It was not that long ago that 3D printing technology was the exclusive province of large research labs and Fortune 500 corporations. With the price of the average 3D printer well into the five figures, only the wealthiest individuals could afford to have one of these high-tech toys in their homes.
Times have certainly changed. Even as 3D printing technology has improved, the prices of the 3D printers themselves have fallen sharply. These days there are 3D printers that cost less than $1,000, and these devices are no longer outside the price range of the average consumer.
That steep decline in prices means that more and more people will be looking for their first 3D printer, and they will be looking for the best deal and trying to avoid common first-time buyer mistakes. Buying a 3D printer is quite different from shopping for a traditional printer, and there are a number of important things to consider. From choosing the right design software to selecting the best printer to bring those designs to life, buyers have a lot of things to think about. Here are some tips you can use to choose the best 3D printer for your needs – and your budget.
What Do I Want My 3D Printer To Do? One of the first things to consider is what you want your 3D printer to do. Solidifying your 3D printer plans is a vital first step, since it will guide every other part of the selection process.
Do you want to just have fun and maybe make a few toys and action figures? Is your goal to gain experience with 3D printing and beef up your resume? Do you hope to make practical objects you can use every day – like drinking cups and plastic utensils? Do you want to let your artistic side run wild and create art objects and 3D sculptures? Or do you hope to make money with your 3D printer by manufacturing your own products or printing prototypes for local startups?
Once you have defined your 3D printing expectations, you can look at the various printing materials on the market. There are two main types of 3D printing materials, known as ABS and PLA. PLA is typically comprised of vegetable matter, and it comes in a rainbow of beautiful jewel-like colors. Printing with PLA is relatively easy even for a beginner, and working with PLA does not require a heated printer bed.
The downside of printing with PLA is that the objects made with its can be a bit brittle. If you want the objects you make to last and stand up to rough use, ABS may be the better material.
ABS is both more durable and less expensive than PLA but you will need a heated printer bed to use it. ABS also gives off fumes that can be harmful, so you will need some way to vent them into the open air. That means you will need to think about where to place the 3D printer and how to provide proper airflow during production.
If you want flexibility, look for a 3D printer that can accommodate both ABS and PLA materials. Keep in mind, however, that many low-priced 3D printers can only use PLA. Depending on what you want to do with your 3D printer it may be worthwhile to spend a bit more for the added flexibility of using both PLA and ABS materials.
What About Resolution? You are probably familiar with the resolution of traditional printers, but 3D printing technology is a whole different ballgame. Manufacturers of 3D printers use a different kind of measurement for resolution – one that incorporates three axes. The X and Y axes are used to define the precision of the 3D printer as it positions the print head along the printer bed. The precision of the Z axis, on the other hand, is defined by the thickness of the layer it prints.
The finer the resolution, the smoother the finished product will be. If you are looking for top quality manufactured materials, you should choose the highest resolution 3D printer you can afford.
Keep in mind that a number of factors will affect the quality and smoothness of the finished product. These factors include the print speed and the materials used. If you are buying your first 3D printer, look for a unit with a minimum resolution of 100 microns on all three axes.
Choosing the Right Design Software
The choice of printer is obviously critical, but the software side of the equation is just as important as getting the right hardware. When choosing design software, you will need to determine if an open-source or a proprietary platform will serve you best.
All 3D printers use so-called slicer software, which breaks down the 3D models and converts the commands into language the printer can understand. The 3D printer will also need some kind of staging software, software that places the object into the print space of the machine.
Open-source software will give you more flexibility and allow you to experiment with various settings to control things like layer thickness infill ratios and the speed of the print head. On the other hand, open-source software is often more difficult to use, especially for those who have never used a 3D printer before.
Proprietary software is typically easier for the beginner to use, providing more of a plug-and-play (or place-and-print) experience that its open-source counterpart. If you are new to 3D printing, you might want to start with a proprietary software package and move on to open-source as you gain experience.
As you can see, choosing a 3D printer is a great deal more complicated than picking a traditional inkjet or laser printer. You will need to consider a number of things, from how you plan to use the printer to what kinds of objects you want to make. You will also need to consider your budget. The price of 3D printers has fallen significantly, but buying one is still a major commitment of time and money. Knowing what to look for can make your shopping experience more fruitful and help you get more for your dollar.