3D Printer Shootout – Pro vs. Consumer

A few days ago, Scott Hanselman bought a $599 consumer 3D printer on Amazon. He then went on to share the next 16 hours worth of elation, frustration, moments of success and suicidal thoughts that go along with learning 3D printing on consumer hardware and open source tools.

My experience was even worse than his – as a company, we bought into the idea that $1000 worth of 3D printing machine should immediately bring us into the 3D manufacturing revolution. Months later, walking in to yet another night where the MakerBot printer had freaked out and spewed a massive tangle of spider-webby filament balls all over the floor, I was fully convinced that 3D printing, as an concept and industry, was a complete and useless pile of crap. We got 1 successful part for every 5 tries. We bought every kind of add-on available to heat up build plates, printed fan and enclosure mods, with some magic combination of painter’s tape and AquaNet hair spray being the only things that occasionally worked. Before writing it off altogether, we invested in the next level of equipment that held promise, and now work with a basic, professional-grade printer. We spent way more on payroll for someone to sit around and dink with the printer than we did on buying the professional printer. I made a rule that if anyone ever purchased any printer, part, or accessory from MakerBot ever again they would be immediately terminated. That was 2 years ago.

With that said, I challenged Scott to a Pro vs. Consumer 3D printing shootout – our Stratasys uPrint vs. his Simple Metal, to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of each approach, and find out how we compare on each side of the spectrum. We gave it one shot, no do-overs, using only the printer and the software that came with it, for honest comparison.

This blog post represents our “Pro” side of the experience. Open Scott’s side in another tab and compare.

The Model

We each printed the same model from the same source – a coffee cup .STL from Thingiverse, available here. (For the uninitiated, a .STL file to a 3D printer is more or less like a .PDF to your laserjet office printer.) It’s not a super crazy shape, but at the same time requires a bit of support with curved surfaces – about what the “average” 3D print would be.

The Setup/Costs – Stratasys uPrint SE Pro

This is the bad news on our side – you get what you pay for. Stratasys makes the uPrint SE Pro as one of their entry level, professional grade models. It prints a single color at a time, with a single type of material (ABS). To duplicate our setup for this print, you would need the following:

uPrint SE Pro Printer and Dissolving Bath – about $22,000

1 Spool of Model Material (Black) – $205.00 (produces 42 cubic inches of printing)

1 Spool of Support Material – $200.00 (42 cubic inches worth)

Box of Build Plates – $125.00 for 24 (you need one for each print, so it costs about $5.20/each)

Soluble Concentrate – $149.00 for 12 bottles (dissolves support material, aka fancy drain-O)

Warranty Support – $2,000/year – because it does break from time to time.

Add a little bit of shipping, and for a mere $25K you’re ready to print your very own coffee cup.

Setting Up – Hardware

The good news is, all of our supplies come from the manufacturer of the printer – so the major plus on the “Pro” side is that everything works together.

First, we take a build plate out of the box.

Photo Jan 30, 1 52 50 PMPhoto Jan 30, 1 53 00 PM

They are plastic and have a texture on them that is magic, because it sticks to 3D material once and cannot be reused. If we are printing something small, then sometimes we can use one corner of the build plate for one print, then another corner later, but it just depends on the day.

The build plate snaps into place on a platform that is extremely solid – Stratasys seems to over-engineer their hardware, which is nice.

Photo Jan 30, 1 53 08 PMAnim_LoadBuildPlate

Next, printers need material, so we load both the model material (what our print will actually be made of), and the support material (what the printer uses as filler to support overhanging surfaces, and gets dissolved later).

It comes in a “space bag” and gets loaded into a cartridge.

Photo Jan 30, 1 48 54 PMPhoto Jan 30, 1 48 59 PMPhoto Jan 30, 2 22 57 PM

Look closely – you see that little red thing?

Photo Jan 30, 2 23 26 PM

That piece acts as a flow-meter for your material spool, and tracks how much material you have left.

Photo Jan 30, 2 23 19 PM

Unfortunately, this is what I call the “DRM” of 3D printing. This little module makes sure that you are using a Stratasys material spool, and not material from other vendors. It’s one-way and cannot be “rewound”, so you can sometimes end up with a bit of material left over and the module thinks you’re already done, thus rendering the extra material unusable.

Aside from that, we load the spools, which is a matter of sliding them in and pressing “Load” on the printer panel.

Photo Jan 30, 2 23 37 PMAnim_LoadMaterialBayAnim_LoadModel

Now we’re ready to do some printing!

I tried to get a great “action shot” timelapse of the print by taping a GoPro to the inside of the door. It’s a little tight in there, so I cut the handle off the build plate to make room for it.

Photo Jan 30, 2 21 39 PM

That worked great until the printer heated up, the tape turned to goo and fell off, and the GoPro shut itself down at 125 degrees F. So I had to settle for a GoPro shot outside the door instead.

Photo Jan 30, 2 41 46 PM

Setting Up – Software

With this type of printer, you work with Stratays’s “Catalyst” software. Again, everything just works together – no mucking around with config’s and jumping through multiple tools, which is nice.

  1. Download the .STL from Thingiverse.
  2. Add the .STL to Catalyst.
  3. Press “Auto Orient” and “Add to Pack”, progress bars fly and magic happens. (Really, software is just calculating the most efficient way to print it, where the coffee cup needs supports and so forth.)
  4. Drag it to position it on the build plate where I want it to print.08_AddToPack
  5. Send/queue the print to the printer.
  6. Hit the blinking “Start Model” button on the printer’s front panel.Photo Jan 30, 2 42 55 PM09_CatalystStatus


I hit print and walked away. The printer tells me % complete and time remaining (7 hours and 29 minutes) and is also monitored in the Catalyst software.

Photo Jan 30, 3 39 11 PMPhoto Jan 30, 5 59 11 PM

The printer is very conscious of interrupting airflow, so a magnetic latch engages and prevents us stupid humans from opening the door mid-print, without the software’s permission.

This print ultimately took 8 hours, 22 minutes, at 0.1mm resolution, used 4.84 cubic inches of model material, and 0.433 cubic inches of support material.


Out pops our 3D printed coffee cup!

Photo Feb 02, 11 32 09 AMPhoto Feb 02, 11 32 54 AMAnim_RemoveCup

You can see the model material (in black) and the support material (in white). The white has to disappear, so to do that, we dunk the whole thing in a hot bath.

Photo Feb 02, 11 34 31 AMPhoto Feb 02, 11 34 45 AMAnim_InBath

The bath comes with, and is considered part of the printer. It’s a highly concentrated liquid (resembles Drain-O) mixed with water. We have to change it out every month or so. This unit heats up the liquid, and has a hot-tub style jet inside to keep a continuous flow of water over the part. We use big rubber gloves to prevent contact with this solution on bare skin.

All Done

We lift the container out of the bath, and what remains is our coffee cup and build plate without support material.

Photo Feb 02, 3 32 48 PMAnim_BathOut

A quick rinse, and we’re ready for coffee.

Photo Feb 02, 3 38 17 PMPhoto Feb 02, 3 38 10 PM

Cost of a Coffee Cup

In direct costs, we used $23.62 in model material, $2.06 in support material, and $5.20 build plate, for a total of $30.88. We have a fancy spreadsheet that calculates our total cost (printer cost over its lifespan, average reusable supplies based on our normal print volume), and our average cost per cubic inch of model printed is about $11.80. So if a customer asked us to print this coffee cup, it would run about $58.00.

On to Scott for the conclusion…

What does the end-result look like in cost/value/process? Was Scott able to print it in one shot without drama, or did 3D printer parts and a tangled mess of open-source bits come flying out of the nearest window in a fit of rage? How close are consumer printers to competing with professional printers in ultimate time and value?

We shipped Scott our version of the coffee cup, and he tallied the final scores. See what he had to say…


16 thoughts on “3D Printer Shootout – Pro vs. Consumer

  1. Shawn

    Interesting article. You can reuse the board if you pop the build off before putting it in the tank. Just use a scraper to knock the material left on off. Those boards are just abs.

  2. Gentleman Nerd

    Reblogged this on Übermüdet Mirror and commented:
    Oh jemine – 58 $ für eine Tasse. Not bad. Schau ich heute Abend mal wie teuer das mit unserem 3dDinge.de Printrbot Simple Metal läuft. Tippe so auf 5 $ wenn überhaupt ^^

  3. Pingback: 3D Printer Shootout – Pro vs. Consumer | Übermüdet

  4. zannjaminderson

    Like Shawn said, you don’t have to chuck the build trays after each use. I’m a grad student in a lab where we have a Stratasys Dimension and reuse the trays many times. A “removing ice from an ice tray” type motion pops the models off quite well, and the trays are plenty rigid and don’t keep any bend in them. Then we just scrape of any excess support. Also, we’ve had quite a bit of success just using hard tools to break off the support material. I only use the bath for stubborn or hard to reach bits of support.

    1. Brandon Post author

      Interesting – we haven’t had good results re-using build plates except the spots that haven’t been printed on already. Normally we wouldn’t throw the plate in the bath either, but thought it was a better visual for this demo to demonstrate the dissolve.

  5. Bill Monroe

    Funny, you called this article a shootout but only detailed the uPrint.
    10s of thousands are happily using “consumer” machines all over the world – I’m one of them. I also use a Stratasys Fortus 380 at work. Since the Fortus costs more than the average home, If it wasnt for the “consumer” machine I’d not have any capability to print at all.
    With some time, diligence, and desire, I’ve improved my home machine to the point where quality is near equal, with DRAMATICALLY lower print cost and without the need for caustic chemicals.
    Stratasys machines are uber-expensive but are good for non-technical people to use. Of course, one would have to wonder what a non-technical person would be doing making FDM prints….

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  11. Toby Lankford

    This is an interesting article. I take great umbrage with all of this. A competent individual is capable of getting superior prints off of most any FDM machine. The parts and structures are generally very similar if not the exact same. You have similar to exact same hot ends. The hardware is hardware. As long as you are purchasing quality guides, bearings and other hardware. a home built printer is not of any less quality of a stratasys or other expensive commercial printer. If someone is really gullible enough to think that a build plate should be a consumable onetime use item, I would say that they really have no business 3d printing. Bill Monroe hits it on the head. Why would a non-technical person be using a 3d printer anyways?

    My cartesian home-built printer runs on average of 20 hours a day, since the first time I put the machine together. It requires routine maintenance, and if a print fails is generally a software slicing issue, or I have failed to inspect a part that is wearing or loosening up. I can not imagine that any of these other machines such as stratasys or 3dcube or other expensive commercial unit does not require the same maintenance and calibration, whether some is automated or manual.

    These machines run long continuous hours and have many moving parts. Those parts get loose. They wear out. I teach people how to build 3d printers, so they have a greater understanding of maintenance and repair. My students can walk away with a home built machine that is capable of perfect prints from the beginning. An individual that is not competent enough to work a makerbot, is really not competent enough to need or make efficient use of a $25000 Stratasys.

    I think my greatest issue with this comparison is that the person using the $25000 machine is not qualified to be using the machine much less reviewing its quality or capabilities.

    1. Toby Lankford

      I may have been a little harsh and I probably should have used the word proficient rather than competent. I however do not understand why a person that can not make a $1000 work thinks they can make $25000 work better. I see this in robotics, UAS development, and farming on a consistent basis.

      I noticed comments in both reviews and blogs that their is a lack of understanding of what caused the warping of the ABS cup from the Statasys. My suspicions would be that messing with the gopro camera and opening the build door caused cool enough air in the build chamber to warp the base of the cup a little. ABS is prone to warping with uneven heating and cooling around the build plate. If you left a print fan on from a PLA print when making an ABS print you will see similar warping. Also a printer without a build box in a room that has moving air will cause the same result. PLA is food safe and would make a cup that can be used for drinking and free from warping I hope that this helps for future prints and I apologize for the harsh tone of my initial comment.

      I will also add that I would experiment with the settings that you are not wanting to “muck around with” Altering some settings in printer control would help with things like the Z axis scar on the cup. That should be moved to where it does not mar the print. There should be settings that ask about random placement or seam and corner placement of Z change start and stops. Also messing with the feed/retract functions a little can help with reducing the prominence of the scars.

    2. Brandon Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Don’t miss the point though – ultimately everyone wants to 3D print without becoming a technical FDM wizard. (Like those of us that need to print our models and move on, without wasting time and payroll on tweaking hardware.)

      So this comparison is not “is it possible to make a coffee cup on a cheap printer” as much as “how much effort is involved to get there”. And I will say, a bit pleasantly surprised.


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