Best open hardware 3D printers11/05/2022
I’ve been wanting to replace my good old Anet A8 for a while now. It is without a doubt one of the best (and cheapest) 3D printers to get started. Mine it is already a few years old and thousands of meters of filament have passed through it. Although it is still working well, it is time to move to a more professional printer that doesn’t require so much maintenance and presets to start printing. Before choosing one, it is worth looking at what Open Hardware 3D printers are available out there.
One of the main pillars of the Bike Pixel project is to support and promote the use of open hardware, so whenever possible I try to use free software and hardware. Although it is not always possible, in the case of 3D printers we can currently find a multitude of open hardware solutions on the market that can compete on equal terms with closed commercial products.
Bellow I’ll take a look at the best 3D printers available today so you can choose the right one for your needs. But first let’s see why an Open Hardware solution is better and what you should look at to choose the best Open Hardware 3D printer.
Advantages of Open Hardware 3D printers
Working with open hardware 3D printers (and in general with any kind of open hardware 😉 ) has many advantages over closed commercial solutions. We have all the documentation with all the details of our printer which means that it is 100% ours (up to the last line of code). Apart from this advantage and the freedom that it guarantees us, we have other more direct advantages such as:
- Upgrades: In many cases we will not have to go through the checkout to buy a new version with the latest changes made by the manufacturer. We will simply have to replace the parts that have been changed.
- Community: usually around free hardware products (especially the most popular ones) we can find a community with forums, Discord channels, etc. that will provide help when we need it and, over time, will propose improvements to our printer.
- Improvements and modifications: proposed by the community that we can find on the Internet or available as purchasable extensions on the manufacturers’ websites. They allow us to give a more personalized look to our printer or to improve the quality of the printing or the stability of the structure.
- DIY: if you don’t find what you need, you can always propose your own version. We can change the color of a part, modifying the firmware of the printer or adding new elements and functionalities.
- Lower maintenance costs: partly because we can do it ourselves (or with the help of the community if we need it). But mostly because we can easily identify the faulty component and simply buy the spare part and replace it.
- Long term durability and reliability: as new version of our printer is coming, we can upgrade continually the improved parts or software, hence we can always have the last version for a fraction of the price of a new 3D printer.
Tips before you buy
How do you can ensure that printing will look exactly how you want it? What should you avoid doing when choosing an open hardware 3D printer? Before you buy any 3D printer you have to consider a set of different technical parameters in order to choose the one that best fits with your needs.
There are different 3D printing techniques and technologies. Each of them haves it advantages and own problemas. Although during this article I’ll focus only on Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers it is good to know that we can find different options including:
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): also known as Fused filament fabrication (FFF), is a 3d printing method that uses a continuous filament of a thermoplastic material. This filament is fed through a moving and heated extruder head of the printer and deposited into a desired location on a layer-by-layer growing work.
- Stereolithography (SLA): is the second most common technology employed in home 3D printers. Uses a liquid resin that is cured by ultraviolet light in a tank by an ultraviolet laser or screen to build the objects. Three-dimensional objects are obtained by the successive addition of thin layers, printed one on top of the other. Usually the obtained models are more smooth and detailed but generated models requiere some chemical post processing.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): is an additive manufacturing technique that uses a laser as a source of energy and heat to sinter powdered material (i.e. compact by being heated and hit by the laser) by pointing the laser at points in space defined by our 3D model.
This are the most common and affordable but there are a lot more 3D printing technologies that are used for more advanced proposes. To name but a few, you can also consider technologies such as Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Material Jetting (MJ), Masked Stereolithography (MSLA), Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) or Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM).
Indicates the maximum size that we can print. Currently we can find printers with almost any size and shape but the most common ranges around a cube of 20x20x20cm. But if you are only considering to print small pieces you can get smaller printers as they are usually less expensive and more efficient. On the other hand you can also find much bigger options (as we’ll see).
The speed of the 3D printer is determined by the linear amount of filament it can place at a given location on the part. Speeds around 100 mm (~3.9 in) per second will be more than sufficient. Although many models allow higher speeds, we will normally work below the maximum speed to obtain better print quality. Sometimes at higher speeds problems can occur that reduce the quality of our printing, such as vibrations.
Resolution is the precision with which our printer can print a design. In a 3D printer is given by:
- Printer nozzle: usually 0.4 mm (but we can change it for bigger and smaller values).
- Z axis precision: as its movement determines the minimum height of each of our layers. Usually 0.05 mm is considered pretty high resolution and also we can set the hight in a given range.
- X, Y axis precision: that give us how accurate is the printing over the surface. Usually is similar to the z axis but in this case is always a fixed value.
Materials (i.e. temperature)
Most of 3D printers works pretty good with PLA, but for materials with higher temperature requirements like ABS, Polycarbonate, CPE, PVB, HIPS, Flex, nGen, Nylon etc. A printer that can support these higher temperatures is required. If our printer’s nozzle can reach 300°C (570°F) you will be able to work with almost any material.
Consider the cost of printing
Depending on the printer we choose, printing a part can be more or less expensive. Apart from the cost of the materials and the amortisation of the printer itself, the cost of energy and time spent must be taken into account. A larger printer will consume more energy simply because it has to keep a larger hot table warm. A slower printer will take longer to produce the same part so we will have to maintain the temperature of the extruder and the hot table for longer.
In order to reduce the cost of printing we can should consider
- use a smaller printers when we print smaller models,
- use 3D printing materials that don’t require a heated bed or high nozzle temperatures (PLA),
- implement 3D printer settings that make 3D prints quicker,
- change to a larger nozzle so your prints don’t last as long (while filling a piece),
- make sure that the 3D printer is in a fairly warm environment.
Not all 3D printers are as open as others. In recent years we have seen how some companies that started out as open projects are now less so. Actually we can distinguish between:
- Fully open 3D printers: from which we can find all the documentation and code needed to build the latest version of the printer.
- Partially open 3D printers: from which we can find only documentation for earlier or somewhat incomplete versions.
Throughout the following list of the best open hardware 3D printers we will focus especially on these parameters. We will include links to the documentation, indicating whether they have been certified by the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) as well as in the case of the Bike Pixel project.
The best available Open Hardware 3D printers
Nowadays we can find quite a few open hardware 3D printers, and although in principle they all look alike, each one has something that makes it unique. Each one has been created by many different people with different ideas, who want to make a better product. Below we briefly review the best options available sorted by its printing volume.
LulzBot Mini 2
The LulzBot Mini 2 is an open source 3D printer that’s extremely user-friendly, making it ideal for beginners. Is the smaller model among the presented during this review. It’s known for its high print quality, compact size and good customer support.
As you would expect from a product made in the USA, due to it solid construction it also enables to work with really high printing speeds. Furthermore, it includes advanced features like automatic bed levelling. However, that quality comes at a price, and it is a rather expensive printer.
Additionally, it includes it own simplified (also open source) CURA slicer version so the generated GCODE is perfectly optimised for the printer.
|LulzBot Mini 2|
|Build volume||16x16x18cm (6.3×6.3×7.1in)|
|Layer height||0.05-0.90mm (0.002″-0.035″)|
|Nozzle max temp.||290°C (554°F)|
|Print bed temp.||120°C (248°F)|
|Materials||PLA, TPU, ABS, PETG, nGen, INOVA-1800, HIPS, HT, t-glase, Alloy 910, Polyamide, Nylon 645, Polycarbonate, PC-Max, PC+PBT, PC-ABS Alloy, PCTPE, and more.|
|License||GPLv3, CC BY-SA 4.0|
Prusa i3 MK3S+
This printer created by Prusa Reserach is a direct descendants of the RepRap project, an open and collaborative initiative to develop 3D printers capable of manufacturing more 3D printers. In fact, among the parts that make up this printer, all the parts made of plastic have been 3D printed. Also following in the wake of the RepRap project, Prusa has open source as its flagship and all its FDM printers are fully open.
The Pursa i3 MK3S+ is one of the most versatile 3D printers in our review. Among its strengths are the quality and precision of its prints. For example, thanks to the SuperPINDA probe, a high quality sensor that performs the leveling process, before each print, the MK3S+ probes the bed at several points and a virtual mesh of the printing area correcting microscopic unevenness.
All these features, great community and excellent support, make this printer very easy to use. If we buy the assembled version we can start printing right out of the box. On the other hand, if we decide to do it ourselves, apart from getting to know our printer, we can enjoy the gummy bear rations that come in the pack with each part we assemble. That’s why the Prusa i3 was the option I chose.
As a nice add-on to work with the Prusa printers we have available a custom slicer software. Prusa Slicer enables to add custom supports directly on the model, colouring an object for multi-material printing or select the layer height for each part of the object separately.
|Prusa i3 MK3S+|
|Build volume||21x21x25cm (8.3×8.3×9.84in)|
|Layer height||0.05-0.35mm (0.002-0.014in)|
|Nozzle max. temp.||300°C (572°F)|
|Bed max. temp.||120°C (248°F)|
|Materials||Most thermoplastics, including PLA, PETG, ASA, ABS, CPE, PVB, HIPS, Flex, nGen, Nylon, Carbon filled, Woodfill, etc.|
DIY kit $799
All Voron printers are designed to be quiet, clean, pretty, and continue to operate 24 hours a day as true home manufacturing machines. The latest version of its Voron 2.4r2 model, launched on March 2022, only comes as complete kit that you have to assemble yourself so it is an ideal option for makers.
It is a really fast and large format printer. It is available in three versions, 25x25x25cm, 30x30x30cm and the bigger one 35x35x35cm. In both cases everything is contained in an enclosed frame which improves thermal stability, reduces energy consumption and makes it even quieter. On the other hand the entire printer is pretty massive and heavy (50x50x60cm for the bigger version).
In addition, we can rely on a really great community including a Reddit group and a Discord channel. Also to facilitate its assembly it is provided an official assembly manual for which we’d better save a couple of days.
As additional remarks it is worth to mention that it is supported by Prusa Slicer software and include a build in Carbon filter so we can print with smelly materials like ABS.
|Build volume||25x25x25cm (9.85×9.85×9.85in)
|Layer height||0.05-0.3mm (0.002-0.012in)|
|Nozzle max. temp.||300°C (572°F)|
|Bed max. temp.||110°C (230°F)|
|Materials||Nearly every material like PLA, Tough PLA, ABS, ASA, PETG, CPE, Nylon, NylonX and NylonG (with a hardened steel nozzle), TPU, TPE, PVA|
Structure & electronics: $1085
Printed parts: $198
Raspberry Pi 4: $140
Creality Ender 3v2
If you’re looking for a low-cost 3D printer, the Creality Ender 3v2 is an excellent choice. It’s not as simple to use as others on this list and doesn’t offer quite as many features, but it’s still a great option for those who want something that will print well without breaking the bank.
The main drawback here is that if you’re looking for something easier than this model offers (like those above), then you should probably steer clear of this one since there’s no automatic bed levelling feature here — you’ll have to manually level your bed before each print job by adjusting some screws inside its frame yourself which could get messy if not done correctly every time.
Apart from that, this new version of the Ender 3v2 has a much improved frame. Now it is much more solid which guarantees stability during printing. On the other hand, compared to the other proposals, it includes a 4.3-inch LCD touch screen that facilitates the interaction with the printer and also gives it a much more modern touch.
Another plus point of the Creality Ender printers is the upgradeability based on its community proposals or when new versions are out. So there are many ways to upgrade the printer, from purchasing tempered glass for the workbench to almost infinite 3D printed add-ons.
|Creality Ender 3v2|
|Build volume||22x22x25cm (8.6×8.6×9.8in)|
|Layer height||0.1-0.4mm (0.002-0.012in)|
|Nozzle max. temp.||260°C (500°F)|
|Bed max. temp.||100°C (212°F)|
|Materials||PLA, ABS, PETG, TPU|
BigFDM is an industrial scale 3D printer allowing the printing of objects up to 80x80x90cm. With such a scale, it opens up the possibility of printing a new type of models such as prostheses, art installations, furniture or industrial design prototypes. Also there is work in progres on a new version called BigFDM One that will reach a printing volume of a cube of 1m.
The design has all the features you’d expect from a professional, open source 3D printer: it’s made mostly from aluminum, enclosed build volume, heated levelled bed. The main difference here is that by default, you’ll need 2.85mm filament to print.
The main problem with this beast is that it is only available as a kit and in most cases only partially completed, so it is quite difficult to obtain all the component parts and many of them will have to be manufactured by ourselves. Hence, this printer is suitable only for those with more experience and maker skills.
Also be ready for a higher electricity bill as it can consume up to 3000 Wh mostly used to heat its big hot bed.
Open source 3D printers are a great way to get into 3D printing. They allow you to experiment with more advanced features and materials. If you’re looking for a new printer but want something that supports the open source movement, then one of these models may be just what you need!
Maybe they are not so beautiful as the commercial solutions but that is just marketing. The best open source 3D printers has even better features that closed printers in the same price range. And always if you don’t like something you can change it by yourself as only when you use open hardware and software you are the real owner of the product.