With so many recent advancements in 3D printing technology, many experts are now hailing the rise of 3D printers as the advent of a new industrial age. With so many models and printing styles to choose from, it can be overwhelming for newcomers trying to decide which model of 3D printer is right for them. Below are the 5 things you need to know before buying a 3D printer:
3D Printer Types
The 3D printing process is still evolving but most commercially-available printers operate using one of the six following methods:
- FDM – Known as Fused Deposition Modeling, FDM is one of the most common types of printing. FDM operates by heating and then melting special plastic filaments to print objects.
- SLA – Also known as Stereolithography, SDLA is one of the oldest and most reliable forms of 3D printing. It uses liquid plastic and CAD (STL) files to create objects.
- SLS – SLS or Selective Laser Sintering relies on a laser to convert (“sinter”) powdered material into a solid molecule.
- SLM – Known as Selective Laser Melting, SLM uses a high-powered laser to melt powdered metal (which then quickly solidifies again) to build solid objects.
- EBM – One of the newest technologies is EBM or Electronic Beam Melting. The EBM method heats and melts powdered metal.
- LOM – Known as Laminated Object Manufacturing, LOM is one of the fastest 3D printing technologies. Special plastic rolls are cut and then melted so that they fuse together to print objects.
The 3D printer industry is still developing so there are a wide variety of materials now used. These include:
- Nylon/Polyamide – Commonly sold in powder form. Comes as white but can be colored either before or after printing.
- ABS – A rugged form of plastic that comes in filament form and is already colored before printing.
- PLA – A special form of plastic that is biodegradable. Comes in both resin and filament form.
- Laywood – Considered a plastic, this material comes in filament form and is composed of a mixture of wood and polymers. Sometimes referred to as WPC.
- Stainless Steel – Usually comes in powder form. Silver in color but can be plated to look more coppery, gold, or bronze.
- Gold and Silver – These precious metals come in powder form.
- Titanium – Comes in powder form and usually reserved for industrial processes.
- Ceramics – After printing, all ceramic parts need to be fired (and glazed) in order to permanently retain their shape.
- Paper – Only a few 3D printers can use paper but it is a very affordable printing material.
Print resolution is defined by horizontal resolution (often expressed in XY format) which measures the absolutely smallest movement that the printer can make within a layer. The vertical resolution measures the very smallest layer possible that the printer can produce. Smaller (thinner) layers will result in more smooth final surfaces but buyers should be aware that smaller (finer) layers require more time to print.
Print speed, as you would expect, measures how rapidly the printer can extrude material. Generally, there are three modes of printing speed available that 3D printers can support:
- 40 to 50mm/s
Some printers may even print at a speed faster than 150 mm/s. Typically, the faster the printing speed, the lower the output quality. Above 150mm/s speeds, the quality drops considerably, and you may experience problems as the filament tends to slip at these speeds. It’s a really good idea to look at online videos of 3D printers in action to get an idea of how fast they operate.
Most 3D printers rely on STL files for input. Rapidly becoming the industry’s standard, STL (which stands for Surface Tessellation Language) files use triangles to model three-dimensional objects.
While there are more than 25 different online STL depositories currently offering different designs, probably the most popular and comprehensive is the “Thingiverse” operated by MakerBot, one of the leading manufacturers of 3D printers.
Prices for 3D printers are constantly changing. Thanks to increasing popularity and weekly breakthroughs in design, the price of 3D printers is steadily decreasing. The major factor that affects the buying cost of a 3D printer is the output quality of the machine.
The cheapest 3D printer currently on sale is the Lix 3D pen which retails for around $140. It’s a hand-held instrument with only limited functionality. The most affordable standard 3D printer is the MOD-t that retails at around $299. On the other end of the spectrum lie the LUMEX Avance-25 that retails for around $846,000 and the Object 500 Connex3 that sells for $330,000. It is worth mentioning that the price of 3D printers includes only the machine itself as the materials required to print products do not come with the printer.
Do your research and be sure to carefully assess your 3D printing needs and budget before deciding on which model is right for you.
About the Author
Matthew Young is a freelance tech journalist and blogger hailing from Boston. He is passionate about new, emerging tech in the industry. When Matthew is not busy writing about awesome new technology, he usually spends time fiddling with his camera and learning a thing or two about photography. You can reach Matthew on Twitter @mattbeardyoung