3D printing is the buzzword and every student, hobbyist, and enthusiast is gearing up to buy a 3D printer for himself/herself. While it is an exciting thought to own a 3D printer, choosing the optimal 3D printer is often seen as a big hurdle leading to wrong decisions and sad faces. 3D printers come in various sizes and features and choosing the perfect partner is tough, especially for first-time buyers (New to 3d printing? Use are 3d printing 101 guide).
But don’t you guys worry, we have come up with the perfect guide to help you buy a 3D printer. This guide will alleviate your troubles of choosing and buying a 3D printer.
We’ll explain the major factors to consider while making the buying decision and guide you through each factor to help you make the right decision.
10 Factors to consider before buying a 3D printer:
The first obvious factor to be considered before buying a 3D printer is the type of 3D printer you want to buy. Most first-timers either are confused about the type of 3D printer or they are biased towards one type of 3D printer, probably because they have seen one at their friends’ house and that influences their decision. So, it is important to first understand the type of technologies available.
As a beginner, the most common types of 3D printers are FDM, DLP & SLA. These three 3D printers are affordable, are for beginners and are fairly easy to operate. But these printers also have a lot of variants coupled with multiple features. And so, at the initial level, the users should start their buying decision by studying the above mentioned 3D printers and shortlist a few of them by also considering other factors mentioned in this list.
FDM technology uses a polymer filament that is heated and extruded to form a three-dimensional object. This technology can successfully print features upwards of 100 microns. The surface finish is pretty coarse with visible layer lines.
Some of the popular DLP/SLA 3D printers are offered by Creality, Wanhao, XYZprinting, FlashForge, Ultimaker, and MakerBot. All these companies offer a wide range of basic and professional quality printers.
DLP & SLA 3D printers use a liquid photopolymer resin material which solidifies on exposure to UV light. A DLP 3D printer uses a UV projector while the SLA printer uses a laser to cure (solidify) the resin. Both these 3D printers offer great resolution as low as 25 microns. The surface finish is quite smooth and thus it is mostly used for fine intricate detailed models like jewelry models.
Some of the popular DLP/SLA 3D printers are offered by Sparkmaker, Monoprice, Anycubic, Formlabs and B9 Creations.
So, the first step before buying a 3D printer is to study these 3D printers and learn about their advantages and limitations.
Irrespective of whether you have decided on the type of printer you want to buy, users should also consider the size of the 3D printer. This size specifically refers to the build size/volume. Size of the parts that can be produced on the 3D printer.
Small printers are cheap but they will restrict your build volume and bigger parts cannot be made. Also directly buying a bigger bed-sized printer will enable you to produce bigger parts but if you are only printing small parts then there is no point in spending more for a big sized printer.
A typical FDM 3D printer has a bed-size of 200mm3 while a typical resin printer has a bed-size of 150mm3.
Another important factor to consider before buying a 3D printer is the end-use application of the parts to be produced on the 3D printer. Different 3D printers give different output surface finish and so it becomes important to decide the output you expect from the 3D printer.
FDM gives a very coarse surface finish where layer lines are clearly visible and can be felt with the touch of the hand. These generally require post-processing to make the prints smooth and shiny. FDM 3D printed parts are generally used for prototyping, display models, prosthetics, props/cosplay, etc.
DLP/SLA 3D prints give a great resolution with the capability to print very fine features. These can be easily used to print jewelry models and other such intricate details. The layer lines are mildly visible and minimal post-processing is required in terms of surface operations for smoothening of parts.
Example: If your major application is to produce prototypes and occasionally build jewelry models, then an FDM 3D printer will suffice your prototyping needs and the jewelry models can be outsourced.
Here, instead of buying a DLP/SLA 3D printer just because sometimes you may have to print jewelry models is a bad decision as the material cost of these printers is quite high compared to FDM materials. While you may save some costs in the jewelry models but this will result in skyrocketing the cost of your FDM printed parts and these parts may never sell.
So, if this factor, end-use application, is properly defined then the appropriate technology can be easily chosen.
Materials are also an important factor because of the simple reason that these are the consumables. While a 3D printer is a one-time (capital expense) cost you have to bear, the materials will constitute your operating cost and if materials are costly, they can affect your product price.
As mentioned in the above example, FDM materials (filaments) are easily available far and wide and are quite cheap. The average price of an FDM filament ranges from $20 to $50 per kg spool depending on the type & brand of material. The quality of the biased is also nearly comparable in all brands.
The quality will only matter when you are producing any critical component of any industrial system. Apart from that, the quality will not pose a big problem.
The DLP/SLA materials are pretty costly compared to FDM materials and they have a significant impact on product costing. The average price of DLP/SLA resin ranges from $50 to $400 depending on the type & brand of material.
Also, these materials are generally not interchangeable with other brand printers and if done so, the company ends the warranty and so the users generally do not change the brands for a specific brand of printer. So, private-labeled cheaper resins are almost not used by anyone.
Therefore, the material becomes an important factor to be considered while buying a 3D printer.
Colors basically mean the color of the prints. This is an important factor because an FDM 3D printer gives you the ability to print with multiple colors through dual extrusion models. This specifically helps in printing props, miniatures, etc. where the models need to have multiple colors.
If this feature is not available then the single-color print will have to be post-processed and painted later which increases the post-processing time.
Having the option to print the complete model in multiple colors right from scratch, is highly useful if your core application is to print such multi-colored models.
Ease of Use
Different brands invent and add new features to their 3D printers to make the printing experience easy for new learners. Features like Auto-bed leveling, filament sensor, WiFi connectivity, heated-bed, etc. help users to do away with the tedious job of setting up the 3D printer before a print and also to constantly monitor the printing process to achieve a successful print.
By buying a 3D printer that has such features and more can help new users learn the technology quickly and easily. Buyers can look out for such features to make their printing experience simple.
Place of Use
This is an often-overlooked factor to be considered before buying a 3D printer. The place is an important factor because some materials emit toxic fumes while printing. If inhaled, these toxic fumes can have harmful effects on the body. Enthusiasts, Hobbyists, and students usually operate their 3D printer at their home and the toxic fumes are dangerous for the home environment.
To avoid this, users can buy a printer that has enclosures, or proper ventilation systems so that the fumes or gases are released outside the house and the occupants are thus safeguarded.
Also, DLP/SLA printers require additional equipment like two cleaning tanks and a curing station where the printed parts have to be first cleaned and then cured with the help of a UV light. All this setup takes up considerable space and this space also has to be accounted for when deciding to buy a DLP/SLA 3D printer.
3D printing is still a technology that is dependent on a lot of trial and error. 3D printer companies and users are still learning and so users may face a string of issues with the printer. The common issues are the bed-leveling, failed prints due to various reasons, nozzle clogging, heat-bed failures, etc. Users may need help from the printer manufacturers to address these issues.
So, a strong after-sales is essential when you are buying a 3D printer. Brands are now making their 3D printers available across the world through distributors and resellers and they are a good point of contact for manufacturing issues.
New users should consider this factor as until they learn the technology, they may face a multitude of such issues.
The above point leads us to our next factor. This factor relates to the active community of the manufacturer. As mentioned in the above factor, that the after-sales will help you take care of the manufacturing trouble, but the manufacturers may not always help you in the printing problems like bend adhesion, stringing, under-extrusion, top layer gaps, etc.
Such problems will have to be solved by you yourself. But since you are new to the technology, you can take the help of the strong community of the 3D printer. You will find such strong active communities on forums, Facebook or other social media where you can post your queries are the community can resolve it for you. For a new learner, it is a blessing to be a part of an active community that helps.
Most printer manufacturers like Formlabs, Ultimaker, and Wanhao have an active community that is managed through their website. Additionally, printer buyers across the globe have created open communities on Facebook to support fellow buyers.
So, it is also important that the printer you buy also has a strong active community where you can post problems and get answers to those queries.
Price, though important, is purposely kept at the bottom of this list because we often tend to limit ourselves by fixing a budget. Sadly, this limits our vision and we tend to ignore good printers that are far more superior and perfect than the ones in our budget but are slightly above the budget.
Price is critical but we believe that price has to be considered when you make a highly informed decision based on all the above factors. By this time you must have made a list of 3D printers that are perfect from the type, applications, materials, size, ease of use and other facts. Now you can analyze that list through the prism of the cost and you will make a better buying decision that is driven by information and not by cost. FDM printers are priced from as low as $200 to close to $6000 while DLP/SLA printers are priced from $400 to $10000.