Over the past few years, the cost of owning a 3D printer has come down sharply – we’re now at a point where an entry level 3D printer like the Wanhao Duplicator i3 v2.1 costs less than £300/$400 (mostly assembled and ready to go). Not so long ago, this would have only managed to buy a DIY kit with less than spectacular results. We purchased this printer a couple of months ago and have thoroughly tested it with different filament types and weeks of printing time... the results have been surprising, especially after some extensive modifications. Read on to find out what we thought.
Once you've got it allset-up, it looks like this... before modding.
- Extruder: MK10 Single Extruder
- Filament Size: 1.75mm
- Top Hot-end Temperature: 260°C (Short-term), 240°C (Long-term)
- Layer Capability: 0.1mm (100 microns)
- Build Envelope: 200mm x 200mm x 180mm (8in. x 8in. x 7in.)
- Build Surface: Heated Bed Plate and Wanhao Adhesive Sheet
- Filament Capabilities: PLA, ABS, PVA, Stainless Steel, NinjaFlex, Nylon, HIPS, Woodfill, LayBrick, CopperFILL, BronzeFILL, MOLDLAY, Conductive, Carbon Fiber, Polyurethane plus more.
- File Type: Gcode
- File Transfer: microSD Card & USB
The specifications of the Wanhao i3 include everything that you’d hope for in a cost effective 3D printer, but don’t always see in similar priced products. The heated bed and print volume are a huge bonus for a printer in this price range. It uses standard Gcode files for printing, so almost any 3D printer software will be able to slice models for this printer (Cura and Simplify 3D being the most common).
Although it can print in many different formats, PLA will often be the filament of choice – it’s easy to print with, prints at modest temperatures and doesn’t cause fumes. ABS and some of the other specialist filaments are technically possible to print, but it would be preferable to have an enclosed printer to avoid curling and fume problems. We had good experiences with PETG as an ABS alternative, but more on that later.
The Wanhao i3 includes everything you need to get started; it takes just a few screws to assemble the vertical tower axis to the base, then all you need to do is connect the cables to the stepper motors. That’s it! Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to begin the printing process – it only takes minutes to get started. Wanhao include a short reel of filament and a pre-loaded SD card, which means you can begin printing almost immediately.
There are two distinct parts to the printer – the print assembly and the control box/PSU. These are connected via a short bundle of cables, so there is a bit of flexibility on how you place them:
Rear of the printer, showing some of the cabling
The package includes all of the tools you need to assemble and maintain the printer (a set of hex keys), a scraper, hook and nozzle clearing bits. There is even a short length of PTFE included, in case you have a blockage in the MK10 extruder. Even after using this printer for many months, we haven’t needed to buy any other tools to maintain the printer (although at some point you may need to buy a replacement fine drill bit to clear blockages, as it’ll be easy to snap).
Before printing, you’ll need to calibrate the printer so that the bed is level and the print nozzle is the correct distance away from the print surface (about the height 80gsm paper). There are instructions included on how to do this, but Wanhao have videos on YouTube which show the process in an easy to understand way. It only takes a couple of minutes to do and after the initial setup you may only need to tweak it gently on subsequent prints (unless you make modifications or move it around).
We are reviewing the v2.1 Wanhao Duplicator i3, which is the latest version and includes several improvements over the previous designs. One of the tweaks is thumbscrews on the levelling bed, which makes it very easy to calibrate. Make sure you buy the latest model if you decide to purchase this printer, as the improvements are very worthwhile.
Once the printer has been assembled and the initial calibration is complete, the printer is ready to go. The print surface has been designed so that prints will adhere to it when it is hot, but will remove cleanly when cool. This does work reasonably well and we used this for our some of our prints, however we purchased a glass bed upgrade with the printer (at a minimal cost), as this has been a strongly recommended by fellow 3D printer users.
Within around half an hour of unboxing the printer, we started printing the sample “ok hand” gcode file that came pre-loaded on an SD card. Here’s a brief video of the very first print, showing some of the hand detail:
The demo print was extremely impressive, given the lack of optimisation (more on this later) and the low cost of the printer. Here are some more shots showing the detail of the print:
Front and Back of the demo "ok hand" print (53mm high).
After this print completed, we printed a “Benchy” – a very popular model of a boat which is used to stress the printer (lots of overhangs and interesting shapes). It makes a very good benchmark from which to compare settings and other printers. Here are results when we printed this in Cura, using the default settings for this printer (there are 3 profiles included in Cura for the Wanhao Duplicator i3, as it’s quite a popular model):
The model shape is fine and there are no glaring problems with the print, however there are some slight dips in the arch overhang (where the PLA is extruded and has nothing to “sit” on – it has to cool down quickly enough to hold the shape and support itself). There are also some echoes in the print, particularly near the door frame and porthole– this is likely due to vibration somewhere in the printer (which we will address later). The photo amplifies these problems, as the model is only 60mm in real life, and these aberrations are more difficult to see.
Modifications and Improvements
One of the big attractions with this printer is that there is a very active community, from which there are many improvements and suggestions. Thingiverse.com is a fantastic resource for models and information; all of the modifications we have installed are based there. There is also an excellent wiki for this printer, which has tutorials for many of the modifications we made (http://3dprinterwiki.info/wiki/wanhao-duplicator-i3/). Take particular care to align all of the axis and tweak the jerk/acceleration settings using this guide.
As you will have noticed in the “Benchy” model, there were some vibrations ringing through the print – the modifications we have made aim to tackle these. The Z axis could be stabilised significantly using braces (as even a tiny movement will cause ringing) and the X and Y axis belts can be manually tightened and fixed to reduce wobble in the stock fitted springs. Thankfully, the community has designed and uploaded free models to Thingiverse to do just that! We printed almost all of these modifications (a self-improving printer) and only needed to buy a few additional parts (most notably 2 x threaded rods, radial fan and some PTFE tube). The cost of improving this printer is primarily filament and time.
Here are the modifications we made:
- Z-Axis Stability Braces: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:921948
- X-Axis Belt Tensioner: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1206926
- Y-Axis Belt Tensioner: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1480089
- PTFE Filament Guide: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1775491
- DiiiCooler Fan: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1025471
- Raspberry Pi + Camera Case (for Octoprint Server): http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1394500
Fully Modded Wanhao Duplicator i3
The PTFE Filament guide is designed to reduce any problems with filament entanglement, but it also means that you can reliably mount the filament spool somewhere other than the top of the printer (we used the control box) and this greatly reduces the effect of ringing (as there is less momentum during movement). It isn’t a necessary modification, but we found it quite effective.
The DiiiCooler fan is highly recommended once you have made the additional stability modifications, as it will improve the cooling speed of filament. If you are printing a model with lots of overhangs, or perhaps using ABS, this will improve the print quality significantly. As this is located near to the hot-end, we used PETG filament to print this component – it withstands higher temperatures than PLA, so should resist warping in this environment. PETG printing was a little trickier to configure, so it took 3 attempts to get a fully successful print without stringing. However, once it was calibrated it prints perfectly.
After making all of these modifications, we re-ran the “Benchy” test and came out with the following model:
Benchy print after stability modifications
The overhangs are significantly improved and the ringing is reduced. Given that the modifications were so easy to make and were cheap to buy parts for, it is highly recommended to improve your printer this way if you feel confident to do so. Given the price of the printer, the quality is fantastic.
We tested the printer with these new modifications on the most detailed benchmark we could find (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1363023). This measures warp, spikes, holes, rafts, overhangs and extrusion widths all in one model – it is a very good way to see how a 3D printer compares with other models and where it needs improvement. If you view the gallery of “made” models on the link above, you will see that this very budget friendly printer produces excellent results:
Full Benchmark Test Model
Closeups of Benchmark Test Model
There are no failures of the test in the model, it handles it extremely well – to the point that this performs far better than expected. The only minor snag was some stringing on the extreme overhangs (seen to the right side of the central closeup), but these would clean up in a few seconds (they were left in to demonstrate the issue). When compared to much more expensive models, the Wanhao Duplicator i3 really holds its own, as long as you are willing to spend time calibrating and modifying the printer to its full potential. This is the overwhelming feature of this printer – there is a lot of potential to punch above its weight, given a little time and effort.
We also tried printing an octopus with movable tentacles, which consisted of printing around 65 pieces in a single go and then a small amount of assemble to snap them all together. This was a relatively simple print compared to the stress test and came out well:
As with all the prints we have made have come out with similar quality, as long as we haven't made any mistakes in the slicer application. We found that we needed to adjust the print temperature when switching brands of PLA filament, but this is to be expected with any printer. We've now got a selection of profiles in our slicer, depending on which filament we use, so that we always get good results. There are many tutorials which explain what to do if your printer over-extrudes, has poor layer adhesion, etc... it normally relates to settings you can change in your slicer app.
Since getting the Wanhao Duplicator i3, we have been surprised at the results we were able to achieve, especially once the extended calibration and modifications were made. We have since compared prints to a Zortrax M200, a very good printer that costs 5x as much – the difference in print quality is very comparable. Of course, there are many other big differences (for example, the M200 will auto calibrate, it is enclosed and there are many other features that make it far more suitable for a higher volume printer)… but if you are a home user wanting high quality prints and are happy spending time to get them, this is a great 3D printer.
Not only is the price of owning a 3D printer at a reasonable level, but there are now plenty of resources to support the running of one. For example, designing your own models can be done in your browser using https://www.tinkercad.com/ - we have used this to design useful things for around the home (including a tool stand for the printer):
This printer is highly recommended, especially if you are willing to put effort in to refining your prints with the modifications listed above. What started off largely as an impulse purchase has ended up being an incredibly useful tool and no end of fun. The printer is frequently used with “Octoprint” a remote print server for a Raspberry Pi, so if you like a project, there are endless things you can do.