I have never had and never even tried to use a 3D printer based on Prusa architecture. I became interested in 3D printing because of its consumer potential (which I have not lost my faith in). Well, Makers are consumers, too, and many consumers of personal computers like to open them up and play around with them. Getting a Wanahao Duplicator i3 to test and review from Wanhao USA made me ask myself: why shouldn’t this 3D printer – priced close to the “impulse buying” range and extremely silent – be considered appealing to a target of first-adopter consumers?

Well, one of the reasons could be that, as soon as I got it and tried to assemble it, I broke it. However, as is often the case – that really seems to have been entirely my fault. It appears that I am a really tough test for 3D printers because I do not like to read instructions and, when I read them, I generally don’t understand them anyway. So I force parts together and or put them together carelessly. In this case, I ended up breaking off the little metal lever that is used to automatically set the 0 point on the Z axis.

I’m not really sure how it happened, but at one point, I found this little metal part laying on the floor and I realized I had done something wrong. The bottom line, though, is that, while the machine does not need to be fully assembled, it does comes in three separate steel parts: the Y axis cart with the plate, the steel frame of the X and Z axes with the mounted MK10 single extruder, the power supply/electronics. These need to be put together. Not a particularly difficult task, normally, however enough to consider it not exactly plug-and-play.

Connecting the wiring is easy enough, just by following the basic instructions. The same goes for starting the print. I did have some trouble figuring out exactly where the micro SD card went, but most of the difficulties were related to plate calibration, primarily because it took me sometime to figure out I had broken the lever. When I realized it, I tried to fix it with tape (to no avail). I was finally able to fix it by using a 3Doodler to extrude some molten ABS onto it to hold the little metal lever in place. Otherwise, I still could have resorted to the 1 year warranty.

Even without this little incident, the calibration process is not exactly automatic. You have to manually move the extruder in all four corners on the plate, as well as in the center and in as many other positions as you can. Then, you have to rotate the screw to tighten or loosen the four metal springs, which is not particularly easy to do. However these are minor factors. Once I had everything setup, I printed the included “OK” 3D model gCode and it came out like this: perfect.

All this speaks well to the quality of Wanhao’s other printers as well, since the Chinese-American manufacturer now offers as many as five different models, starting from the first. Finding the correct settings for a new code, on the other hand, was not as smooth. It can be easy for an experienced 3D printer user and Maker, but not for everyone. Being fully open, in spite of the heated plate, printing anything other than PLA can also be a bit of a challenge. Forget about nylon, PMMA, and other tough polymers; however, anything basic that extrudes below 250°C and can be managed with sub-70°C plate temperature can work, if you know what you are doing with the settings.

This potential printing quality for a machine priced between $399 (in the US) and €495 (in Europe), I understood, is the reason why it has been in the top two spots of 3D Hubs Trending Printers Chart during the past two months. After all, at almost the same price of a self-assembled RepRap Prusa, this is a steel body machine that has a heated bed, a hefty 200 x 200 x 180 mm print volume, excellent accuracy, and a fully open platform. Even setting up Cura is easy; all you have to do is select the Prusa i3 option. It many not sit nicely on any office desktop, as a BeeTheFirst would, but it certainly can sit nicely in a garage or on any workbench (if we are talking consumers).

Working through the firmware is a different story. Any input requires that you turn the selection wheel through all of the menus and the commands for moving the extruder and replacing the filament are not fully intuitive. Like any open platform, it offers a wide range of different settings that can be modified and, while this can help experienced users get the most out of the machine, they can also be a setback (or a crash course) for someone who is just getting into 3D printing and does not have much time to spend on the learning curve.

Of course, its ideal placement is in a FabLab and, at that price, any lab or studio can afford to have more than one, which means faster manufacturing. In fact, if you bought five of them, you’d still spend less than one similarly sized, top branded 3D printer. The fact that you pay such a little amount implies that you need to know what you are doing to use it and that you cannot always rely on it to carry out the job, if you are not sure you have set up everything properly. Be vewy vewy quiet about it, but, if you meet all these requirements, the Wanhao Prusa i3 is very likely one of the best 3D printers you can buy for that price.