How to Choose a 3D Printer
The 3D Printer market has exploded in the last 5 years with everything from DIY kits from no name brands in China to £300,000+ machines available to suit various uses, applications & budgets. Therefore, it is important to know how …
The 3D Printer market has exploded in the last 5 years with everything from DIY kits from no name brands in China to £300,000+ machines available to suit various uses, applications & budgets. Therefore, it is important to know how to choose a 3D printer to suit your design process. So where should you start when you are investigating the best 3D Printer for you or your business?
In our experience there are 4 key questions to ask yourself:
- Is this your first 3D printer?
- What is the maximum size I will need to build 90% of the time?
- How critical is surface finish to me?
- What mechanical properties does my part need?
Once you have answers to the above questions, you will have already refined your 3D printer search down to 2-3 options which are all market leaders in their required fields.
1. Is this your first 3D Printer?
If this is your first foray in to the world of 3D Printing then ease of use is critical to you. Bed levelling, nozzle jams, setting nozzle height, poor software and failed prints cost time & money.
Purchasing a printer that minimises these issues will save you pulling your hair out when things go wrong. Many 3D printers are now extremely easy to use and setup – you can be printing within 10 minutes of removing the printer from the box in some cases. A good indication of quality is if they come with their own in-house software.
Most business do not have the time to waste with a hobby level printer and while a cheap DIY 3D printer seems like a “dip your toe in” option this often causes more headaches and are far more difficult to operate & use. A printer like the Ultimaker 3 offers a simple to level bed, automatic z-offset and easy to change nozzles with the Sindoh 3D Wox1 offers auto loading of filament, an easily adjustable bed, an Add-in to SolidWorks and auto z-offset adjustment.
2. What is the maximum size I will need to build 90% of the time?
This is a critical questions as you don’t want to buy a printer that is too large or too small. But why 90% of the time?
As an example if you do the majority of your printing in the 200 x 200 x 200mm range and very occasionally print something that is 300mm, then purchasing a printer that will cover that extra 100mm will certainly cost more money and potentially lead to a slight decrease in accuracy.
The occasional larger parts can be outsourced or with a CAD tool like SolidWorks you can split the model then glue together once the print is completed.
3. How critical is surface finish to me?
Within the term “3D printing” there are various different printing technologies.
Traditionally when most people think of a 3D Printer them will imagine a glue gun on rails. This is known as FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) and the majority of 3D printers use this technology. It has come a long way in the last 5 years adding 1,000’s of materials, colours & mechanical properties and the surface finish improves with every iteration.
However there are other technologies such as SLA (Stereolithography) and SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) available.
SLA uses a bath of resin and cures this with a laser. This gives a finish that is similar to that of an injection moulded parts and is typically superior to FDM. Resin cured parts need washing in alcohol and then post curing to achieve the desired properties of the material. Companies such as Formlabs provide automated machines for this.
SLS uses a vat of powder plastic and the powder is fused together with a laser. Typically with SLS you will nest as many parts into the VAT as possible and the powder acts as the support structure. The post processing involves brushing or using an air gun to remove the excess powder in a dedicated station, of which around 50% is recyclable. The surface finish sits between FDM & SLA as it has a chalky or powdery finish.
As you can see to gain the extra surface finish comes at a cost with the extra processing but this is becoming much easier as companies find automated solutions for it.
4. What mechanical properties does my part need?
Many 3D Printed parts are printed for aesthetic or ergonomic reasons but more and more people want to print either working prototypes or low volume production parts.
Understanding how your part will be loaded, what strength your part requires and how to achieve this is critical in picking a printer.
The majority of FDM printer manufacturers are now “opensource” meaning you can put any filament you like through the printer with the settings being provide by the filament manufacturer. This gives a huge range of variation in what you can print but you need to ensure your printer is able to print the required material.
Many budget 3D printers will only melt the plastic up to 250 Celsius whereas a durable plastic like Nylon or a hard plastic like Polycarbonate will need much higher melting temperatures closer to 300 Celsius.
The majority of 3D printers will come fitted with a brass nozzle as standard. If you want to put a chopped glass fibre or carbon fibre through the nozzle this filament is incredibly abrasive and will wear a brass nozzle out within 1 spool. For materials like this you need to be looking for machines that have a Stainless Steel nozzle as standard or are able to easily retrofit one.
There are now even 3D Printing machines like the Markforged Mark Two that can inlay Continuous Carbon Fibre into the print which enables customers to print Carbon Fibre parts that are stronger than Aluminium, much lighter and cheaper to manufacture.
Feel free to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01926 333 777 to let us help you find the right 3D printer for your business.