are not really an issue. What separated the following two models from the rest of their line is simply the out-of-the-box ease of use that customers have described. In the entire line up, the Ender-3 V2 and the CR-10S have the most impressive reviews and specs.

Creality3D Ender-3 V2

Ender-3 version 2
  • Price: $269.99
  • Webpage: Ender-3 V2
  • Type: Cartesian
  • Printer Dimensions: 475x470x620mm (18.7×18.5×24.4 inch)
  • Footprint: 2,233cm2 (346 in2)
  • Build Volume: 220x220x250mm (8.6×8.6×9.8 inch)
  • Layer Accuracy: +/-0.1mm (100 microns)
  • Layer Thickness: 0.1-0.4mm (100-400microns)

The Ender series has been around for several years and is marketed as beginner friendly printers made with quality parts and great accuracy.  Across the whole series, the design is a fairly basic printer that lacks any kind of a fancy housing.  Instead, all the parts are visible and easily accessible.  The Y-axis is controlled by moving the base while the X and Z axes are controlled by moving the extruder head.  The result is a winning design formula that has remained pretty much the same for several years.

The original Ender-3 model came out back in 2017 and can be currently had for $167 from the Creality3D website.  The Ender-3 Pro came out sometime later with a handful of upgrades such as a more efficient power supply and a sturdier aluminum support for the Y-axis base. The Pro model is currently for sale at $209.  The model I am most interested in is the Ender-3 V2 model that currently retails for $270.

The V2 has several key upgrades that make this a more worthwhile printer in my opinion.  Here is a list of what I have found:

  • New motherboard that was developed by Creality3D.
  • Silent stepper motors to drive printer movement without much noise.
  • Filament run-out detection and a resume printing function.
  • Color LCD screen that promises easy menu navigation.
  • X and Y axes belts now have tensioners to make adjustment easier.
  • Toolbox drawer in the base of the printer for a basic toolkit.
  • A rotary knob to feed filament.
  • Heated carborundum glass print bed.
  • Concealed power supply.
  • V-profile belt pulleys
  • Redesigned fan duct and hotend.

The previous models had older parts with only a handful of the features listed.  Neither the Ender-3 or the Ender-3 Pro model have a glass print bed, concealed power supply, belt tensioners, or a toolbox.  I could live without the toolbox, but the other upgraded parts move the Ender-3 printer into a new generation.  The print bed has an advertised heat-up time of 5 minutes so printing can begin quickly.  About the only thing that is really missing is a touch screen menu.  Hardly a deal breaker.

The build volume is a decent size for modelers.  A 40ft boxcar in HO scale is about 5.5 inches long so this printer would easily be able to print entire freight cars.  Heck, with the right design a half-dozen freight cars could be made at once.  It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to print taller structures like grain elevators and water towers.

Creality3D CR-10S

Creality CR-10S, new version.
  • Price: $425.00
  • Webpage: Creality CR-10S
  • Type: Cartesian
  • Printer Dimensions: 490x600x615mm (19.3×23.6×24.2 inch)
  • Footprint: 2,940cm2 (456 in2) *not including power supply*
  • Build Volume: 300x300x400mm (11.8×11.8×15.7 inch)
  • Layer Accuracy: +/-0.1mm (100 microns)
  • Layer Thickness: 0.1-0.4mm (100-400 microns)

The Creality3D CR-10S is basically a bigger version of the Ender-3 V2 and so it shares many of the same features.  The reason why I’m considering this printer is because it is big but not so big that it would overwhelm a workbench.  Both of the Creality3D printers would need their own dedicated space anyway so the bigger footprint is too big an issue.  What’s great though is that even though the footprint of the CR-10S is 31% bigger, the print volume is 297% larger!  It would be feasible to print twenty HO scale 40ft boxcars on a single layer. 

Where the larger size really becomes, and advantage is in the medium and large scales like S, O, and G scale.  While a 40ft O scale car would have to be printed in sections on the Ender-3, the CR-10S could print two or three O scale cars side by side.  Longer cars could be printed vertically, taking advantage of the 15.7 inch height.

The main drawback of a large FDM printer becomes apparent when making complex prints like steam locomotive parts.  A bigger printer has less stability, meaning that fine details are harder to print.  Basic box-like objects such as freight cars and buildings are easy, but things like rivets will be difficult or impossible to print directly on a model.  In fact, neither of these printers are capable of the fantastic details found in resin printers, so while larger objects can be printed and sanded to a smooth finish, detail parts would either have to be made on a second printer or bought commercially.

The Achilles heel that came up in my research is that the CR-10S glass print bed can warp due to the heating element attached to it. Since the bottom side of the glass bed is hotter than the top, there is a difference in the expansion of the glass with the bottom expanding more than the top.  The result is a warped bed.  Glass can also crack under that kind of stress.  The fix is to get a new, thicker bed when the original begins to suffer from heat warping.  While annoying, it should be noted that warped heating beds are a common problem with large 3D printers since the larger surface area of the glass means more inconsistent heating.  The smaller glass bed of the Ender-3 doesn’t seem to suffer as much warping, if any.

CR-10 version 2

An alternative Creality3D printer to the CR-10S is the CR-10 V2.  Just like the Ender-3 V2 listed above, this printer has similar upgrades and diagonal braces that keep the print head very stable.  I’m only mentioning it rather than describing it at length because it comes in right at $500.  You can check out the CR-10 V2 here.

The next company that caught my eye is well-established in 3D printing, Anycubic. This company specializes in well-made products at affordable prices. Customization is still possible, and even recommended for people looking to do more complex things. The print volume and the frame cannot really be extended or replaced, however. Wires, motherboards, screens, pretty much everything can still be swapped out. The concept of starting with a stock printer and modifying it overtime to suit my individual needs is very appealing. In my research for this post, one thing that has repeatedly came up is the quality control from Anycubic. While the company has great customer support, it’s not unheard of for products to show up damaged from shipping or to have things like loose screws and stray wires. Therefore every piece should be checked thoroughly before assembly. Despite these concerns, Anycubic still manages to be one of the better 3D printer companies out there. There are two FDM printers from Anycubic that I am considering, the Mega Zero and the i3 Mega S.

Anycubic Mega Zero

Anycubic Mega Zero
  • Price: $169.00 *August 2020 sale of $139.00*
  • Website: Anycubic Mega Zero
  • Type: Cartesian
  • Printer Dimensions: 504x396x607mm (19.8×15.6×23.9 inch)
  • Footprint: 1,996 cm2 (309 in2)
  • Build Volume: 220x220x250mm (8.6×8.6×9.8 inch)
  • Layer Accuracy: +/-0.05mm (50 microns)
  • Layer Thickness: 0.1-0.4mm (100-400microns)

This is a new printer for 2020 and it has been on my mind as a budget option.  While my budget ceiling is $500, a printer for less than $200 is quite appealing.  The Anycubic Mega line of printers is known for it’s high build quality and useful features at a great price. What I’m especially intrigued by is that the Mega Zero has the same build volume as the Creality3D Ender-3 V2, but $100 cheaper.  So how did a company known for it’s great 3D printers manage to deliver a product so cheap?  Well, there are some significant corners that have been cut which I think every interested person should be aware of.

To start with, there is no heated print bed.  This means that the filaments which can be used are limited to PLA and TPU type plastics.  Fortunately, there is a great variety of filaments within those two categories so modelers shouldn’t have too much of an issue there.  Still though, having the ability to print in other plastics like ABS would be a great benefit.

According to reviews, prints will still stick to the bed provided that support structures and a “raft” if melted plastic is used for a base.  Stick issues is something to be wary of though and so some files will need tweaking to get a good print.  The one advantage a cold print bed offers is that printing can be done immediately with no time spent waiting for the print bed to heat up.  That also means there is little danger of the print bed warping over time, it won’t need replacement.  Heated beds can be bought and installed later if needed, so at least that option exists.  The Mega Zero seems ideally suited for quick prints right from the computer.

The second issue that this printer has is a lack of guide bearings for the print head to slide on.  The increased friction means that the print head is not as accurate as it could be.  However, the 0.05mm layer accuracy that is being advertised is more than adequate for FDM printing, so really the lack of bearings on the guide rods shouldn’t be a big issue, just a corner I don’t think should have been cut.

Then there is the issue of user interface.  The Mega Zero relies on an older, less detailed screen.  For tech people, such an old screen would be an annoyance since people used to working with computers would be more comfortable with more detailed touch-screens.  Personally, I don’t think this is much of an issue for model railroaders.  The screen looks no worse than what is found in a commercial DCC system and people who use DCC seem to work with the outdated user interface without issues.  Despite that, it is a bit annoying because it’s like trying to film a movie on 8mm film in an age where HD video exists.

Notice that I’m nitpicking to find much wrong with the printer.  That’s because according to commercial and consumer reviews, the Anycubic Mega Zero is a great printer for it’s price. As I write this post, Anycubic has the Mega zero on sale for $139.00.  Not only that, but it has a smaller footprint compared to the Ender-3 V2 but maintains the same build volume.  In theory, this printer can also make a half-dozen freight cars in HO scale at the same time.

Anycubic i3 Mega S

Anycubic i3 Mega S
  • Price: $239.00
  • Website: Anycubic i3 Mega S
  • Type: Cartesian
  • Printer Dimensions: 410 x 405 x 452 mm (16.1×15.9×17.8 inch)
  • Footprint: 1660.5 cm2 (256 in2)
  • Build Volume: 210x210x205mm (8.3×8.3×8.1 inch)
  • Layer Accuracy: +/- 0.002mm (2 microns)
  • Layer Thickness: 0.05-0.4mm (50-400 microns)

Moving back up in budget, the i3 Mega S, also known as the Mega S, has a variety of features that has put it for serious consideration as a 3D printer on my work bench:

  • Beefy, sturdy support structure that resists acciendental movement
  • Laser-like accuracy compared to other FDM printers
  • Advertised 50 micron layer height (100 microns is more practical)
  • Heated bed with Anycubics Ultrabase
  • Color touchscreen display
  • Dual guide rods for x/z axes
  • Ability to use a variety of slicing software
  • Titan extruder (print head) to print a number of different plastics

The i3 Mega S is a newer, upgraded version of the original i3 Mega which can still be bought from Anycubic for $219.00.  The reason I’m describing the Mega S rather than the original is simply because for and extra $20 there are enough upgrades to justify the cost.

First, the newer extruder and the advertised layer height is very intriguing because at 50 microns, this FDM printer is starting to encroach on SLA printer details.  The Mega S can theoretically print at double the vertical resolution of the other printers I’m comparing it to.  Whether that’s actually possible depends on how the object being printed is designed, the type of plastic, bed leveling, and other factors.  While the detail level won’t be as good as injection molding for smaller scales, I imagine this would be a perfect printer for O scale parts and pieces since the larger surface areas can easily and quickly be sanded smooth.  Fine details like ladders, bells, journal boxes, and such would still be better suited for resin printing.  As compromises go, the detail quality of the Mega S appears to be a good trade-off.

For design features, I’m impressed by the large aluminum support for the extruder.  It looks to be strong and will certainly resist movement.  I suspect this feature is a big reason for the accuracy that’s advertised by this printer.  The color touchscreen is another feature that I’m impressed by.  All the other FDM printers I’ve looked at so far lack a touchscreen.  Really, such a feature is personal preference and down now and then rather than buttons which quickly get dirty and are harder to clean.

The flexibility in software that can be used is another bonus since I can find what works best with my computer.  The extruder offers a similar advantage in that a lot of different plastics can be used, even wood!  That last part is of particular interest because wood can be sanded smooth, stained, distressed, dyed, and generally made to look like actual wood on the prototype.  Nothing can replicate wood better than wood.

The biggest problem that I will likely have with this printer, besides quality control, is that the i3 Mega S is noisier than the other models on this list. Due to space limitations, my home office doubles as a bedroom. Even in a larger apartment, the printer would still have to be in the living room or some other place where noises can be disturbing. Of course, no printer is going to sound like a lawn-mower, but the i3 Mega S is apparently noisy enough to annoy some people.

There are plenty of clones on the market that use the same concept as the Ender, CR-10, and Mega series of printers. Finding a clone that has similar specs can save some money initially. However, I also found that to get the best out of such printers, upgrades need to be made that drive the price up. It seems that, at least initially, Creality and Anycubic offer a printer that will make objects just fine with their factory components. Will they eventually need upgrades? Sure, but the extra $50-60 being spend on the printers listed above compared to their competition buys some future-proofing as well. In the end, if these printers are as good as people say, they should be cheaper than their discount knock-offs.

The final printer comes from a company called FLSUN. I wouldn’t have included a company that doesn’t have a well-made website written in English, but FLSUN is offering a series of printers that have a higher precision potential at a price that’s well within my $500 budget. There are several models to choose from, but one of the more popular is the QQ-S delta printer.

FLSUN QQ-S

FLSUN QQ-S Delta 3D printer.
  • Price: $320 *price varies*
  • Website: N/A
  • Type: Delta
  • Printer Dimensions: 290x350x800mm (11.4×13.8×31.5 inch)
  • Footprint: 1,015 cm2 (157.3 in2) *triangular footprint*
  • Build Volume: 260x260x320mm (10.2×10.2×12.6 inch) *cylindrical*
  • Layer Accuracy: +/- 0.004mm (4 microns)
  • Layer Thickness: 0.05-0.4mm (50-400 microns)

This printer caught my eye because it’s a bit different.  While still and FDM printer, the similarities between the QQ-S and the other printers on this list end there.  The QQ-S is called a “delta” 3D printer.  Cartesian printers like the ones listed above have their movements running parallel to the x/y/z axes.  Delta printers still use x/y/z coordinates, but they move by using three vertically running stepper motor assemblies.  Where the extruder and nozzle are placed on the bed is determined by varying the heights of the three pulleys.  The result is a printer that has fewer moving parts, a stationary print bed, and thus a faster print time.  Prints are not only fast, but accurate as well since the printer doesn’t have to move as much weight.  While cartesian printers are moving at less than 100mm/s, delta printers can easily achieve speeds of 200mm/s or more. 

According to my research, the QQ-S seems to be at peak efficiency somewhere around 150mm/s, about double what the other printers on this list are comfortable doing in standard prints.  Even though the QQ-S is fast, it maintains its accuracy due to tight tolerances and a good design. Objects made by this printer apparently have very smooth lines which means less correcting and sanding of printed models.

Then there is the benefit of a smaller footprint.  Because the entire printer assembly is built into it’s own triangular shaped vertical cage, the important electronics are usually mounted at the top of the printer and the bottom consists of a footplate and the print bed.  Without extra controls or bits of metal poking out, the footprint of the QQ-S is just over 1,000 cm2, 50% less surface area of the i3 Mega S.

Based on reviews, the build quality of this printer is excellent and relatively straightforward to assemble.  Any modeler who has assembled a kit before shouldn’t have a difficult time putting all the pieces of this printer together.  Good materials at a low price definitely seems like a great thing and certainly this printer has a lot going for it.  However, there are a few issues that I foresee.

First of all, I can’t actually find the FLSUN website.  It probably exists… somewhere, but it most likely is in Mandarin.  If I can’t even get contact information, then there won’t be any customer support.  Any warranties this printer might have attached to it will be useless as well.  Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be many quality control issues.  Partly that’s because this printer requires more assembly than it’s Cartesian counterparts.  Knowing every bolt on a machine like a 3D printer is a big help, but if (when) something does break or wears out, finding replacement parts on delta printers is more difficult than Cartesian printers.  There is also a smaller community of support.

This concludes the first half of my list of printers. I have not tested any of these personally, so do not take this list to be a series of reviews from first hand experience. I am simply shopping for my first 3D printer and trying to decide between a few different models that have consistently high reviews from consumers and content creators on the internet. There are plenty of other printers out there, but budget printers tend to be Chinese clones of better engineered, more successful models. Professional and Prosumer grade printers also exist, but tend to be in the $1000+ budget category. All the printers on my list are within my personal budget and so will be considered beginner 3D printers. The second section of this list will be posted shortly.

To see the other posts in this series, click one of the links below:

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