3D printer sound test: Which machine is quiet enough for the office?

3D printers are usually noisy. But we found one that might be quiet enough to use in an office environment. In this article, David Gewirtz puts it to the test.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

You may not realize it until you've listened to one for 19 hours straight, but a 3D printer can be noisy. Much like the dot matrix printers of old, 3D printers have mechanisms that move, squeak, squeal, grind, and spew.

For a few minutes, the sound isn't bad. But if you had to sit next to one all day, it would be painful. Forget being able to have a clear conversation on the phone, writing a complex white paper, or doing other work that requires clarity of thought.

That's why I put my 3D printers in the garage. Other folks put them in their workshops, their spare bedrooms, or that little tiny closet at the far side of the office.

A little while ago, I got in a small, inexpensive printer called the Mod-t. After using it for a while, the one thing I noticed about it was that I didn't notice it. Whenever I went into the garage and it was printing, I didn't really hear it. That's in contrast to the MakerBot Replicator. When it gets up a full head of steam, the dog can hear it from two rooms away. The little fella howls at it with all the imperial righteousness an 8-pound puppy can muster.

There are a few aspects to the Mod-t's design that makes it quiet. First, honestly, it's a lot slower than either the LulzBot Mini or the MakerBot Replicator. Of course, at $399, it's also a lot less expensive.

The Mod-t is made of mostly plastic. While that means it could well wear out sooner, it makes a lot less noise than the more solidly built, metal-framed LulzBot and MakerBot machines. Yes, I'd prefer those two for robustness and performance, but we're talking about quiet here.

The key to the Mod-t's quiet is mostly the clear plastic fish tank that surrounds the whole thing. In my last article, I guessed that it contributed to the thermal envelope of the printing process. Bed adhesion is good with PLA on the Mod-t, even though there's no special material used to promote adhesion.

But the fish tank cover also helps to smother the noise, or at least that was my informal observation.

I decided to get a bit more formal and really test it out. So, I conducted a set of sample tests.

To make things fair, and reduce variables, I printed the same object on all three printers. I printed this hollow cube, because it wouldn't take all day and didn't have any infill.

Infill is the plastic that fills empty areas. Different slicers generate infill differently. Because each printer uses a different slicer, if I printed a design with infill, we might be inadvertently testing the slicer's performance instead of the sound produced by the printer.

I used my phone's built-in microphone. I set the phone on a tripod exactly 1 foot away from the front of each printer. I printed PLA on each printer, so we would be using the same material.

Then, I tested each one. I printed the object first on the MakerBot, then on the LulzBot, and then on the Mod-t. My test was simple: I recorded audio while printing, then compared the results.

Because I was curious about how the cover affected the noise level, I recorded the audio while the cover was on, and, while still recording, removed the cover. The sound difference was noticeable, if not extreme.

You can compare the results yourself by watching the video at the beginning of this article. There's no doubt the Mod-t is quieter. I really do think it's quiet enough to share space within an office.

Do I recommend the Mod-t over the other two? No, because it's up to you to assess your needs and desires, so you can pick the printer that's right for you. There are many reasons to buy a 3D printer. The other two printers are faster, more versatile, more robust, and have larger print areas. But if you are on a budget, have limited space, or want to be able to sit and work close to your 3D printer, the Mod-t is a very viable alternative.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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