However, not every 3D printer is suitable for every application.

3D printing is broad, and diverse technologies have emerged to cater for specific applications. An industrial prototyping printer is definitely not suitable for creating dental prosthetics.


A wide array of 3D printers is available today and purchasing one that’s perfect for your use can be a difficult endeavor. So here are some guidelines to help you get the perfect printer for your use.

What Type of 3D Printer Should I Buy?

 
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1. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

This is the most widely used 3D printing technology. FDM is a material extrusion technology where molten thermoplastic is deposited layer by layer to create the desired form. Materials commonly used include; Polylactic Acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile Butadene Styrene (ABS), Polyetherimide (PEI), Polycarbonate (PC) among others.

FDM is suitable for industrial prototyping, architectural models, concept models, and POC. Currently, it’s the cheapest available technology and also produces strong and durable parts.

However, it’s a slow technology, and objects created using this technique have a rough surface hence require further processing and finishing.

2. Stereolithography (SLA)

This is the second most used 3D printing technology. It is a form of Vat Photopolymerization, where the object is built through exposure of photosensitive thermoset polymers to an ultraviolet laser.

In SLA 3D printing, the build platform is positioned in a vat (tank) of liquid material that is gradually exposed to the UV laser. The laser cures and hardens the photopolymer material into the desired shape. SLA uses a broad range of thermoset polymer resins, depending on the application.

SLA offers high resolution, precision, and a smooth finish. It is suitable for surgical guides, dental and jewelry models, gifting items, and other aesthetical products. However, it’s important to note that this technique uses a limited range of materials, support structures are required, which can affect the finish and post-curing is also needed.

3. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

This is a Powder Bed Fusion technology and the third most popular 3D printing technology. Sintering is a procedure where a solid material is formed by applying heat or pressure without melting the material. A high power laser and, in most cases, a pulsed carbon dioxide laser is used. This technique can be used to design functional objects.

In this technique, a laser sinters the object layer by layer, out of a bed of granular or powdered thermoplastic polymers. Just like in SLS, a blade recoats each layer. It’s suitable for prosthetics, automotive parts, form and fitment testing of complex parts like intake manifolds. It’s important to note that accuracy is dependent on particle size, and this method gives a rough finish.

4. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

This method is similar to SLS, however, the major distinction is that DMLS uses metal. This is a powder bed fusion technique where a bed of metal particles is exposed to a laser which melts the particles allowing them to fuse. DMLS is performed in a sealed gas-filled chamber to prevent the oxidation of materials, which can inhibit the bonding of layers. Powerful lasers are used to melt the metallic powder particles.

DMLS is suitable for building parts and components from a variety of alloys. The most common being aluminum, titanium, copper, nickel, and precious metals. It is mainly used for industrial prototyping of non-critical end-use parts. However, it requires complex post-processing and is
not suitable for large objects.

5. 3D Printing Material Jetting

This is yet another commonly used 3D printing technology. It is similar to the traditional 2D printing technology since material is deposited from the inkjet print head without using a bed or vat. Droplets of thermoset photopolymer materials are deposited on the build platform and cured by UV light layer by layer. Similar material  jetting techniques include; Drop on Demand,
Polyjetting, and Multijetting.

Material jetting is one of the most accurate 3D printing technologies and also allows for the combination of different materials to be used in a single design. Support structures are used and printed alongside the object in a material that can be removed later. Some major drawbacks include; high cost of the technology and degradation of photosensitive materials, making it unsuitable for functional prototypes.

6. Binder Jetting

This is one of the newest 3D printing technologies. These 3D printers use powders bound together with liquid binders. This technique combines aspects of SLS and material jetting.

Like SLS powder is used and particles bound together by liquid binder droplets that are jetted from print head, which makes it similar to material jetting. It’s pros include low cost, full color, and fast printing speeds. It’s suitable for prosthetics and other complex geometries. However, its cons include; a small material library, poor surface finish, and accuracy.

What Factors Should You Consider When Buying a 3D Printer?

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1. Application

Your core consideration when buying a 3D printer is its purpose. Are you buying it for industrial prototyping, household use, hobby, or specialized application such as jewelry making? Your purchase will mainly be determined by its use. The different 3D printing technologies are suitable for particular applications. Choosing a printer that’s best suited for your use guarantees
you good results.

2. Material Compatibility

Material compatibility is also a critical factor to consider when purchasing a 3D printer. If the objects you want to print are for a  specific application, the material used must possess the desired properties to perform as per the specifications.

For instance, material properties and requirements for the SLS technology are quite different from those of FDM. Hence opting for the technology that utilizes material suitable for your application is critical.

3. Build Volume

This is the maximum size of objects that a 3D printer can print and is measured in length, width, and height. Your selection of a 3D printer should be based on your optimal print size. Buying a printer that prints in a range of sizes may not be advisable. This is because it will cost you more and may affect the printing quality. You should think about the size of the objects you want to print, and considering that most models consist of smaller parts buying a 3D printer with the
largest build volume may not be necessary.

SLA printers offer small build volumes compared to others. However, buying an SLA printer based on its high precision and finish may not be helpful if you require to print large objects. In this case, FDM or SLS printers would be suitable since they offer large build volumes. Though they may give a slightly rough finish, the part can be post processed to attain the required finish. There has to be a trade-off when you are making this decision.

4. Material Availability and Cost

With more innovation and research, the material library for the different 3D printing
technologies continues to grow. Carefully analyzing the objects you want to print will help you choose the most suitable material and technology for your use.

You may find that FDM filaments are ready available at reasonable prices. But you may find that certain material like special metals and flame retardant polymers are not readily available, and it may take quite some time to import them, which definitely increases lead time and cost of such materials.

Material cost is another key factor to consider when purchasing a 3D printer since it determines the overall cost of 3D printing. Some of the most common materials used in 3D printing include;

ABS: This is a low-cost material that produces tough and durable parts that can withstand high temperatures.
PLA: This is the go-to material for many people due to ease-of-use, low cost, and accuracy.
Flexible: Commonly known as TPU or TPE, these filaments are known for their elasticity, allowing them to easily stretch and bend.
HIPS: This is a lightweight material that is, in most cases, used for dissolvable support structures for ABS models.
PETG: These filaments are known for their ease of printability, water resistance, and smooth finish.
Nylon: This is a flexible and tough material. It’s known for its high-impact abrasion resistance and is ideal for printing durable parts.
Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber filaments consist of short fibers that are infused into ABS and PLA to increase strength and stiffness.
ASA: This is a great ABS alternative that is suitable for outdoor applications owing to its
high impact, temperature, and UV resistance.
Polycarbonate: This material is known for its durability and strength. Its impact and heat resistant making it ideal for use in harsh environments.
Polypropylene: It is ideal for high-cycle low strength applications owing to its lightweight, semi-flexible, and fatigue resistant qualities.
Metal Filled: These are filaments made by mixing fine metal powder with a base material giving a unique metallic finish, and added weight to objects.
Wood Filled: These filaments are a combination of a PLA base material, wood dust, cork, and other similar materials. This gives printed objects a wooden look and feel.
PVA: This material can be dissolved in water and works great as a support material for complex prints.

5. Multi-Material and Color Capabilities

These capabilities allow you to print in multiple materials, or to switch between different filament options. Most 3D printers in the market have these options, but you need a deeper understanding of the printing process to execute these options successfully. Some printers offer robust software that greatly simplifies multi-material printing.

6. Resolution

In 3D printing, it refers to the Z minimal layer thickness and X-Y resolution of a 3D printer or the level of detail it can achieve. Motion systems technology has been in use for quite some time; hence the X-Y resolution for 3D printers is usually quite good. Printers using the FDM and FFF
technology create parts using a layering technique; the finish of parts is therefore determined by layer thickness resolution. The thinner the layers on an object, the smoother the finish, but the print time may also be longer.

Resolution also has a direct impact on the printing of tiny features. A printer with a high resolution easily prints tiny features and also gives a thin layer height for a fine finish.
Purchasing a 3D printer with a high resolution is advantageous.

FDM printers have around 100 microns, SLS 60 microns, while SLA/DLP offer the finest
resolution of around 20 microns. However, it’s important to note that resolution specifications change as technology continues to evolve.

7. Print Speed

This is the speed at which a 3D printer moves its extruder or creates parts. Speed is usually
measured in mm/minute or mm/second and refers to the fastest speed that can be achieved as the print head dispenses the material. It is important to note that during 3D printing, the average speed is usually lower than the maximum reported print speed. This is because the print-head has to slow down when printing finer details and when changing direction. It is advised that when you are purchasing a 3D printer, you use ¾ of the maximal print speed for a more realistic estimate.

8. Connectivity and Control

This refers to the software packages that control the 3D printer. Most 3D printers are
controlled via desktop control software like MatterControl and Repetier Host. 3D printers can also be controlled remotely via print servers, mobile apps, and Bluetooth. However, most of these printers require a physical USB connection to the computer that is hosting the slicing and control software. Many 3D printers can also be controlled via SD card when the G-code is
preloaded and run on the printer’s control board.

Hardware and software applications such as PrintToPeer can also be used to enable Wi-Fi
control of your 3D printer through a handheld device like your phone or tablet. This capability allows you to start, monitor, and receive notifications wirelessly. This is quite useful for lengthy projects.

9. Slicing Software

The slicing software takes into consideration your 3D printer’s geometry, speed, material
cooling time, and a host of other factors to generate the machine instructions that your 3D printer will execute until printing is complete.

Most 3D printer manufacturers have their own slicing software. This software is fully
compatible with the 3D printer ensuring quality results. If the 3D printer doesn’t come with proprietary software, then you have to use free slicing software. Most of these softwares are good but may not be calibrated to your suit your 3D printer.

10. Cloud Connectivity

Cloud-based 3D printers can store 3D files in the cloud. These files can be accessed from the cloud on-demand. With cloud connectivity, you don’t need separate memory or a local hard disk to save your files. The files can be printed directly from the cloud.

Purchasing Considerations

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Entry Level and Hobbyist ($300 to $1000)

There is a wide array of small and cheap printers in the market targeted at DIYers who need affordable prints and parts. These printers are often sold as kits to be assembled by the buyer.


You can modify these printers to improve and extend functionality. These printers are unlikely to work perfectly straight out of the box hence requiring a decent amount of calibration.

Professional and Performance 3D Printers ($1000 to $10,000)

These are sturdy machines that offer precision manufacturing and print in all sorts of materials.

In this range, you will find the best of SLA and FDM printers and even printers with multiple capabilities depending on the manufacturer. The quality of prints that these machines offer are outstanding.

Business and Industrial 3D Printers ($10,000 Plus)

These printers are the best in the market. They are designed for businesses and industrial applications. They are the kind you find in factories producing prototypes. These are printers that use materials like metal and carbon fiber. They apply a host of 3D printing technologies, the main ones being SLA, FDM, SLS, and Binder Jetting.

While these printers offer the best prints, they are specialized in terms of functionality and materials. They are large machines, and many come as standalone units. However, some come in multiple units, one for printing, others for curing, sintering, finishing among other processes depending on application.

3D printing technology and printers are no longer a preserve of scientists, engineers and
designers. As the technology evolves, prices will continue to fall as demand grows. Whether you are looking to purchase a 3D printer for home or industrial use, this guide will help you make a better and more informed decision.

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