So I heard you are thinking of buying a 3D printer. The options out there can be dizzying, but once you have a clear idea of what you want to have in your first 3D printer, the selection process becomes much easier. I eventually settled on the Flashforge Dreamer, made by Flashforge in Zhejiang, China. This is almost the exact same printer that Dremel is using as their 3D Idea Builder. This printer is available from Simplifi3D, a vendor based in Bras Basah, tucked into a corner on the second floor.
In this post, I will outline some of the deciding criteria that I used to narrow down my choices.
When I was choosing a 3D printer early this year, the first thing I was looking out for was print volume. This refers to the largest object that the printer is capable of printing. Consumer 3D printers with a price $2,000 and below (at the time of writing) come with build volumes ranging from 10×10×10cm³ up to about 24×15×15cm³. A small printer is good to begin with, as it takes up little space and is typically cheaper, but I wanted something that could eventually print larger objects, because they are not particularly harder to print and would give students a wider range of options when it comes to projects. Smaller printers can also create larger objects—students would have to think about how to join multiple small objects into a single larger object.
The Flashforge Dreamer has a print volume of 23×15×15cm³, one of the largest for printers below $2,000.
The two most common materials currently used for 3D printing are ABS and PLA, two different types of plastic. They are both thermoplastics, which means they soften and may even melt at higher temperatures, and solidify again when the temperature is lowered. ABS is commonly used in, well, common plastic items, and is prized for its strength and durability. PLA is a corn-based, biodegradable plastic that is weaker than ABS, but is more flexible as well.
These two materials open up some options for projects. PLA is easier to work with, as it can print on an unheated bed. Printing ABS on an unheated bed will result in the first few layers warping, and messing up the rest of the print; only 3D printers with a heated bed can print with ABS filament.
Just like most other 3D printers on the market, the Flashforge Dreamer has a heated bed and is capable of printing both ABS and PLA.
Resolution refers to the finest level of detail that the printer is capable of printing. Common 3D printing resolutions range from 0.1mm to 0.4mm; this refers to the height of the layers that the nozzle lays down. The width of the extruded plastic depends on the size of the nozzle, typically 0.3mm or 0.4mm in width.
While common sense dictates that finer printing resolutions are better, they also mean longer print times, since the plastic is being extruded at a lower rate of flow. A layer height of 0.2–0.4mm is sufficient for most purposes, and I wasn’t overly concerned about finding a printer that can print at 0.1mm layer heights very well. Furthermore, the extruded plastic comes out rather tube-like and cylindrical (much like toothpaste), and trying to squeeze it out of its round cross-section can result in uneven printing. This means that the printed layer height should not be more than the nozzle width, and should ideally be more than half of it as well.
The Flashforge Dreamer has a nozzle width of 0.4mm. Out of the box, it prints 0.1mm rather poorly; some calibration and tweaking is definitely needed there. But it does well width layer heights between 0.2mm to 0.4mm.
This is what gets most people excited: what can the printer do apart from the usual single-colour, single-material prints?
The Flashforge Dreamer only works with FlashPrint, its proprietary printing software (for Windows and Mac); other compatible options are non-free. However, it has dual extruders, which means it is capable of printing objects with up to two different colours or materials, if one has the right filaments. This is a more advanced endeavour than single-material printing, and I hope the students will eventually master this (after getting single-extruder printing right first, of course).
With a power meter, I got the following estimates of power consumption for the Flashforge Dreamer.
Printing: about 145W
I hope this post has helped introduce you to some basic decision criteria for 3D printers. Do drop me an email if you have any further questions you would like answered.