Previously 3D printers were commercial-grade with complex components and hefty price tags. Nowadays 3D printers can be used by hobbyists, students, and small businesses.
They are easy to use and don’t break the bank either! Wahoo!! Cool technology!
But like any new technology item, it can be a bit tricky to pick the best 3D printer among the multitudes of options available.
Don’t want to skim through the entire article?
Read this excerpt on how to choose a 3D printer in line with your use and budget.
“Factor in the degree of detail and finesse you need in your printed 3D models while picking the type of the printer and printing material. Also, make sure that the printer is compatible with free slicing software applications available online. Moreover, opt for a printer that offers relatively higher printing speed at the same price point and boasts some safety features.”
4 Things to Consider While Choosing a 3D Printer
Whether you are searching for a 3D printer online or at a roadside outlet, these are the four major things you need to consider.
1. Type of Printer
Just like a regular printer comes in dot matrix, cartridge, and laser configuration, a 3D printer also has different types. You will usually come across these four types of 3D printers: FDM, SLA, DLP, and SLS.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printer is the most popular 3D printer in the retail market. It is popular because of its low price and easy mechanism. It takes in the filament, heats it, and then extrudes it into a 3D shape along the X, Y, and Z axes. Since they are economical 3D printers with the simplest printing mechanism, you can’t expect top-class finishing in the printed objects. Horizontal layer lining and lose edge are some of the biggest issues with FDM prints.
FDM printers are available in Cartesian and Delta configurations. Cartesian FDM printers have moving printing beds. Meanwhile, Delta FDM printers have moving extruders. Users prefer Cartesian models over Delta ones because they offer better printing control and final results.
Stereolithography (SLA) printers carry out 3D printing based on photochemical reactions. Instead of filaments, they use resins as the printing material. Those resins are essentially light-reactive epoxy-based materials.
When an SLA printer exposes those resins to a certain light wavelength, their molecules start polymerizing (vat polymerization) and eventually solidifies into shape as per the 3D design fed to the printer.
Since SLA printers work at molecular levels, they offer fine 3D printing that offers attention to details. Their state-of-the-art printing mechanism also makes them expensive.
A digital Light Processing (DLP) printer is a variant of an SLA printer. It also uses vat polymerization to transform resin into flexible and rigid 3D objects. There are a couple of differences between SLA and DLP printers. First, DLP printers use a UV projector instead of a laser beam like SLA construction. Second, the light in DLP printers remains stationary and cures the entire layer of resin in one go. This is why the printing time of DLP is significantly lower than SLA printers.
A Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printer uses a layer-by-layer printing mechanism. It uses polyamide powder as the printing material. The laser in the SLS printer sinters the powder layer by layer to turn them into detailed three-dimensional objects.
Due to printing accuracy and the favorable mechanical properties of the polyamide powder, SLS printers are mostly used to print complex industrial parts.
2. Type of Printing Material
Many people just focus on printing mechanisms and techniques while choosing a 3D printer. You need to understand that making a 3D object is not just a function of the printer. The type of printing material you use also plays an important role in determining the finessing, finishing, durability, and functionality of a printed object.
Going by the discussion of the previous section, we can have three main categories of 3D printing materials.
- Filaments (FDM printers)
- Resins (SLA and DLP printers)
- Polyamide powder (SLS printer)
Since filaments and resins come in more than one quality and composition, we will break them down into their different types.
Filaments for FDM Printers
FDM is the most common 3D printer in the retail market. Therefore, its printing material boasts more choices. Among all the different FDM printing filaments, PLA, ABS, and PETG are the most suitable options.
- PLA: If you are looking for sustainable 3D printing, consider PLA filaments. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a plant-derived biodegradable plastic. It can easily erode under continuous exposure to the sun and excessive moisture. Due to its degradable nature, it is primarily suitable for 3D models you want to keep indoors and stay away from moisture and sunlight.
- ABS: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is one of the most durable plastics on the block. It is used in the manufacturing of various everyday items as well as industrial objects. ABS filaments are used to create 3D models that can withstand all sorts of outdoor conditions. Since it is a sturdy material, an FDM printer has to work at high temperatures to extrude ABS-based 3D prototypes.
- PETG: Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) is another polymer filament for FDM printing. It is a food-safe plastic and exhibits properties that lie somewhere between what PLA and ABS filaments offer.
We have a few articles specifically devoted to filiaments! If your hobby is creating miniatures for gaming or as stand-alone sculptures, this article will be valuable: 11 Best Filaments for Miniatures.
Furthermore, if you have a specific need for glow-in-the-dark printing, We reviewed 9 of the best filaments!
Resins for SLA and DLP Printers
Resins for SLA and DLP printers branch out into three categories.
- Standard Resin: A soft resin meant to be used with budget SLS and DLP printers for the modeling of DIY prototypes that doesn’t entail too much functional use.
- Top-Grade Resin: They are used when you employ SL and DLP printers for commercial and industrial 3D printing.
- Medical-Grade Resin: This type of resin is primarily used to model dentures, hearing aids, and other medical items for external use.
3. Type of Software and Firmware
Every manufacturer uses different firmware for its 3D printer. The details about the firmware are not that important as long as you take care of the other features of the printer. The software of a 3D printer, on the other hand, is an application that you use on a computer to feed the printing file (most 3D printers in the retail market work with the file type “gcode”) to the machine. This software program is also called a slicer or slicing application.
You can easily find free slicing programs online. For instance, Cura and Slic3r are two of the most popular free slicing programs available online. They are also easy to use.
Before finalizing a printer, make sure that a particular model is compatible with either of the slicing program. Ask the dealer or look at online forums to confirm what slicing programs are suitable for your 3D printer model.
4. The Cost You Are Willing to Spend
Loads of 3D printer options also mean a lot of price points. As mentioned earlier, FDM is the most popular option for hobbyists, students, and newbies. FDM’s low prices majorly contribute to their popularity. It won’t be wrong to say the FDM revolution is the major reason why 3D printers have become a retail product.
You can find FDM printers as low as $150. Even high-end FDM printers are less expensive than some basic models of other types. If you don’t have too much to splurge and don’t need to make commercial-grade products, FDM printers will easily fit your budget. The combination of FDM printers with PLA filaments is the best way to opt for budget-friendly 3D printing.
Since SLA and DLP printers are more or less the same, their price points are also not very different. You can get a basic SLA or DLP printer in the range of $500 to $600. Printing enthusiasts can find good SLA and DLPA printers in an affordable price range. The high-end resin-based 3D printers can go up to $3,000.
SLS printers are the most expensive 3D printers of all types. They are used to make complex prototypes needed in industrial settings. You will need to set aside anything between $5,000 and $10,000 to buy a decent SLS printer.
Miscellaneous Features to Factor In
Besides the four main factors discussed above, you also need to factor in these things to make a good 3D printer purchase.
People who are interested in the craft of 3D printing know that it is a time-consuming process. Even small and simple 3D artifacts might take several hours or even multiple model them. The capacity of a 3D printer is determined by its speed— the greater the speed, the better the capacity. If we compare the types of 3D printers based on their speeds, SLA/DLP printers top the list.
Those resin-based printing machines can go up to 720mm/hr. Hence, they can put together a 720mm long 3D-printed piece in one hour. It is the fastest 3D printing speed and clearly tells about how slow-paced this manufacturing process is. Regular FDM printers offer 50-150 mm/hr, but you can find some high-end models with up to 500 mm/hr printing speed.
Known for extruding fine and complex objects, SLS printers are the slowest among all. Even the fastest SLS printer doesn’t provide more than 60 mm/hr of printing speed.
You may want to upgrade your stepper motor driver at some point. The right motor will greatly improve your speed and the performance of the printer. Here’s our in-depth article on stepper motor drivers.
A 3D printer must boast a set of some necessary safety features. The most important attribute in that sense is auto-shutoff due to overheating. This feature protects your printer, the object in the making, and your property from fire hazards. Also, try to pick 3D printers that can auto-resume the printing after any sudden power breakdown. Printers that store task progress often has this auto resumption feature.
Also, pick a printer that features flexible plates on the extruder end so that you can safely remove the printed object without burning yourself.
Any printed 3D object needs a significant amount of post-processing to take its final form. In FDM printing, you may need to detach melted filament strings from the object and sand it. In SLA/DLP printing, you often need to sand the printed object to remove the excess resin and then cure it for suitable stiffness. Then, after another round of sanding, you need to proceed to assembling or painting. FDM is a better option if you don’t want to put up with extended post-processing.
We hope that the discussion above has answered your question of how to choose a 3D printer. When you know the type of printer and printing material you require for your 3D projects and how it matches your budget, you can make a better buying decision.