10 Things to Know Before Buying a 3D Printer
Thinking of getting into 3D printing? Well, as 3D printing is becoming more available to the public in recent years, the variety of options has exploded. There’s a printer type for every need, application and budget. The question is: Which …
Thinking of getting into 3D printing? Well, as 3D printing is becoming more available to the public in recent years, the variety of options has exploded. There’s a printer type for every need, application and budget. The question is: Which one is the optimal purchase for me? In this guide, we hope to clarify some important aspects you should consider before buying a printer.
1. Define Your Objective Before Buying
Before even thinking about buying a printer, the question is: Do I need it? We can assure you that buying a printer is worth it but firstly, you should have a very clear view of your intended use. Is it for an industrial application? A small business? Education? Or just for a hobby? 3D printing ranges of manufacturing capabilities, technical details and prices are wide enough to justify a well-thought process.
2. Which Technology Should I Get?
Something must be clear, 3D printing is not just one technology, but a variety of methods with different results from each other. The most common types in the industry are the FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) and SLA (Stereolithography). Not only do they work completely in a different way, but also their results are different. The decision-making process for buying a printer is completely different for each type.
If you are looking to print a wide variety of materials with strong mechanical properties or even being able to make multi-material prints, the FDM route is the best. But, if you are looking for better surface finishes, accuracy and fine details, SLA is the choice. Other technologies are SLS, DLP, DMSL and Material Jetting, to name a few. Each technology has unique features, advantages and drawbacks, but we’ll focus on the main two for the sake of this blog.
As stated before, there’re all kinds of 3D printers, from hobbyists to aerospace industrial manufacturing. Price ranges can be classified into three categories, depending on their use. From £150 to £500 you can get DIY (Do It Yourself) printers. With these printers, basic prints can be made from low melting point materials but limit quality and customization. Next, the professional desktop printers range between £1000 and £10,000. With these printers, you can get functional parts, profitable for your business and highly efficient for manufacturing processes.
Some of the most recognizable brands for professional printers are Ultimaker (FDM) and Formlabs (SLA). It’s important to know that, compared to DIY printers, not only the quality is higher but the ease of use. DIY printers demand a lot of time and effort for installing, levelling, maintaining and troubleshooting, while professional printers have automated processes for ease of use and time-saving. Now, from £8,000 up to a £10,000 you can get industrial printers like Markforged, Bigrep for topnotch manufacturing lines. Besides the printers, there are other cost factors that we’ll be getting into, starting with materials.
Once you buy a printer, you’ll still have constant spending on consumables. So, make room on your budget for the material you will use. FDM printers use filament spools, while SLA uses photocurable liquid resins, which tend to be more expensive (Depending on which material). Regarding filaments, you should take into account compatibility above all. There are three questions on the matter:
Can this 3D printer accept any brand of filament? Some only allow proprietary inhouse material (Thankfully, the majority of brands have an open-source approach)
Which filament diameter do I need for this printer?
Is the printer suitably equipped for processing this material?
For friendly materials like PLA, even the most basic printers are capable of printing it. PLA works great with relatively low temperatures and can be printed with an open frame. By contrast, materials like ABS not only require more power for higher temperatures, but a heated bed and a closed frame for better control during the printing.
If you need to print corrosive materials like carbon fiber, make sure the nozzle quality is good enough to do the job. Markforged printers are ideal for printing these strong engineering materials. Lastly, think about security. Some materials produce toxic fumes, so you need to make an extra consideration about where you install your printer and about investing in ventilation systems or having one built into the printer. You can also use Filtration cabinets like the ones from Kora.
5. Build Volume
How big do you want to print? Do you plan to print many parts at the same time? Then, it all comes to build volume. Having a bigger printer adds to cost, so it’s important to ask yourself the sizes you want to work with. Standard sizes for all three dimensions on a professional desktop printer go around 200mm to 300mm, while on an industrial printer sizes are between 500mm and 1000mm.
Historically desktop SLA printers have had a much smaller bed size, but with the Formlabs 3L this is no longer the case.
6. Quality vs Time
A very important thing to know before buying a 3D printer is that it can be a very slow process. Common printing speeds range between 50mm/s and 150mm/s. So, why not race to max speed? Time is gold after all. However, you must know a constant in 3D printing: The higher the quality, the more time spent. Many factors define quality, but we’ll focus on two: Layer height and accuracy.
Layer Height: The fundamental setting for slicing software (We’ll get into it). It defines how thick is each layer in the z-axis (vertical). As you lower the layer height, the typical layered appearance will become smoother. However, you should know that having to print more layers will take more time, it is an inverse correlation. For example, if you lower the layer height to half, it will take about the double of time to print.
Accuracy: Answers the following: How close is the actual result towards the intended one? Accuracy on factors like XY motion, extrusion rate and heating rates, is what makes the difference between a strong and a weak printer design. But, regardless of the design, raising printing speeds can distort accuracy and thus, quality.
7. 3D Software: Models and Slicers
All prints come from 3D models (commonly STL files), then sliced into a gcode that contains every single instruction for the printer to work. To have control over your manufacturing process, you’ll need a slicer software. The most popular software is Ultimaker Cura, which, even if it is completely free, it’s highly capable of handling even industrial applications. Concerning other options, like simplify3D, some must be bought, which is another additional cost. For some printers, it’s better to stay with the inhouse slicer, like Eiger for Markforged, PreForm for Formlabs and Ideamaker for Raise3D.
Regarding the 3D model, is important to ask: How do I get my model? Having a printer makes no sense if you can’t get 3D models in the first place. If your focus is manufacturing, you can just get it from your clients, but if you’re into the design workflow, you might need CAD. There’s a wide variety of CAD for countless approaches. For example, if your objective is engineering, you might need to invest in a software package like SolidWorks. Depending on your intended workflow, you might need to invest time and money on learning a new set of software. As an alternative, you can look for outsourcing professional services.
Uploading a gcode to the printer can be mainly via USB cable or microSD card. There are advantages and downsides to each method. Connecting your computer via USB works great for monitoring your print via the slicer software for better control over a long process. But it has the problem that you can neither turn off nor remove the computer from the place. Contrary to that, with the microSD card you won’t get the monitoring advantage, but neither you’ll need to connect the computer. But a third way, through the cloud. Most professional 3D printers have integrated WiFi or can be networked, which works great for remote monitoring from the cloud. Some printers, like the Sindoh 3DWOX1, even have an integrated camera for video monitoring.
Looking for extra improvement in your workflow? There’re limitless accessories that you can add to your printer to improve quality and efficiency in your final results. For instance, SLA printing requires post-processing steps like washing and post-curing. To facilitate these processes, Formlabs offers accessories like Form Wash and Form Cure. Other examples are Raspberry Pis and external cameras for remote monitoring, safety enclosures and vents.
Knowledge is power. 3D printing has become so big in the last decade that there are countless sources for reading on the net. From formal sources like academic articles, data sheets, catalogues, customer support, troubleshooting manuals to forums, blogs, user reviews, YouTube channels, communities and so on.
But, to make the learning process fast and steady, there’re dedicated professional services, like the ones we offer, with personalized training for you and your crew plus advice to help you make the best decisions. For more information, please call Solid Print3D on 01926 333 777 or email on email@example.com