Choosing the first 3D printer – whether for a company or for private use, is a thing that can take a lot of time, cost much, and its final result does not necessarily meet our initial expectations. There are many devices on the market that differ in price and purpose. In addition, beginners, who are not very knowledgeable about 3D printing technologies, often make one of the most popular mistakes, focusing on the most popular FDM / FFF method without fully realizing that there are many more additive techniques and this particular one doesn’t have to be the most appropriate one…
Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to advise on the selection of 3D printers to countless companies and people. Based on the conversations and experience I’ve prepared the following guide, what should you pay attention to when choosing a 3D printer? At first it may seem quite surprising, because, paradoxically, the device itself has the least importance in the entire decision-making process – or it will simply be the result. Here are the 5 most important things that determine such a decision…
We always start with the most important thing – the application – the thing we want to create using a 3D printer. Application – its type, character, purpose, determines all other factors. By determining this we are able to determine:
- is 3D printing really necessary to create it?
- what are the benefits of using 3D printing in the application development process?
- are we fully aware of the disadvantages and limitations of 3D printing when creating applications, and if so, do we agree to it?
If someone is not sure of the answer to the above questions, it is worth using the information contained in this article: What is 3D printing and how does it work? You will learn from it, among others what exactly are additive technologies, what manufacturing techniques we distinguish among them and probably the most important: what are the advantages and disadvantages of 3D printing over other methods?
As a rule (from which there are of course exceptions!), 3D printing:
- is the fastest
- is the cheapest
- has the ability to create the most complex geometries.
At the same time, 3D printing has disadvantages … The largest are the quality of the model’s production, which for now is not able to match injection molding, casting or CNC milling or turning, and the length of high volume production. As long as we are producing a few to several dozen details, the advantage is on the 3D printing side.
To sum up, choosing the right 3D printer is possible only when we determine exactly what we will use to produce it? The case is really open here – for some applications, a device for $250 is sufficient, for others it will be necessary to invest in an industrial machine, costing several hundred thousand zlotys or even several million.
When we already know what we want to create using a 3D printer, we need to determine what material to make it from? At the moment we can distinguish several more or less diverse additive technologies, which differ from each other in the type of material from which the details are built and how they are selectively bonded. This means, for example, that we will not be able to print metal items using a FDM / FFF 3D printer. This seems like obvious, but for many people who are just taking their first steps in 3D printing – not necessarily…
What does it look like by technology?
FDM / FFF – thermoplastic materials in the form of a wire, which are the same that are used e.g. in injection molding technology. If we want to print details, e.g. from ABS, this is the only method that allows it. Using this technique, we can also print from unique composite materials – e.g. carbon fiber doped nylon or glass fiber doped polypropylene.
SLA / DLP / LCD – light-cured resins, cured in a container by a laser beam or light emitted by a projector or LCD screen. Resins after photopolymerization can resemble certain types of plastics, being even better in terms of strength than their “real” thermoplastic counterparts. However, they will never be “the same”, which may be important for some applications.
PolyJet / MJP – light-cured resins, sprayed from the inkjet head and cured with light emitted by UV lamps. As in the case of the above technique, we are dealing only with materials that imitate the properties of plastics. Due to the nature of the technology, we are dealing with a much wider range of materials and the possibility of their coloring (3D printing in full color). It is also the most perfect technique because of the geometries that can be achieved.
SLS / MJF – powdered plastics – currently the second most advanced technique after PolyJet / MJP due to the geometries that can be achieved. At the same time quite limited in terms of available materials – in fact, we mainly use powdered polyamides (PE) and, to a lesser extent, polystyrenes (PS), elastomers (TPE) and polyaryletherketones (PAEK) in production.
SLM / DMP / DMLS – powdered metal alloys. As defined, it is the only method that allows printing of metal details.
Simply put, 3D printing technologies can also be classified in terms of consumables as follows:
- FDM / FFF – the same materials as in injection, a wide range to choose from, the vast majority the cheapest
- light-cured resins – very precise and accurate, with interesting physical and chemical properties, not necessarily achievable with other types of materials, a wide range to choose from
- SLS / MJF – very limited choice compared to other methods
- SLM / DMP / DMLS – only metal alloys.
We are coming back to the application for a moment – depending on their geometry, it may turn out that 3D printers of a particular type will be disqualified from the place. The cheapest and most popular FDM / FFF devices on the market are also characterized by the fact that they are the most limited in terms of creating complex geometries compared to all other additive methods. The solution is two printheads and the ability to create support structures from soluble materials. However, this is not an ideal solution and for very small, thin-walled and precise details, it may prove unreliable.
The most perfect (and unfortunately the most expensive in terms of operation) in the area of creating complex geometries is the PolyJet / MJP method, i.e. inkjetting resins and curing them with a UV lamp. We are dealing here with high resolution and layer height of even 0.016 mm. The heads inkjet both building and support material, which can easily be rinsed with water or dissolved chemically. Importantly, after post-processing, the walls of the details built on the supports are perfectly smooth (which is not always achieved in the FDM / FFF technique).
The second best method that allows you to create geometrically complex details are SLS and MJF methods, which are also great for low-volume production.
4. Manufacturing method
Knowing what we want to do with the 3D printer, what material to use and whether or how complex our details will be, we proceed to choosing 3D printing technology. If you want to print small, precise elements whose dimensions close in the area of 5 cm in the XYZ axes, we can very likely assume that the FDM / FFF 3D printer (especially cheap) will not meet our expectations and we will have to invest more money in a 3D printing printer from light-cured resins.
On the other hand, 3D printing from resins will not work for large details (sized from a dozen or so centimeters in the XYZ axes up) and where low-volume production is involved (and the dimensions of the details are still large).
It may also turn out that the specifics of our models will be so difficult in production that the only reasonable solution will be industrial methods – SLS and MJF, and it will be more legitimate to outsource services to specialized companies than the doomed struggle using cheap 3D printers FDM / FFF type.
5. 3D Printer
When all the above points are thoroughly thought out, we should already know exactly what type of device we are interested in? It remains to choose a brand… It’s always a fairly individual decision dictated by a number of more or less legitimate reasons (price, appearance, contact with the seller, the sum of opinions found on the internet, etc.). When advising people who use our consultations, I always ask the same question … Is there any point to contrive?
There are a multitude of desktop class devices on the market, but only a few of them have achieved real market success. There was a reason for this – most often the given 3D printer is simply good. It is worth considering for a moment and asking yourself: what do I really need? 3D printers or the things it produces? If the first one – you can confidently experiment, buy 3D printers for self-assembly, have them built for individual orders. If the other – let’s just buy something that works and focus on the job.