3D Printer Buyer Guide
The 3D printer market is an extremely dynamic one, always evolving into new niches. It can be easy to get lost, thus this guide will help you choose the printer technology and price bracket most appropriate to your needs.
There are three main plastic 3D printing technologies currently available on the market:
- FDM - The classic layer deposition printers, are cheap, simple and widely available. Their print speed is relatively fast, but their surface render is rough and parts can have unpredictable mechanical properties.
- SLA and DLP - Also known as resin printers, offer unparalleled accuracy and fine details. Their prints are often limited in size and can be somewhat fragile, though.
- SLS - A quickly maturing technology based on powder sintering. These machines are costly and complex, but the resulting parts are both reliably tough and aesthetically pleasing.
Education and beginners
Printer type: basic small-bed FDM printers
For classrooms and beginners wishing for an introduction to the world of 3D printing, the best option is to keep budget and complexity to a minimum. Basic, miniature FDM printers are available for cheap these days and will allow for the printing of PLA into rudimentary shapes.
PLA, the easiest-to-print material currently available, is made from corn starch: it prints at low temperatures and does not emit harmful fumes. It is the only filament that can reliably print on low-end machines without a heated print bed.
Printer type: basic kit FDM printers
Material: PLA, PET, ASA, ABS
Buying a printer as a kit can be a wise solution for more experienced hobbyists: not only is it a money-saver, but building the device will familiarize you with the components and technology, and prepare you for the eventual repairs needed. Cheap printers come at the cost of reliability!
The main addition that you will want is a heated print bed : this will allow you to print most materials, with the exception of ABS, nylon and some others, which require a heated enclosure.
ASA is quickly overtaking ABS as one of the “big three” filaments, with PLA and PET. Its mechanical and thermal properties are slightly superior to ABS, while being easily printable without an enclosure.
Printer type: mid-range FDM printers
Material: PLA, PET, ASA, PP
Professional users will want more reliable machines, with such features as auto-levelling and a heated enclosure (unless you opt to build one yourself, which is a simple DIY project). Printers in the $500-$1000 bracket will generally offer excellent performance, with all of the functions required to make them truly plug-and-print.
Printer type: SLS printers or mid-range FDM (with careful design and skill)
Material: Nylon (SLS), ASA (FDM)
For objects meant to be used in a non-public way (production tools, prototypes…), careful design and experience can make the best of the FDM technology, using high-end filaments like ASA. However the finish quality of FDM prints is limited by nature, and is not generally considered good enough for consumer products.
For a finish quality that rivals injection-molded products, SLS is the way to go. Some online printing services have been switching to SLS-only, due to the reliable mechanical properties and shape flexibility that it offers.
Printer Type: SLS Printers or Mid-Range FDM (with a lot of patience and glue)
Material: Nylon (SLS), PLA (FDM)
Making scale models of construction projects or vehicles is a popular use of 3D printing, made tricky by the complexity of the shapes involved. Only SLS printers can hope to make such shapes in one go, as they do not require supports for printing overhangs.
The alternative here is to print the models in many parts on an FDM printer, then assemble the results. This requires considerable design and assembly work, but can result in perfectly acceptable models.
Special Case: Transparent Parts
Printer Type: Basic Resin
Material: Clear Resins
Transparency is one of the weak points of 3D printing: all current technologies use some sort of layer-by-layer process, which creates a large number of internal barriers to the transmission of light. FDM prints can be somewhat translucent when using appropriate materials and extremely thin walls, but are then very fragile.
Your best bet if transparency is required is to use SLA: with proper post-treatment, SLA prints using clear resins can be used as functional lenses!
Printer Type: Basic Resin
Material: Standard Resins
Figurines are an increasingly popular use for 3D printing, which allows one to express their full creativity to design board game miniatures, decorative statuettes and such. The level of detail needed for scale characters in particular is incompatible with FDM, which is where SLA comes in.
Basic SLA printers and standard resins will work fine for this use, as the dimensions are generally small and the parts do not have to be very solid. Even the cheapest SLA printers will offer accuracy to the hundredth of a millimeter, making them one of the most accurate production technologies there is.
Printer Type: Basic Resin
Material: Standard Resins, Castable Resins
Jewelry is one of the more complex commercial uses of 3D printing, requiring careful design and resin choices. While it is possible to make decorations out of standard resins (translucent colored ones can give a good result), it is more common to use resin models as a basis with which to create molds, which can then be used for metals.
A recent development is the castable resin : these are meant to burn easily with no residue, which is extremely handy for molding complex shapes. In this they replace the wax that was once used to cast bronze statues!
Dental and Medical
Printer Type: High-End Resin
Material: Specialized Resins
3D printing for dental and other medical applications represents the current apex of plastic printing technology, and requires highly specialized equipment and materials. So far the certification of resin 3D printed parts for permanent use (dentures, implants) is in discussion, and only temporary and external uses are authorized. This means surgical guides, dental aligners, casts…
Printers and resins for these purposes have to be certified by the health authorities in any given country, meaning that the choices on offer are limited.
These categories are just a limited snapshot of the ever-growing applications of 3D printing. New technologies and applications are being developed every day : for instance, 3D printing is considered to be one of the main technological axes of the new space race.
You will find a wide variety of printers matching these categories on this site, thus follow this guide to identify the ideal printer for your needs!