The best £100 you'll spend on a 3D printer

Halo helmet design credit: bigredfrog

The RepRap (replicating rapid prototyper) movement was started in 2005, at the University of Bath, as a means of fulfilling what sounds like something out of the realms of science fiction – to design and build a 3D printer that can print its own parts, thus being able to replicate itself. Undoubtedly, the most popular example of this paradigm is the Prusa-style design, epitomised by the ‘Original Prusa i3’, currently on its third iteration. The Anet Prusa A8 is a printer built on the same open-source design, but at approximately one seventh of the price.

This is a printer kit with a ~10-hour build-time. If you are looking for something that works out of the box, the A8 is not for you. All the tools you need for the build are included in the box, and there are both written instructions and a link to a set of YouTube videos, where you can follow along with an instructional build of the printer. We found building the printer an enjoyable process, and it forces you to acquire knowledge regarding the intimate workings of your new toy.

While the A8 doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the ‘Original Prusa’, it has all the important features that a decent 3D printer should have. The print volume is 22 cm × 22 cm × 24 cm, which is enough for a wide range of hobbyist needs. It comes with a heated bed out of the box, which improves bed adhesion and allows users to print in ABS and other materials that are prone to warping. The A8 also supports printing from an SD card, meaning you can add your files from your software of choice to the SD card, plug it into your printer, then select them using the LCD screen. While this doesn’t sound wildly exciting, the alternative is to have your machine plugged into a computer at all times. This feature gives you the freedom to place your printer anywhere in the house (pending partner/housemate approval of course).

A quality print

Getting down to brass tacks, the print quality from this kit is not just good for the price, it’s plain good. You can see the quality it’s capable of in our first ever print, and we’ve never had any major issues with print quality that haven’t been fixed with some form of calibration, or by replacing cheap parts. You will quickly that learn there are a plethora of factors that affect print quality that could be the subject of a series of articles in themselves, but none of these are unique to the A8 and they affect virtually all 3D printers, regardless of the price. We’ve had no issues printing in PLA, and we’ve had good results printing in ABS, with a little bit of tinkering in my slicer settings.

This brings me back to a point we made earlier; because this is a kit that has been built from scratch, you will know your way around this printer when it comes to tinkering, upgrades, and (almost inevitably) troubleshooting. Belt not tight enough? Easy – clip this cable tie, tighten the belt, put on a new cable tie. Clogged extruder? No problem – take it apart again and remove the clog.

The author’s first ever print – a low-polygon, but high-resolution fox. Design credit: slavikk

Community support

If you do decide to delve into the world of budget 3D printing with the A8, you’re absolutely not going to be on your own. This model has a huge and active community of people happy to give you advice. The reddit page for this model alone has 1800 subscribers, Facebook has a number of groups, the biggest with 5800 members actively sharing their latest prints, tips, and upgrades, as well as troubleshooting any and all issues that could crop up.

Regarding upgrades, there are literally hundreds of free designs online that you can print to improve the A8. One of our favourites was the noise-dampening feet that sit under our printer (so effective that they used to trick the author into thinking the printer wasn’t running when he was in the next room). For those who wish to dive a little deeper into the firmware, you can buy a third-party auto-levelling probe and set it up to work with this printer, along with a custom-designed mount, saving both time and resulting in the perfect first layer every print.

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a key safety issue of this printer as supplied: the heating rod for the extruder block is not securely held in place. If it falls out, it will keep heating, causing an obvious fire hazard. As bad as this sounds, it is easily fixed either by updating the firmware on the board to introduce thermal runaway protection (a feature added in a more recent edition of the firmware), or by taping the heat block into place using heat-resistant tape (you could also easily and cheaply replace the extruder block altogether).

This printer is a fantastic first 3D printer for people who like to tinker. It does have its issues out of the box, and you will be endlessly tinkering with it to try to squeeze the very best out of it. What you save in money, you’ll pay in time. If you want to print perfect prints every time with minimal input, you will be better served by a different machine. If you want to learn about 3D printing, and have something you can build and customise that produces surprisingly good results, the A8 should be on your shopping list.

The Anet Prusa A8

Anet | Around £100 anet3d.com

Verdict

A great hacker’s printer at an almost too good to be true price.

8/10

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