Is the Wanhao Duplicator the best printer on the market? Not at all. Is it a contender for best low-price printer?Definitely. If you consider it a low priced kit printer instead of a finished product then it’s possible that, in its price class, it is hands down the best out there.
For somewhere between 300 and 500 dollars, the Duplicator is a hell of a printer. Also selling under the name Cocoon and Maker Select, the printer is a thin folded sheet steel frame clone of the Prusa i3. I opened the box expecting the most flagrant cost cutting I could imagine. I figured the steel would be paper thin. The holes wouldn’t line up. I expected the connections to be improperly terminated. I expected a fire.
What I got was up and printing in under an hour. What I got was something designed by someone who cares, but with an obvious cost goal. As a bonus, it even printed pretty well. As mentioned, the basic shape of the frame is that of a Prusa i3. A horizontal bit holds the bed and y movement. A vertical bit is attached to the middle of that, making a T. It holds the X, Z, and nozzle.
The extruder and hotend is a clone of the MK10 extruder, an advancement on the stolen IP hodpodge popularized by Makerbot before Makerbot got smart and ruined everything. So far, despite warnings that it’s the first to go, the extruder has performed admirably for me with mid quality Chinese PLA filament. It’s eaten one roll and is working on another without a single jam, which is farther than the 3,000 dollar Replicator 2X got before jamming for the first time.
I am not certain whether anything but PLA is advisable out of this nozzle, but it’s been printing successfully between 200 and 220C. I would recommend, as always, not purchasing the cheapest filament one can find. Especially black filament. If longevity and print quality is your goal spend money to get better quality stuff.
The linear mechanics of the printer are good, but of a questionable parentage. This printer is really quiet. The component I questioned the most are the rods, but they seemed to be straight and precise enough, if not precision.
The linear bearings were the standard LM8UU bearings we’ve all come to know and love. All of them were pressed into solid aluminum pillow blocks and, presumably then, properly preloaded. This means that the bearings can be gently shifted lower down the list of likely suspects if you need to start chasing accuracy problems. The diameter of the rods or the odd way they’re mounted to the frame would be better culprits.
The Z axis travels on two ACME thread leadscrews and brass lead nuts. Really, the Z on this printer was pretty dang good, though I did have an eerily familiar wobbliness that lead me to believe there were alignment issues that needed to be carefully resolved if a better quality print is desired. The other option being that one of the screws is bent, but it seemed unlikely. Unfortunately my time with the printer was less than two months so I didn’t get a chance to figure it out. Also, it looked to be a huge unrewarding job. The entire Z assembly is dauntingly inaccessible when it comes to taking it apart. Though Wanhao did include all the tools to do it. If you want to service it, be prepared to disassemble it completely.
The X and Y are the standard belt arrangements we’ve come to expect. Both were of a serviceable construction. I was pretty impressed to see welded gussets for stiffening some of the brackets. They wouldn’t necessarily be required on a printer of this price point, but to me they were a clear indication that the designers of the printers cared. However, the X belt did rub against one of the pillow blocks. Many people complained about this to Wanhao. I personally noticed zero performance issues because of this. Regardless, Wanhao ended up fixing the problem in newer printers by replacing one of the pillow blocks with a snap-fit plastic piece. This is a little disappointing mechanically, but still shows a laudable responsiveness to the community.
The frame it’s all mounted in is almost entirely made of bent and painted sheet metal. Overall the bending job is well done and the parts show a good degree of finishing work. When it came time to align screw holes to their mating feature there was very little flexing of the frame needed to bring it all into final alignment. On that subject too, every tapped hole threaded perfectly. I was also impressed by the small number of screws required for each task. I still remember having to remove dozens of unnecessary screws to do even simple routine work on the Makerbot Replicator 2X.
Despite being metal, the frame does flex a bit. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s stiffer than the threaded rod and 3mm sheet steel construction of the original Prusa, but it’s certainly stiffer than anything made of wood or acrylic. There is a simple 3D printable mod for the printer available on Thingiverse though. It completes the triangle between the base and the vertical piece and dramatically stiffens the whole construction for noticeably better prints. Especially when printing fast.
The bed is an aluminum PCB with a sheet of BuildTak like material on it. This part worked flawlessly and I had zero issues with it. However, the sub plate to which the four leveling screws and springs attach was woefully thin. It was sheet of die cut sheet aluminum. It was really frustrating to level the print bed. If it required any force at all to remove the part, the bottom plate bent slightly, requiring that the whole process be redone.
If I could make one definite change to this printer, it would be focused at the bed mounting plate and leveling screws. Ideally the plate would be of a lighter and stiffer material and the screws would be replaced with auto bed leveling.
The electronics are predictably cheap, but no worse than what many of the more expensive kits are packaging. It is currently running a modified Melzi board, designed to be as cheap as possible for mass manufacture. It has a custom firmware, which considering the things that can happen if failsafes are removed, should probably be replaced with vanilla Marlin or Repetier immediately.
Even though the first iterations of the Wanhao duplicator had serious connection problems, this one was very well done. The connectors were all the inexpensive, but quality JST type. The crimps are properly done, the wires labeled. The workmanship is not bad. There were some odd things, like electrical tape for holding a connector together rather than hot glue or, the even more expensive option, buying a connector with a positive lock.
There were definitely some design compromises for purely price reasons as far as the wiring went too. The right z-motor, y-axis endstop, and x-axis motor had no loom or any kind of protection at all. Another length of cable chain or even spiral loom may have pushed the budget too far. The cable itself should last, but care should be taken not to pull it out when moving the machine.
The inside of the massive driver enclosure was nice too. There were lots of nice touches like color coded connectors, EMI shielding, and proper isolation on the AC input. The power supply is a knock-off meanwell, but they seem to do well in the community. It’s worth noting that the massive electronics box does NOT detach from the main printer. It was likely done this way so a different factory or section of their factory could do the final assembly, testing, etc. on the electronics. However, it’s very clunky and it’s very possible to break a connection if you’re not careful when moving the printer.
The more I worked with the Duplicator the more impressed I was by the company. Yes, the Duplicator is cheap. The components are cheap. The frame is cheap. It’s cheap all the way down to its bones. The company still delivers. It works. It’s quiet. It’s well-enough designed.
It is a complete printer out of the box, but I feel like when compared to the higher end complete printers it rates as low as its price in the rankings. However, if you don’t compare this printer to the complete assemblies — if you consider it a kit and don’t mind spending another two to three hundred bucks on it — it’s entirely possible to convert this printer to one that’s as good as any of the higher end printers. The community around these printers is amazing. A stronger bed, frame stiffening, auto bed leveling, a more reliable extruder, careful alignment, and a firmware upgrade is all that’s standing between this printer and it’s more expensive competitors.
On top of that, my impression of Wanhao is a good one. They don’t have the best support in the world, but if you want better support… pay more for your hardware. They do seem to listen to the complaints though as the improvements vanish in each iteration. Their newest printer got rid of the aggravating micro SD card, the strange external electronics box, and more. They are proving themselves to be quite the competitor and the premium 3D printer makers need to drastically up their game or they’ll find themselves having a hard time justifying their higher costs not to far in the future from now. We regularly see new Kickstarter campaigns that try to market themselves as the cheapest 3D printer. This one actually sidesteps the snake oil and delivers a printer that works at a price that most would consider “low”.