3 Free 3D Printers Compared

If you’re thinking of getting a 3D printer, check out the three machines we look at below. They are all good for end users, rely on tried and tested designs, use standard formats for the 3D files, and respect your freedom with open plans, drivers and specifications.

Witbox

The Witbox comes conveniently enclosed in a childproof case.

The Witbox comes conveniently enclosed in a childproof case.

This post was sparked because the Spanish company bq had put online the plans for their flagship printer, the Witbox. In trying to answer the question “what would the best open and free 3D printer be if we were to buy it today?”, we scurried down the rabbit hole and came up with three candidates.

Starting off with the printer that got us started, it must be said upfront that the Witbox is a sexy looking machine. It is also quite practical, in that it can deal with quite large prints since it has an A4 (210 x 297 millimetres) sized hotbed (the flat bottom base the actual printing occurs on) and can print up to 20 centimetres high.

The printer comes with two extruders, which means you can print objects in two colours at the same time, and is completely enclosed within a box that has child-proof door. The box not only keeps children’s fingers out (and thus protecting them from getting burnt), but it also keeps the temperature within the printer in, maintaining it constant. It also makes for a very quiet machine, since the whirrs and clicks of the moving parts are muffled by the enclosure.

The box alone makes the Witbox probably the most home-friendly machine in this list, but if you’re serious about this 3D printing thing, the enclosure offers at least one more advantage: If you buy more than one machine, several units can be stacked and secured one above the other, so you don’t need special shelving to house multiple units.

The printer itself can print at a maximum resolution of 50 microns (a micron is 1/1000 millimetres) for the finest prints, and up to 300 microns for the coarsest. The machine runs free software and is compatible with standard open source 3D printing software. But, more interestingly, you can download all the plans and 3D CAD pieces from bq’s github account. All the parts come in FreeCAD format, so that they can be opened and manipulated from Linux, Windows or MacOS X. In theory, given the appropriate tools (including a 3D printer, of course) you could replicate the Witbox using these files. All documents and pieces are distributed under a generous CC license.

You can buy a Witbox directly from bq for 1,690€ (~ $2,058).

LulzBot TAZ 4.0

The TAZ 4.0 offers the largest printing volume of the the three printers.

The TAZ 4.0 offers the largest printing volume of the the three printers.

The LulzBot TAZ 4.0 actually comes recommended by the Free Software Foundation as a machine that goes out of its way to respect your freedom.

This is a larger machine than the Witbox, the printing surfaces being 298 mm x 275 mm and 250 mm high. Once mounted, although not much larger than the Witbox, it looks quite the beast and you would be hard-pressed to describe it as “desktop printer”. I guess it depends on the size of your desk and how comfortable you are sharing your workspace with a machine with exposed red-hot moving parts, as it is also open on all sides. This also makes it inappropriate for an environment where young children are around either.

The printer’s resolution ranges from 75 microns for the finest prints to 350 microns for the coarsest. Although it doesn’t come with a dual nozzle as the Witbox does, you can buy one as an option. In fact, the TAZ 4 is extremely modular, so any new add-ons that come out, including those manufactured by third parties, can be assembled onto the printer quite easily. The TAZ is also Arduino friendly, so you can mod and upgrade the electronics of your machine.

All the drivers, firmware, and applications are open source, as are the schematics and pieces of the printer that can be downloaded under a free license.

If you decide to buy the TAZ 4 (as opposed to printing and building it yourself from scratch), it will cost you about 1,800€ (~ $2,190) plus shipping, but, if you quote the FSF gift list, shipping to the US, Canada, and the EU will be free.

Prusa i3

The Prusa i3 is a truly maker's maker machine.

The Prusa i3 is a true maker’s maker machine.

This is actually the seminal printer most modern 3D printers, including the two above, are based on. The Prusa i3 is in fact the latest iteration of the original open sourced printer built by the RepRap team. In case you are not aware of how this community of makers works, you are expected to build your printer by yourself.

But before we get to that, let’s look at the specifications, shall we? This is the smallest printer of the three with a hotbed that measures approximately 200 mm x 200 mm (it can vary). It can print up to a height of 200 mm, which is still pretty good. Again this is an open-sided printer, hence it should be kept out of the reach of children. It is difficult to pinpoint the resolution of a Prusa i3, since each maker can adapt the extruder she sees fit and that best meets her needs, but something quite common seems to be to use nozzles that can output about 100 microns at their finest, up to about 400 microns for the coarsest print (thanks Dorian!).

As usual, all software, firmware, schematics and pieces are available online for download and, the parts that are not printed (or laser cut) are very standard and can be found at any good hardware store.

Although the Prusa i3 is ideal for diehard makers, and the community encourages you order the printed parts from other users, you can buy kits for the machine online, with all the pieces you’ll need, from about 300€ (~ $365), which makes it ideal as your first break-in machine.

3D Compared

To summarise, bq’s Witbox is sexy as hell: it looks good, it is office- and home-friendly and has the highest resolution. Unfortunately, as it is enclosed in a box, there is not much space for expansion, and, as it is so exquisite, despite it being completely open source, you may not want to tinker with it too much.

Lulzbot’s TAZ 4.0 is quite the contrary: it is extremely modular and can be tinkered with at pleasure. It is also the largest, meaning on one hand that you can make bigger prints, but, on the other, that it has a quite large footprint when compared to the Prusa, making it not very home-friendly. It is also the most expensive of the three.

Finally, the Prusa i3 is a real maker’s maker device. Having to build the printer from scratch (or from a kit) makes it cheap to buy and helps users really understand how their machine works, which, in turn, can lead users to build in their own improvements and mods. Plus, although its resolution is the lowest of the three, the price tag of just over $300 makes it the best value for money.

Printer Max. Res.1 Print Size (mms)1 Size (mms)1 Home Friendly2 User Friendly2 Assembly1 Price (USD)1
Witbox 50µm 210 x 297 x 200 640 x 550 x 650 ***** ***** * ~ $2,070 with postage
TAZ 4.0 75µm 298 x 275 x 250 680 x 520 x 515 *** *** ** ~ $2,220 with postage
Prusa i3 ~100µm3 ~200 x 200 x 200 ~430 x 405 x 385 *** ** **** ~ $350
1 Lower is better
2 Higher is better
3 Depends on Nozzle

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