In one of the most astounding examples of a sci-fi technology becoming part of real life, 3D printing has made a huge impact on the modern world. For everything from prototyping to manufacture, the uses of 3D printing are broad-ranging and world-changing.
There are 3D-printed artworks, toys, airplane parts and even prosthetic limbs. It’s an area that’s seeing huge growth and the applications are endless.
If you’re getting into 3D printing, there’s an obvious question that you’ll be asking yourself. You need a printer, and there’s a lot of them out there. How do you choose the 3D printer that’s best for you?
That’s what this guide is here to help you with! It’s going to step you through the things you need to think about when buying a 3D printer so that you can make the best choice for your needs.
There are two main types of 3D printer that dominate the desktop 3D printing market. These are stereolithography (SLA) and filament deposition method/fused filament fabrication (FDM/FFF) printers, and they both work in very different ways.
SLA printers print using a liquid resin which hardens when it is exposed to ultraviolet light. It’s a faster method than FDM/FFF printers, and prints very thin layers of around 50 microns, but the resulting printed item needs to be cured and trimmed after fabrication.
FDM/FFF printers use a plastic filament that is passed through a heated nozzle. This method can’t print as quickly or in such thin layers, with the generally accepted smallest resolution being 0.1mm. The pluses of FDM/FFF are that that is an acceptable layer thickness for most applications, and that it’s cheaper to buy and operate than an SLA printer.
What’s Your Reason for Printing?
Given that an SLA printer is capable of extremely smooth surface finishes and tiny details, it’s perfect for intricate items such as jewellery or other tiny things. You won’t get the fineness of finish that you may be looking for here with an FDM/FFF printer.
However, if you’re looking at larger fabrications that don’t need such smooth finishes, FDM/FFF printers are great. They can print in a huge range of sizes, but a good median point is around the 220 cubic centimeter range for the print area of an FDM/FFF printer.
Plug and Play Vs Nuts and Bolts
Do you like to get your hands into every aspect of your process, or do you like your tools to function without much input from you?
This is going to help you pare down part of your choice process. You can get 3D printers in kit form or ready-assembled. With the kit, you have to construct it yourself. They don’t take much in the way of building, and can be a fun part of the 3D printing process, but you can also buy 3D printers built and ready to print straight out of the box.
Outside of the need to build it yourself, the major difference here is price. Kit printers are cheaper, because you’re investing your time in the build. If you want plug-and-play, you will need to spend a little more.
In general, SLA printers are closer to being ready to go out of the box due to the fact that they contain fewer moving parts than FDM/FFF printers, which still require some setting up on your part.
Keeping Your Printer Running
Following on from this, you might want to take maintenance into consideration. Both types of 3D printer require ongoing maintenance. Parts will need to be cleaned and replaced. You will also need to buy supplies of the print medium itself. There’s no avoiding this, it’s simply part of owning a 3D printer!
You can assist yourself in understanding the maintenance process if you buy a kit printer, because you’ll have built it from the ground up and so have a working knowledge of how it all comes together.
However, it’s not particularly hard to learn to maintain an out-of-the-box printer either, so don’t let that push you into buying a kit if you don’t want to build it yourself.
FDM/FFF printers have more moving parts than SLA printers, and consequently more points of failure that will require routine maintenance. Only the Z axis of an SLA printer moves, rather than the multiple-axis movement on an FDM/FFF printer, so you immediately eliminate one source of potential maintenance woes.
The specifics of what you will need to replace and when really depend on the printer itself. There’s no timeline for failure of any particular part, but you can assume that any part of the printer which is used in the process of fabrication will eventually fail. This is where SLA printers have a slight edge, because there are fewer parts that will need replacement over time.
The SLA resin is more expensive than the filament that feeds an FDM/FFF printer, but not by much. It is more consistent in price though, as FDM/FFF filaments vary in cost depending on what their composition is.
Which filament you choose will depend upon what you are printing, with different plastics offering characteristics that are more or less suitable for different types of fabrication. There is a tenfold difference between the cheapest and most expensive types of filament, so when you are thinking about your long-run project costs this is important to bear in mind.
Once You Have Printed Your Item
It’s not just the print process. The two different types of printing method require different post-processing approaches too.
As mentioned previously, with SLA printing there is the additional step of curing the printed item. This means that while SLA printing takes less time than FDM/FFF, you can’t use your fabricated item straight off the build plate.
FDM/FFF prints may only require a little light trimming before any finishing touches are applied, so in that regard it is more of a one-and-done sort of process. Once again, this is something to consider in your project planning at the outset that you should feed into your decision-making process.
There are so many possibilities with 3D printing, and so much you can do on a really quite manageable budget.
The most important thing, as with any project, is that you accurately set your project goals and constraints before buying any equipment, because while a 3D printer doesn’t have to be super-expensive, getting the wrong one will cost you in time and money.
With the information from this guide you should be able to choose the best 3D printer for you. Happy fabricating!