3D Printer Buying Guide for Schools and Makerspaces

David HookSchools & Makerspaces

a printrbot 3d printer

[Editor’s note – we just learned that Printrbot has gone out of business, which makes us sad. We’ll try to update this article soon to find out what a good replacement is.]

Everyone in the world of STEM/STEAM education and #PBL (we’ve entered the age of acronyms, haven’t we?)  knows that 3D printing is an interesting neck of the woods for kids to explore engineering and learn to be makers.

But it can be challenging for schools to know how to manage a 3D printing program, what printers to buy, and what to do when inevitably printers break.

I’ve run a few 3D printing school programs, and I also asked some stellar teachers I know what recommendations they have for using 3D printers in schools.

Here are our best recommendations for getting your school into 3D printers for teaching STEM with success.

Things To Avoid – Cartridge 3D Printers & Off Brands

3D printer filament

A roll of standard 3D printer filament.

Let’s start with what NOT to do. I recommend against buying a 3D printer that uses its own cartridge to contain the filament (the plastic stuff that you print with) – you’ll pay a lot more for filament and you’ll only be able to buy it from that manufacturer. If they go out of business, you’re the owner of a very expensive door stop. Go with a model that uses standard filament and you’ll be able to buy it from any source.

These days you’ll find lots of 3D printer brands and models. We recommend going with a mainstream brand, whether that’s an open-source type like the ones made by Prusa or a brand like Dremel or Printrbot or Ultimaker.


Plug and Play, or Build and Fiddle

To my mind there are broadly two kinds of 3D printer for your school or workshop:

The first is a fully constructed box printer that you supposedly won’t have to tinker with and will just work. These are more expensive – the MakerBot Replicator+ is a prime example of this at $2,500. They come assembled and they’re beefy..

The other is a more DIY path where you buy and possibly assemble a printer that contains components you can really see, like the Prusa i3 for $700.

I love the second kind better. Why? First, it’s a great experience to have kids build the kits. Nothing gives them a better understanding of how the machine works than assembling it.

Also, in my experience 3D printers always break, especially in a rough environment like a school. Getting kids to build the printer means they’ll be better at repairing it when the inevitable happens.

3D Printing Is Slow. Buy More – Cheaper – Printers

OK, so you get your 20 students together, make some 3D models with Tinkercad, load up a model and hit the “print” button. And … wait. Making a single 3D print can easily take longer than your whole class period.

That’s why I love the approach of buying a bunch of decent printers instead of a few Cadillac models – for example, you can afford nearly four Printrbot Simples for the price of a single MakerBot Replicator +.

Expect Things to Break

I don’t want to sound like a negative Nelly, but in my experience 3D printers work great until they don’t. And then they need to be fiddled with.

My favorite path is to have a few students who become 3D printing pros and can troubleshoot when things go south. This is actually a fantastic opportunity to learn how to troubleshoot, and to bestow this leadership role on kids who are motivated to learn.

Or if you’re in charge, this fixer might be you, but just build into your budget getting replacement parts and fixing things every once in a while.

Specific 3D Printer Recommendations

Bee The First by Bee Creative

Eli, educator and TechShop employee: When it comes to ease of use and reliability, I think the Bee The First by Bee Very Creative is my favorite printer. The software is simple and reliable (though not particularly flexible). The hardware is simple, portable, and elegant (though lacking key features like an SD card slot and onboard controls.)

After that is the Lulzbot Taz – it has more features and is still pretty simple to use. It isn’t as portable, and the software isn’t exactly as friendly, but those are small trades for a cheaper price, ease of repair, and more features.

Patrick, maker educator at The Magellan International School: We had a refurbished MakerGear M2 at my former school makerspace; it was definitely a reliable work horse. It uses Simplify3D which requires a license that included 2 installs.

Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer

Ultimaker 2+

Oren, maker educator at the Ann Richards School: Our Ultimaker 2+ has been very, very, solid. And upgrading our MakerBot to the SmartExtruder+ has made it really workable! Surprise! No jams the entire second semester.

I like Lulzbot a lot as a company, and if you have time to tinker and don’t mind learning the software that would be my personal choice.

Eli, thanks for the Bee the First recommendation, looks cool!

Tim, community manager at Circuit Scribe: I’m a big fan of the Prusa i3 because it’s affordable and open-source. I also really like the Printrbot.

If money were no matter, I’d love to have a Lulzbot Taz, an Ultimaker 2+, or – I mean AND – a MakerBot.

The Prusa i3 is a nice, affordable open-source 3D printer


Our Recommended 3D Printers In One List

Listed from cheapest to most expensive (prices as of this writing):