The controller board is responsible for the electronic functioning of a 3D printer. Without a controller board, a 3D printer wouldn’t really be able to do anything except turn certain components on and off at the manual flick of a switch.
3D printer controller boards handle all the logic, such as parsing g-code files, regulating temperature, and moving motors. The last action is particularly computationally and electrically substantial since we’re talking about stepper motors.
What started as a landscape of bare-bones boards, aiming simply to get the job done, has turned into a packed marketplace of technological beauty. Boards have not only become more powerful but also more diverse, offering new features that have moved the 3D printing industry forward as a whole.
Since so many brands and models of controllers now exist, we can’t possibly cover all the options. What we’ve provided is a small mix. Some were the first to offer something neat, or were the first to do it right. And while options do exist that are very similar to others, here we mention only the sources of those derived models.
Kicking off the list is a veteran showstopper: the Smoothieboard. First of all, it’s a 32-bit board — compared to something like the RAMPS or RAMBo, which are 8-bit boards. But the power gains don’t stop there because this 3D printer controller board boasts a 120-MHz processor, which is leaps ahead of the older ATMega chips that only clock 8 MHz.
Another major thing this board did right was firmware. When the Smoothieboard was initially developed, Marlin and Repetier couldn’t run on 32-bit boards. So on top of making the hardware, the company also had to write a brand new firmware for it. Thus, Smoothieware was born. Since then, many 32-bit derivates of the Smoothieboard conveniently make use of Smoothieware, which is as capable as Marlin or Repetier but easier to configure.
In daily use, you’ll also enjoy the Ethernet port, Allegro stepper drivers (meaning more current output), and excellent thermal performance. There are even breakouts for the stepper drivers in case you want to hook up beefier ones as part of a CNC rig, which the Smoothieboard is also designed for. All this and more can be yours for $180. That’s a bit steep for a board with so many other lower-priced competitors, but at least you’re supporting the development and maintenance of the firmware that makes most of these 32-bit controllers even possible.
All controller boards are capable of microstepping, the firmware process that splits up the smallest movements of stepper motors into even finer movements. Naturally, the result is more accurate printing.
But while most boards can handle 1/16th microstepping, the Azteeg X5 can hit 1/128th microstepping without even breaking a sweat. Another bonus for performance addicts? Bigfoot drivers: twice the size of regular drivers and capable of handling more demanding applications.
Overall, this controller board is functionally similar to the Smoothieboard because, well, it’s based on the Smoothieboard. It also sports a 32-bit 120-MHz ARM chip, and the firmware configuration experience will be almost identical. (Yep, it also runs Smoothieware.)
One unique improvement added to the process of evolving from the Smoothieboard is built-in WiFi, which could save some hassle if you’re planning to run something like OctoPrint. Another advantage of this 3D printer controller board is the cost savings. That is, if you can find your own endstops, thermistors, and LCD screen, then you’ll be happily 1/128th microstepping for just $113.
By now, you’re probably beginning to see a pattern with the controller boards in this list: 32-bit ARM chip, great drivers, connectivity options, etc. What can possibly get better? Well, how about 1/256th microstepping?
If you truly want to ensure that those 3DBenchys come out flawless, this just might be the board for you. True, many other factors influence print quality, but the Duet WiFi has those covered just as thoroughly. Drivers are sound and connectivity is standard, and there’s nothing to complain about.
Yet, the main reason this board makes the list is its unique RepRapFirmware. This firmware supports an impressive array of movement systems, including the Hangprinter and multiple independent axes from the likes of the BCN3D Sigma. Depending on the mechanics of the machine you want to power, this could be the only controller board that’ll fulfill your demands.
Finally, built-in WiFi (as the name suggests) makes setting up OctoPrint a breeze. In fact, there is no setup because a print server is built in. (Finally!) And only $169 stands between you and buttery-smooth, wireless 3D printing.
Remember the Beaglebone and Replicape combination? Quite a killer solution for 3D printer brains, but that was years ago. Now, the creators of the Replicape are coming out with an all-in-one option to retire the duo: the Revolve (“Replicape Evolved”). For those familiar with the original Beaglebone and Replicape stack, the Revolve is essentially a mashed-together version with some significant improvements.
For the uninitiated, the gist is that the Revolve will be a pretty solid performer when it’s released. That’s mainly thanks to the stunning central hardware, which happens to be a whopping 1-GHz processor, more than 8x faster than the standard 32-bit chips we’re used to! Such power enables the Revolve to run a fully-fledged version of Linux on-board.
Another reason this controller might be successful is its easy integration with LCD screens, specifically the Manga Screen. This multitouch, full-color plug-and-play display integrates seamlessly with the Revolve, which is only right since they’re both made by the same company.
In an interview at Midwest RepRap Festival 2018, a stakeholder divulged that they are trying to bring down the cost of the Revolve to around $110, which is why it’s not available for purchase yet, even in early 2019. If they succeed, though we’ll be making some really interesting machines with this 3D printer controller board. Anyone up for a multi-process fabricator that can CNC while 3D printing?
Okay, so controller boards can get pretty extreme, as we’ve already seen. But what if you just need a good old-fashioned 8-bit board? If that’s the case, you should take a look at the Azteeg X3 Pro. Why? High current capabilities, dual heatbed MOSFETs, and compatibility with Marlin, Repetier, and other firmware designed for the older 8-bit boards. Plus, the X3 Pro supports up to five extruders, just in case you need either extruder redundancy, multiple colors and materials, or both at the same time.
To be honest, an 8-bit 3D printer controller board for $135, which is even pricier than some 32-bit controllers, doesn’t make much sense for most people. We’re just mentioning it to recognize a noteworthy option in the 8-bit category. This will be one of few options if you really need to bring something with five extruders to the next Maker Faire.
A word of warning: 32-bit boards are becoming more affordable and more common, which means that in the near future, development in the 8-bit realm could stagnate. For that reason, we would recommend picking up a 32-bit option on this list that is both more powerful and affordable, unless you have a very specific reason not to.
License: The text of "5 Fantastic 3D Printer Controller Boards in 2019" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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