3D Printer is a machine small enough to sit on your work table yet powerful enough to manufacture an entire product. They have evolved considerably from being an expensive and risky setup to a competent and reliable device in the last few years. Now 3D printers are more affordable and easily available than ever before.
Their affordability is due to the several different types being easily available. 3D printers are classified based on their features, process material, size, and manufacturing capabilities. As this versatility makes them affordable, this also makes it difficult for the beginner to select the best 3D printer.
This 3D printer buying guide involves all those important factors that must be considered when buying your first 3D printer.
Define your 3D printer application
The first thing to do before selection is to define the use of the 3D printer. How you plan to use your printer defines the direction for the further selection process. You need to define
- What will you 3D print?
- What are 3D printing materials involved?
- What material strength are you expecting?
- What is 3d printing quality (dimensional accuracy & surface finish) acceptable?
If you are buying for hobby use (printing small decoration pieces for home, office, or as a gift), then a tiny-size budget filament 3d printer will be sufficient. If you plan to buy a few 3D printers for small-scale manufacturing setup (to manufacture small broken machine parts or update old machines with newly designed parts), you need a medium size high-end filament 3D printer or resin 3D printer. Planning to set up a complete 3D printing industry, you need industrial-level power-based 3D printers.
Selecting the type of 3D printer
Based on the material they can process, there are three basic types of 3D printers, Solid, liquid, and power-based 3D printers. Power-based printers are industrial grade only and are not available for domestic or personal use.
Solid material-based 3D printer (FDM Printer)
They are known by two different names: filament 3D printer and FDM 3D printer. The name filament 3D printer is because they use the material in its solid state that is in the shape of a filament. In this engineering field, their working process is called Fused Deposition modeling, so they are also known as FDM printers.
They can process a variety of materials, mostly plastic, but recently metal infused filaments are also being processed. They can process
- PLA (Polylactic acid)
- ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
- PETG (polyethylene terephthalate glycol)
- TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane)
- PVA (polyvinyl alcohol)
- HIPS (high impact polystyrene)
- Composites (carbon fiber, kevlar, fiberglass)
- Metal infused filaments
Among these, PLA, ABS, and TPU are mostly used. PLA is the easiest to print, gives a good surface finish but offers very little strength, and is not recommended for high-temperature or moisture-related applications. ABS fills all gaps left by PLA and TPU, giving a flexible final product.
FDM printers are further divided into two types
Cartesian type FDM printer
In this type, the table of the printer moves in forward and backward directions while the head or hot end moves left to right and in the upward direction. It’s the most used type of FDM printer. They are cheap, faster, and easily available.
Delta type FDM printer
In this type, the head or hot end of the printer has all movements. Each movement is controlled by a separate electric motor. They are not so common and are a bit slower.
FDM printers can give a decent print quality at very reasonable equipment and running cost, but the final product dimensional accuracy and surface finish are not the best as compared to other 3D printer types.
Liquid material-based 3D printer (Resin Printer)
These 3D printers use chemical resin as a raw material for 3D printing, so that is why they are also called resin 3d printers. They are also called Stereolithography (SLA) printers as they use photo solidification (a chemical treatment process) processing to produce successive thin layers of material. An ultraviolet laser is used to harden the resin into thin layers.
A resin 3D printer can produce a 3d print of exceptional quality in terms of dimensions and surface finish. Their final product has the same dimensions as the 3d CAD model. These printers are available for beginners to a professional level and are a bit costly as compared to FDM printers. They need a post-process of their 3d print called curing to get the high strength and toughness.
These printers have a dedicated resin for each application. They have a standard resin for all types of basic 3d printing, clear resin for transparent product printing, tough resin, flexible resin, ceramic resin, rigid resin for all types of stress-bearing or engineered products, and high-temperature resin for high-temperature related products. Similarly, they have a dedicated resin for the dental industry 3D printing.
Evaluating a 3D printer
Once you have defined the application for your 3d printer and know what to print, which materials will be involved, and what print quality will be needed, you need to select a particular type of printer, either an FDM printer or resin printer, for your application. Based on the application, you might be working with several materials, and your printer needs to process them all without any external aid or attachment.
Even after shortlisting the type and material range for your first 3d printer, you may need to work a bit on different features of the 3d printer to select the best available option.
This is how small a printer can print. The smaller, the better is the rule here for FDM printers, and it is measured in microns. Most small-scale FDM printers can give a resolution of 100 microns with their 0.4 mm nozzle and filament diameter of 1.75 mm. Resin printers can deliver a resolution of 10 microns on their z-axis for a minimum of 20 microns and a maximum of 40 microns for the x and y-axis.
This is how large a printer can print in a single run. Most resin printers have a very limited print volume as compared to FDM printers. Most FDM and resin printers have a print volume under 220 mm, but large FDM printers with a build volume of 300 to 450 mm are now available.
This shows how fast a printer can print. Most large prints usually take multiple hours to complete. It usually does matter much as all printers are slower, but still, a printer with greater print speed can save significant print time.
Structure and electronic hardware
How robust and sturdy the design, structure, and electronic hardware of a particular printer will define the printer’s ability to deliver consistent quality prints. This also defines the useful life and how much you can depend on your printer for quality prints. Motherboard, stepper motors, control panel, power supply, bed, and structure are included in this.
Summary of the Best 3D Printer Buying Guide 2022-23
As there is a variety of 3d printers available in the market, selecting the best 3D printer as your first printer becomes a little difficult for beginners. Based on the application or use of the printer, type of 3d printer, 3D printing material needed, and the accuracy or quality of 3d print needed, one can shortlist some eligible 3D printers for their use. The printer will be evaluated on specific performance criteria to select the best 3D printer.