3D printers – should you buy one?

Da Vinci Jr 3D printer

While 3D TV may be as dead as the Dodo, another 3D technology is just getting started. It’s been a few years since 3D printers first became available, and now you can buy one for under £500.

As the name implies, 3D printers print in three dimensions, spinning objects in plastic, metal, wood and even edible material. Is it worth investing in one for your home, or are you bettering off using a professional 3D printing service? And what can you use them for? We put you in the picture.

2D printer reviews – find your perfect printer from our expert reviews

Best 3D printers

You can easily spend thousands of pounds on a 3D printer, such as the recently announced Ultimaker 3. However, if your budget is more modest, it’s possible to get a 3D printer for much less, such as the Makerbot Replicator 2, the Da Vinci Mini and the Cubify Cube 3 3D printer. For more, see our best 3D printers guide.

Before you click ‘buy’, however, do bear in mind some limitations. Most home 3D printers can only print in plastic and, with the cheaper ones, it’s often in just one colour. So you may find yourself mostly printing novelties, such as figurines, using patterns from 3D-print websites.

As 3D prints are built up in layers, the resulting objects often aren’t that strong and the finish can be rough, with a stepped effect like the pyramids. You’re usually limited in terms of the size of object you can print, and aside from the initial outlay on the printer, you’ll need to buy new spools of plastic, which can cost over £30.

3D-printing services

Just as it can make more sense to use a professional service to print photos rather than printing them at home, it can also be best to try out 3D printing from a specialist company.

Various providers offer to use industrial-grade 3D printers to turn out whatever job you want (within reason). Some people get novelty figures of themselves printed, while others ask for custom goods such as games controllers.

The finish is likely to be better than you can get from a home 3D printer and, if you’re just starting out, 3D printing companies will usually check the layout of your design to ensure it will print successfully. Prices will vary depending on the size and complexity of the job you want doing.

Expert view – ‘A seismic shift… still waiting to happen’

Go into most households and chances are you’ll find a regular 2D printer. However, for younger generations born into smartphones and the internet, the concept of regularly printing documents and letters is becoming increasingly obsolete.

Many people, therefore, see the future of printing as lying in three dimensions. Although 3D printing is currently confined to the novelty and the niche, one day it will revolutionise how we consume goods – whether that’s printing a spare part for your car, a new pair of trainers or possibly the evening meal.

If you’re considering 3D printing now, it’s best to try a 3D-printing service first before investing hundreds of pounds in one of your own.

Andrew Laughlin – Which? printers expert

More on this

Best Buy printers – see the 2D printers that have aced our expert tests
Printer reviews – alongside the Best Buys, see hundreds of reviewed models
Best cheap printers – top quality at low cost guaranteed with these machines

One reply

  1. the world of 3d printers is coming of age- as technology within this area is getting better there will be breakthroughs.
    at the moment what is holding them back is usability along with te ease of use software.
    when the software becomes drag and drop, or scan and drop then we will see a massive increase in the uptake of 3d printers.
    in the meantime, i along with many other will carry on learning cad, making items for children which are bespoke, repairing items and having fun watching the magical process which is 3d printing.
    if you are interested in what i am doing you can always visit best3dprinter.stan-tech.com

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