While they haven’t exactly become mainstream, 3D printers that can print in ABS plastic (which is what LEGO is made of) are a technology of which fans of LEGO and plastic building systems in general should be aware. Of course, you can still use their PLA-printing cousins (some printers can even switch), but the fact that the same plastic used for LEGO is common for 3D printing simply proves a point about the viability of the technology for home-grown LEGO.
LEGO fans are starting to realize that a 3D printer can be pretty handy when you lose that one piece from an old set you’ll never buy again or when you want to create bricks that LEGO itself has never conceived. When you have a 3D printer, it’s like having a small plastic object factory on your desk. Just feed it the plans for something and it will dutifully spit it out for you as a real, tangible product.
In the early days, only the most technical people would even think of working with a 3D printer, but modern systems are almost at the point where they are as easy to use as a paper printer. Certainly, if you can build with LEGO, read a manual, and have basic computer skills, a modern 3D printer should be a breeze to use.
Where to Get Models
In order for a 3D printer to print anything, it needs models of things. These models usually come in the form of a file that you’ll find in places like Thingiverse. If you own a fancy 3D printer with a laser scanner, you can even duplicate original bricks you own. The last method is to model your own bricks and parts from scratch in a 3D-modelling application and then test them in the real word by printing them out. Who knows? Your next design could be a viral hit that makes you internet-famous.
What Sort of Printer Do You Need?
I already mentioned that some printers print in the same type of plastic as LEGO, but we don’t have to limit ourselves to that plastic type. For our purposes, either ABS or PLA (the two most common filament types) would work in order to create homemade LEGO.
No, I think that if you are getting a 3D printer specifically in order to make LEGO stuff, you should focus on the affordable end of the market. Why? Mainly because the cheaper 3D printers have smaller build volumes. LEGO pieces are very small, so even the smallest 3D printer can make a whole bunch of them in one go. So as long as the quality of the print is up to scratch, a small volume shouldn’t matter.
What I Looked For
Based on that assumption, I looked for five printers that were affordable desktop units with small build volumes. I did not limit myself to ABS printers, since I reckon that it doesn’t make all that much difference. If a printed brick does not stand up to repeated use you can simply print another.
So here are my picks for small, attractive, and, above all, affordable 3D printers you can use to start up your own little LEGO factory.
Monoprice Select Mini 3D Printer
While the Monoprice Select is not the cheapest mini 3D printer I could find, it is the cheapest one that I’d seriously consider spending my own money on. While it looks very bland and industrial, it doesn’t look wonky or badly-made. I’d be totally OK with this standing in full sight of people visiting my home or office.
While most commercial 3D printers have an enclosed build space, Monoprice has chosen to go with an open design. This comes with both advantages and disadvantages. I like open printers like this because they take up less space. On the other hand, your in-process build isn’t protected in any way at all. So if the cat or an errant child gets in the way of things, you’ll have to start all over again.
I’ve also found that open printers like this can have issues with temperature fluctuations in the room, especially if someone opens a door and lets a cold breeze in. Still, money saved on the enclosure goes towards the printer itself, and what Monoprice offers here is good value for the money.
You can get the printer in black or white, although I prefer black since it doesn’t look dirty as quickly. This printer has a heated bed and will print with both ABS and PLA. Not only that, it can print with next-generation materials such as conductive PLA, dissolvable PLA, and special wood and metal composite filaments. Not bad for an entry-level mini printer.
You don’t even have to hook it up to a computer, although you can. Instead, you can print model files straight from a microSD card.
Looking at user submissions of their prints I have to say that the end results look pretty great. This is clearly a printer that punches above its weight when it comes to print quality.
ColiDo DIY Printer
The ColiDo is a printer that harkens back to the days of the first Makerbot and RepRap printers. You didn’t buy a complete printer, but received a box of parts that you then had to assemble into a working printer. Invariably, these looked pretty rough, as if they’d been made in someone’s garage – which was an accurate assessment, given that this is where most were made.
The whole point of this “DIY” printer is to put it together yourself, and that’s one of the reasons it comes in at just under $200. Let’s be honest, though, this doesn’t cost that much less than the Monoprice; if the idea of having to substantially build your printer doesn’t sound appealing then you’re better off buying something that’s ready to go out of the box.
The reason I included this printer on the list at all is because there are many LEGO fans who would absolutely love the chance to build a printer like this. I had to build my own first 3D printer and I learned a lot about how the technology actually works; far more than playing around with a pre-built system would have.
It almost looks like it’s actually built from LEGO in that bright yellow hue, so as a total package I’m sure there’s a subset of people in the AFOL community that will appreciate this. After all, there are people who have built their own 3D printers from LEGO Mindstorms, so there’s overlap somewhere.
Of all the mini printers here this one is probably the least mini, but it competes in price. They also claim a very precise build quality at 0.1 mm resolution – more than enough to make some LEGO. It may not be the most elegant and polished product here, but according to the people who have actually bought one, it works very well indeed, especially when it comes to the quality of the actual prints.
As sometimes happens with products like these, quality issues can arise. Why? Simple. Since the printer is not fully assembled before being boxed up, there is no way to test it. It’s still unlikely that yours in particular will have a problem, but I expect the rate to be higher than usual for this reason. Nonetheless, this printer looks funky and does a great job. So, however, do other printers in this price class. The real question of whether this is the printer for you hinges on how much the idea of building it yourself appeals to you.
Instone Desktop MINI 3D Printer
I actually follow 3D printer technology fairly closely, but I’ve never heard of Instone before. This printer caught my eye because it was marked for less than $200, although the regular price is closer to $270. I don’t see a history of the price really going much higher than that, so I consider it “affordable” in 3D printer terms.
It’s a good-looking little machine, although I’m not usually a fan of that shade of blue. The design of the Instone is very similar to the first 3D printer I ever bought, with it’s overhead feet and rear-mounted filament roll. But it’s more refined and looks to have components in place to deal with some of the many issues I had with that early machine – a machine, I have to remind you, that only four years ago cost me a cool $1000 to buy!
The Instone has a self-leveling system (faulty leveling is another pet peeve of mine) and a simple, single-knob control system. As with most other modern 3D printers, you don’t actually have to hook this up to a computer, but can simply use a card reader, although in this case it’s TF instead of SD, which may be inconvenient. This printer can also be quite fast, if you’re willing to take more risk of a print failing or of the quality being a little rough. It tops out at 80mm per second, which is good for this price class.
XYZprinting da Vinci miniMaker 3D
I’ve been a fan of XYZprinting for quite some time, having had the chance to attend a private demo the company did in my home city. There was a whole range of affordable printers that had much better specifications than what I’d seen for the price before. I was especially impressed by their AIO, or “all in one”, system that has a built-in 3D scanner. This MiniMaker has no such feature, but I have found XYZ to be a creative designer of 3D printers.
So what about the MiniMaker? The colors on offer here are very loud. You can choose between a rather adult orange color and a more child-friendly blend of red, green, blue, and yellow. The second choice is obviously meant to appeal to classroom users, but I think if you want to theme your LEGO build-space in a traditional way, those colors would actually work pretty well.
One of the best features of the MiniMaker is that it can connect to your computer wirelessly. By using WiFi you can do all the designing and prep work on your laptop or PC and then beam it straight to the printer.
I think of the five printers I have highlighted here, this is probably the one that’s the most user-friendly and easy to run. The MiniMaker is, however, limited to only using XYZ filament made from their own special PLA blend. There’s actually a system inside the filament that prevents the printer from working with third-party material. So if you want to use cheap third-party material, you can’t use this printer.
There are some advantages to this, however. For one thing, usage is tracked precisely and you’ll know when the machine will run out. Secondly, sticking to the material blend that this printer was designed for helps prevents common issues such as nozzle jams and prints not sticking to the bed properly.
If you can stomach the premium price for the filament, this is a great little printer to get you started.
New Matter MOD-t Desktop 3D Printer
All of the printers I listed here are pretty much competent, but they share one thing that I’m not a fan of – clunky looks.
Some, like the the XYZ, are not too bad. It looks a bit cheap, but not exactly elegant or futuristic. Others, like the DIY model, really aren’t nice looking at all.
This printer from New Matter, on the other hand, could have rolled off the assembly line at Foxconn, where they make all those nice Apple products. I just love the transparent enclosure. I’ve honestly never seen a printer this nice in terms of its design or aesthetics. This is the sort of thing I had in mind when thinking of things that are “futuristic” – you’d expect to see it in a sci-fi movie lab.
It is the most expensive printer in this group, but it’s still in the lower range for this type of technology. This printer is WiFi-enabled, so you don’t need unsightly cables and can make sure the system looks its best. This is also one of the most precise printers I’ve seen in this price class. New Matter claims that it can work in layers as fine as 50 microns! On top of this, the company also offers extensive support, which is why I suspect the price is a little higher than that of the competition.
There is also the matter simplicity. While the XYZ is certainly simple to use, New Matter says that from the point where you take their printer out of the box to where you’re making stuff, it takes no more than 20 minutes.
This printer represents a new class of product in the 3D printer space, I think. It’s straddles the line between cheap and cheerful printers and those premium printers only hardcore fans would buy. If your budget can stretch to the MOD-t, it would be my choice.
Print the Future
I wrote another piece on this site about how 3D printing technology could have a profound effect on both LEGO’s business model and how we as LEGO fans think about our hobby and what the value proposition of LEGO actually is. The prices of these printers are finally low enough that you could buy one with the sort of budget reserved for some of the more expensive LEGO sets, and certainly for less than the cost of a decent smartphone. This means that although 3D printers are not yet of mainstream concern to regular Joes out there, they are now something that LEGO fans should note.