A Guide to Selecting a 3D Printer
Printing with a 3D printer has been used for preparing prototypes since the 1980s. While it was used mostly in engineering at first, the technology has become accessible and affordable enough that even hobbyists can try their hand at it, fashioning intricate models or even Nerf guns. There have been advances in printing prosthetic limbs, and research teams have even succeeded in producing human organs with a 3D printer!
We’ll see that there are three main types of 3D printers: 1) those that produce models by melting plastic filaments, 2) those that print using layers of resin, by the method of stereolithography, and 3) printers that use selective laser sintering, where a laser melts a powder into the desired form. Some printers are capable of producing high-resolution models and sculptures, while others are able to produce many articles quickly, either for educational or commercial purposes. We’ll see that there are even 3D printers that are kid-friendly, letting your child produce amazing gift ideas from a PC or smartphone!
We’ll go through some of the offerings in the Best Reviews Guide list, both for typical 3D printers, as well as budget printers. You’ll be amazed at the range of possibilities!
What kind of software do I need to get into 3D printing?
Most manufacturers provide a small USB flash drive with software to install to use their 3D printer. There are also open-source software packages, such as Chitubox. You have the option of producing your own models with AutoCAD, Google SketchUp, OpenSCAD, or Tinkercad. And there are also ready-made images from sites like MakerBot’s Thigiverse that you can download and print.
Types of 3d Printers
There are essentially three types of 3D printers, differing in the materials they use and how they form a 3D model:
Plastic filaments: You’ll see “FDM 3D Printers” in the Best Reviews Guide list. “FDM” stands for “Filament (or “Fused”) Deposition Modeling”. These melt filaments from PLA, ABS, and TPU plastics onto a support surface by a method called “Fused Filament Fabrication (=FFF)”. An example is the Creality Ender 3 S1 3D Printer. Take note of the materials that you print with: If you print models with ABS plastic filaments, you will need a heated bed upon which the plastic is deposited.
Creality Ender 3 S1 3D Printer
Resin printers: These use a technique called stereolithography, or SLA, for “stereolithography apparatus”. These printers apply a layer of resin and then harden the layer by means of UV laser light. You’ll also see MSLA printers. That stands for “masked stereolithography apparatus”. Instead of a laser, they cure the layer of resin by applying ultraviolet light by means of LEDs, under an LCD screen, or “mask”. The resolution of the screen will determine the resolution that you can achieve in the project. There is a speed advantage to the MSLA printer: MSLA printers can print more quickly and can print more than one copy at the same time. An example is the Elegoo Saturn MSLA 3D printer. It has an HD resolution of 3840 x 2400 pixels, and can print each layer in as quickly as 2-3 seconds!
Elegoo Saturn MSLA 3D printer
Powder: There are also printers that can create a 3D model from powder made from plaster, polyurethane, metal, and more. They use the method of selective laser sintering, or “SLS”. A laser fuses the powder into a solid. Although the printer itself is significantly more expensive, each part is actually cheaper to produce than in an SLA or FDM printer. These printers are used mostly in industry for producing prototypes. An example is the Sintratec S2 3D Printer. But you’ll probably find it to be prohibitively expensive. The market price is around $38,000!
What reviewers say
Here are some impressions of people who bought the 3D printers featured in the Best Reviews Guide list:
Printer speed: We mentioned that resin printers tend to be faster. The Anycubic Photon M3 Resin 3D Printer can print at a speed of 50 mm per hour, and cure a layer of resin in as little as 1.5 seconds. At this speed, it can print a 12-cm tall model in as little as 2.5 hours.
Printers with a heated platform: As we mentioned before, if you print with ABS plastic, you should have a heated build plate, to keep the project warm as it cools. This will ensure that it will not become warped. The Dremel DigiLab 3D Printer has a heated build plate that remains at 100 degrees Celsius. It also has a leveling sensor, to make sure that the build plate is level. This will prevent the model from getting distorted due to being at a slant.
Kid-friendly printers: There are even 3D printers that a child can use to print their own toys, either from a catalog or by drawing them by hand! The Toybox 3D 1-Touch Kid-Friendly Children’s Toy Printer is also great for parents who want to try to create something original for their children.
An item created with the Toybox 3D printer
Here are some features and pieces of advice when using a 3D printer:
Printer that allows you to remove the model with ease: Certain 3D printers, such as the Creality Ender-3 S1 Pro 3D Printer, have a flexible spring-steel magnetic build plate. This plate is purposely made to be flexible so that it is easy to remove the model from the printer when it is complete. Also, the plate is made from polyetherimide, or PEI, which allows the model to adhere well, without any risk of it slipping.
Auto-resume after a power outage or if you run out of material: Since printing a 3D project can take hours, there is always the risk of a power outage in the middle. The best printers will have a feature to resume printing exactly where they left off, in the event of an unexpected interruption. For example, the Creality Ender 3 S1 3D Printer will resume printing after the power goes back on. And it has a filament sensor to detect if you’re running out of material, or if a filament breaks. It records data of where it left off and picks up when you restore power, or if you supply it with more raw material.
Printer resolution: You’ll see that there are resin MSLA 3D printers with 2K and 4K resolution. The resolution of the printer is essentially determined by the resolution of an LCD screen. The number of pixels on the LCD screen will influence the detail in the final model. A 2K printer will have an LCD with a resolution of 2560 x 1620 pixels, while a 4K printer will have a resolution of 2400 x 3840 pixels. Experts say that the size of the pixels will also influence the resolution. If you have many pixels on a large screen, the individual pixel size may be bigger than 2K resolution on a small screen.
We briefly looked at some of the offerings in the Best Reviews Guide list of the best 3D printers. You can find affordable FDM printers for as little as $200 that use plastic filaments, and resin 3D printers for just a bit more, at $226. Note that some printers require assembly, and there is also a learning curve until you master using the software. Whether you’re a hobbyist or you want to try to construct educational toys and puzzles, a 3D printer can greatly expand your horizons!