How we test 3D printers

Ultimaker 2 3D Printer
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends

Slowly but surely, 3D printers are getting cheaper, better, and drastically more accessible. In the early days, there were only a few models on the market, and most of them were clunky, tricky to use, and prohibitively expensive. But nowadays that’s not the case. Today there are 3D printers available in every size, shape, and printing style you could ever want — and they’re getting more affordable with each new generation.

Widespread availability of 3D printing technology will revolutionize the world — but it doesn’t come in a vacuum. With so many 3D printers on the market, how are you supposed to know which are good and which will leave you with buyer’s remorse?

In our 3D printer reviews, we tear through every feature, test every quirk, and put the manufacturer’s claimed specs to the test. Here’s how we break it down:

Features & Specs

We start with a straightforward overview of the printer’s features and specifications, as stated by the manufacturer. This will provide you with a decent idea of what the printer is capable of doing, and what (if anything) distinguishes it from the rest of the pack.

Ultimaker 2 3D Printer
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends

What type of printer is it? FDM? DLP/SLA? Does it use Cartesian coordinates or a Delta configuration? What kind of materials can it print in? How big is the print area? Does it have two extruders or one?

Setup & Configuration

Pretty much any 3D printer you buy is going to require some amount of assembly, configuration, and calibration. Sometimes this is a relatively swift and simple process, and other times it’s maddeningly difficult. We’re not experts at putting things together either, so we’ll give you an honest assessment of how tough the process is. Can it be done in a few minutes? Should you clear out an entire afternoon?

Build Quality & Design

3D printer manufacturers are always trying to make their machines more affordable, and unfortunately this means they sometimes release printers that aren’t built very well. Sure, your printer probably isn’t going to take a big spills once you set it up, and it doesn’t need to be the sturdies thing on planet earth — but printers are complex machines. They’re comprised of lots of individual moving parts, and if any break or malfunction, they can screw up the totally rad Stormtrooper Buddha you’re creating.

To assess the build quality of the machines we test, we scrutinize all of their main components to see how sturdy and reliable they feel. We won’t knock one off the countertop, but we do give every printer we test a few bumps, shakes, and twists to see how it holds up.

Ultimaker 2 3D Printer
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends

After we’re done with this up-close inspection, we take a step back and assess the overall design of the printer. Is the filament spool in a stupid place? Can the build plate be easily removed for cleaning? Can you take it apart with a screwdriver, or do you need special tools? We take it all in, and over the course of using the printer for a couple weeks, we tease out every annoying quirk and design problem.

User Interface & Software

Physical design is only half of the equation. The control software that comes with your 3D printer is just as important as the hardware. If it’s confusing and poorly designed, that’s a big problem.

We offer up an assessment of the printer’s onboard software (the stuff that helps you navigate and adjust settings, initiate prints, and calibrate the machine), but we leave it at that. And as a rule, we try to use the same slicer program (which takes a 3D model and converts it into code that the printer can understand) for every printer we test, and only use a different one if we absolutely must. This way the variables don’t change, which helps us separate hardware problems from software problems

99 percent of the time, we’ll use the latest version of Cura as our default slicer program. If a printer is designed to work with a different program, we’ll be sure to make note.

Print Performance

To test if the printer lives up to its claimed specifications, we run it through our own unique test protocol. This consists of a number of different tests, each designed to quantify and approximate the printer’s performance from a different angle.

To start out, we print a simple shape, a 1 × 1 × 1 centimeter cube. We do this twice, once at the lowest speed/highest resolution setting, and another time at the highest speed/lowest resolution. This gives us a good idea of how quickly the printer prints, in cubic centimeters per minute.

Next we print something a bit more complex — a custom-designed shape that tests all the different facets of printing. It’s got flat surfaces, curved surfaces, overhangs, fine details, and a whole lot more. If the printer isn’t good at something, this shape will highlight it.

When it’s done, we break it off the build plate and snap a few high-res pictures of it, so you can see for yourself how the print turned out. We also measure certain parts of the print with a micrometer to see how accurate the physical model is in comparison to the digital one.

Ultimaker 2 3D Printer
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends
Kevin Wellard/Digital Trends

Maintenance, Repairability, and Upgradability

3D printing is a messy affair. No matter how hard you try, something eventually breaks, or becomes outdated. As such, you’ll need to conduct routine maintenance, simple repairs, and maybe even a few upgrades — so in our reviews we assess how simple it is to do these things.

Can you easily get under the hood to fix a malfunctioning motor? How hard is it to clean the build plate? If your filament feeder craps out, can you get another online? What if you want to upgrade the cooling fan on your extruder? In our reviews, we get down to the nitty gritty and let you know how hard each machine is to tinker with.

Overall

Once we’re done knocking it around, running it through the testing gauntlet, and examining it from every possible angle, we’ll lay down a simple summary of how we feel about the printer in question. No beating around the bush — just a straightforward verdict on how this printer performed, and whether or not you can get a better one for the same price.

Movies & TV

How Laika blends 3D printing and CGI to make mesmerizing stop-motion movies

With each film, Laika Studios pushes the bar higher for stop-motion animation. We explore Laika's latest techniques for its new adventure, Missing Link, which the studio it calls a Kaleidoscopic travelogue that ranks as its most ambitious…
Smart Home

Instant Pot has another winner with its Accu Slim sous vide

We all know that Instant Pots are the bomb, but did you know that Instant Pot has a sous vide immersion circulator too? The Accu Slim lets you cook sous vide recipes at home. How does it perform? We tested the device to find out.
Home Theater

There isn’t a single good reason to buy Apple’s new AirPods

After nearly a three-year wait, Apple has finally announced a new version of its popular true wireless headphones, the AirPods. We had high hopes for vast improvements, but that's not what we got.
Smart Home

Whatever happened to those dumb smart products we wrote about in 2017?

A smart salt dispenser? As manufacturers rush to get the next new smart item out there, we wonder if all these new inventions are really necessary. Here’s a list of 10 of the quirkiest home smart gadgets available, and where they are now.
Emerging Tech

Racing to catch a flight? Robot valet at French airport will park your car

Hate searching for parking at the airport when you need to catch a plane? Startup Stanley Robotics recently unveiled a new outdoor automated robotic valet system. Here's how it works.
Business

Bags with brains: Smart luggage and gadgets are making travel smoother

The bag you use to tote your stuff can affect the experience of any trip. In response, suitcases are wising up, and there are now options for smart luggage with scales, tracking, and more. Here are our favorite pieces.
Emerging Tech

The U.S. Army is building a giant VR battlefield to train soldiers virtually

Imagine if the U.S. Army was able to rehearse battlezone scenarios dozens, or even hundreds, or times before settling foot on actual terrain. Thanks to virtual reality, that's now a possibility.
Computing

At $99, Nvidia’s Jetson Nano minicomputer seeks to bring robotics to the masses

Nvidia announced a new A.I. computer, the Jetson Nano. This computer comes with an 128-core GPU that Nvidia claims can handle pretty much any A.I. framework you could imagine. At $99, it's an affordable way for A.I. newbies to get involved.
Computing

Nvidia’s A.I. Playground lets you edit photos, experience deep learning research

Nvidia is making it easier to access information on deep learning research. It has launched an online space with three demos for image editing, styling, as well as photorealistic image synthesis. 
Business

British Airways’ new Club Suite for business class comes with a door

British Airways is going after a bigger slice of the business class market with the imminent launch of the Club Suite. The plush seating option offers a more private space as well as an easier route to the bathroom.
Smart Home

Sony’s Aibo robot dog can now patrol your home for persons of interest

Sony released the all-new Aibo in the U.S. around nine months ago, and since then the robot dog has (hopefully) been melting owners' hearts with its cute looks and clever tricks. Now it has a new one up its sleeve.
Emerging Tech

Inflating smart pills could be a painless alternative to injections

Could an inflating pill containing hidden microneedles replace painful injections? The creators of the RaniPill robotic capsule think so — and they have the human trials to prove it.
Emerging Tech

A silver bullet is being aimed at the drug-resistant superbugs on the ISS

A bacteria which is benign here on Earth can mutate into a drug-resistant superbug once it enters space. Now this problem is being tackled by a team of microbiologists who have found a way to inhibit the spread of bacteria in the ISS.
Emerging Tech

Tombot is the hyper-realistic dog robot that puts Spot to shame

Forget Boston Dynamics’ Spot! When it comes to robot dogs, the folks behind a new Kickstarter campaign have plans to stake their claim as makers of man’s (and woman’s) newest best friend.