The process of buying a 3D printer can be a daunting one, especially if you’re not familiar with some of the terms that get thrown around – what the heck is FFF or SLA? If you’re new to 3D printing, our buying guide is a great place to start. Here are a few things you might want to consider when shopping for a 3D printer.
There are two main types of 3D printers: FFF (fused filament fabrication) and SLA (stereolithography).
FFF printers use Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) and work by melting a plastic filament in a moving printhead to form your model. This type of 3d printing is also seen in FFM (fused filament manufacturing) and FDM (fused deposition modeling) devices.
SLA printers employ a process known as stereolithography which uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to solidify a resin, focusing the laser to form your solid model.
FFF printers are generally cheaper, simpler and easier to use so, if you’re a beginner, it’s probably an FFF type of printer that you are looking for.
If you’re not into DIY projects and would rather just plug in and play, you’ll want to buy a fully pre-assembled machine. On the flip side, if you’re fairly handy and don’t mind spending a bit of time in the process of setting up your new 3D printer, then a semi-assembled DIY kit could be for you. Think of these as the Ikea flat-packs of 3D printers – they’re less expensive because you’ll have to do some of the assembly work yourself.
Whichever type of printer you choose, you’ll want to pay attention to the type of material it uses when printing.
FFF printers require 3d printing filament. Of course there are different types of filament available so you’ll want to ensure that the printer you’re choosing is compatible with the type of filament you require for your project.
PLA is a plastic filament and stands for polylactic acid. It is made from renewable resources (i. e. corn starch, tapioca roots, or sugarcane) and tends to be a brittle yet biodegradable material.
ABS stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. It’s famous for being the plastic that’s used in Lego bricks and known for being resistant to shattering.
Nylon – if you don’t want to print with plastic, nylon is a good alternative. It comes in spools just like plastic filaments but it doesn’t need a heated bed. Nylon is less prone to warping than plastic, and it can be custom-colored to whatever color you need with fabric dye.
TPE stands for thermoplastic elastomer, it’s a soft, rubber-like material which enables 3D printers to produce flexible models.
HDPE stands for high-density polyethylene. HDPE is a type of thermoplastic made from petroleum. It’s the type of plastic used in plastic bottles.
Each material type has its own strengths and weaknesses, for example HDPE is light and tough but not suitable for food use, so, if you were printing something likely to come in contact with food, nylon would be a better option as it is food safe.
Many of these materials, particularly the more common PLA and ABS, are available in a huge range of colors to suit whatever your project needs. Alternatively, if you need to print something in a particular color and you can’t find 3D filament in the right color to suit, you might want to consider using nylon which can be custom colored to suit your project.
3D Printer Filaments come in two sizes: 1.75 mm and 3 mm, these are not interchangeable.
SLA printers have fewer options than their FFF counterparts, but some SLA printers can use resins that produce models ranging from very rigid to flexible and rubbery.
The best 3D printers can use a wide range of materials, giving you a much broader scope of projects you can use your printer for.
It’s worth noting that some 3D printers only allow the use of approved materials or materials produced by the same company that made the printer. It’s a clever way for the manufacturers to sell the hardware cheaply and then make their money with the repeat buying of the consumables. Other 3D printers place no restrictions on the type or origin of the material. So, before buying a 3d printer, you might want to consider what your overall costs might be – you might get a really good deal on the printer itself but then be “locked in” to keep buying relatively expensive filament. If you don’t plan to use your printer much, this may be a fairly economical way to go. Alternatively, if you believe you will be printing a lot and therefore will need to buy a lot of different filaments, you might be better off spending a little more on your machine initially but then have the freedom to buy whichever type and brand of filament you need in the future.
All 3D printers have limits on the size of the model they can produce. That limit is set by the size of the printer’s print bed and how far the printer can move the printhead. Print volume is usually measured in cubic inches, but you will also want to consider each of the individual dimensions as these determine the maximum size 3D print or model the printer can create. So, for example, if a printer has a print volume of 223 cubic inches (6.2 x 6 x 6 inches), it can print objects that are up to just less than 6 inches high, wide and deep.
Print Speed & Quality
Obviously you’re looking for the best print quality within your budget but you might not have realized that, when it comes to 3d printing, print speed and print quality go hand in hand. The fact is that 3D printing is a slow process. Sure, you could speed it up but it would be at the expense of the quality of the finished product. To give you an idea on the time required for 3d printing, a 3- to 4-inch model will typically take between 6 and 12 hours to print, depending on the print quality you select. It’s a slow business because of the way 3D printing works – it’s all about the layers. The print is constructed in layers, the thicker these layers are, the quicker the print is produced but the lower the print quality will be as the layers will become more visible. Unfortunately, that’s the trade-off between print speed and print quality.
The best 3D printers will allow you to determine which way you want to go with this, producing prints quickly or more slowly but at higher quality, so it’s a feature you might want to look out for.