One of the most commonly asked questions we hear in the 3D printing world is “which printer should I get?”. This guide will give you some of the top things to keep in mind when deciding on a 3D printer. We’ll go through details like resolution, material capability, and cost so you can find the machine that’s right for you.
3 Things To Consider When Deciding Which 3D Printer to Buy
We should start by addressing what resolution means in 3D printing. We’ll give a brief overview but if you want to dig deep, Formlabs did a great 3 part series on the topic.
The resolution most people are familiar with is Z resolution. This is the thickness of each layer deposited by a printer. Some printers can create layers as thin as 20 microns. It’s worth noting that 20 micron layers take 10 times longer to print than a more standard resolution like 200 microns. We find that for very high resolution models, 100 microns is a good middle ground that creates almost invisible layers.
You should also take feature resolution into account when choosing a printer. This is the minimum size that a given machine can print and the intricacy of details that it can resolve. Most FDM printers have approximately the same feature resolution which can be improved by using smaller diameter nozzles in some cases.
Feature resolution varies much more between different technologies. SLA printers can generally create much more intricate details than FDM machines. SLS machines fall in between the two. For a breakdown on the 4 main 3D printing technologies, check out this blog post.
There are an increasingly large number of materials available for FDM printers that require different machine specifications to use. One of the most important specifications is maximum nozzle temperature. Printers that can only heat to 230C will be constrained to a few materials like PLA. Printers that go to 250C can venture towards higher strength materials like ABS and PETG. Printers that heat to 300C can use the highest strength materials like polycarbonate.
Materials that require hotter nozzle temperatures also usually require a heated bed. ABS and polycarbonate for instance, require a heated bed to prevent warping. This is when the edges of a print begin to curl up sometimes causing the print to detach from the bed entirely.
SLA printer manufacturers usually have their own suite of materials designed to work well with their machines. Formlabs offers a number of colorful standard resins and a full suite of engineering materials some of which simulate ABS, polypropylene, and rubber and others which can withstand very high temperatures. Third party materials are also available for most resin based printers.
3) Cost and Reliability
The old adage “you get what you pay for” is especially true for 3D printers. That said, many low cost FDM machines can achieve similar print qualities as higher end machines if you’re willing to put in the time to tweak them. The main variable here is reliability. Low cost FDM machines will generally print less reliably and with slightly lower quality than their higher priced counterparts. Many new FDM printers are coming to market but you can expect to pay anywhere between $200 and $5000. Mid-range FDM machines in the $1000 price range have significantly evolved over the years and the Prusa i3 MK II is currently a top rated machine at $900.
There is less variability in the cost of SLA machines. Most consumer available machines fall within the $2000 – $4000 range. This “prosumer” grade SLA market is less evolved than the FDM market and the Form 2 is currently a leader at $3499. SLA machines have historically cost as much as $50,000 – $100-000.
How do I find all of this information?
We recently launched a new feature on Pinshape called 3D Printer Pages. Here, you can see specifications for a multitude of different printers including those listed here. You can also see prints done on each machine and community reviews from 10 different areas including print quality, reliability, and ease of use. Of course, everyone will have different priorities when looking for a printer but these are just some of the main features to look at when deciding on which printer to buy.