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While 3D printing has long been a mainstay in the industrial sector, a 3D printer is now within the budgets of small businesses and consumers thanks to recent technological advances. Typically utilized for design prototypes and replacement parts, a business can utilize a 3D printer in countless ways. Here we discuss the fundamentals of 3D printers and offer guidance for matching your business’ 3D printing needs with the appropriate printer for the job.

How does 3D Printing Work?

3D printing works through a process called additive manufacturing, where items are created by adding layer upon layer of material. The printer reads a design from a file and then forms the object one layer at a time, starting at the bottom. Depending on the type of 3D printer, the material may come in the form of a thin filament or liquid resin.

Additive manufacturing 3D printers come in several different varieties but most people are familiar with fused deposition modeling (FDM). With a FDM 3D printer, filament is ejected from a device called an extruder, which is analogous to an inkjet printer’s nozzles, onto the print bed. The extruder and print bed can move on all three axes and create items layer by layer.

Stereo lithography (SL or SLA) is the second most common type of 3D printer. With an SLA printer, you have a vat of curable liquid resin that solidifies when exposed to ultraviolet light. To build an object, UV light traces a pattern to create a layer which then solidifies. The vat or platform then lowers and a new coat of resin covers the previous layer. UV light once again traces a pattern onto the resin to solidify until the design is complete. SLA printing comes at a greater cost as resin cannot be reused and costs more than filament.

Aside from the printer itself, you need to have software that can open or draft designs to be sent to the printer. Most 3D printers accept .stl or .obj file formats, which many 3D printer programs support. If you have a design in a proprietary file format such as .max or .lw, you need to convert it to either .stl or .obj for use with a 3D printer.

Types of Filament

Filament comes in spools that look very similar to a replacement plastic lines for a string trimmer used in landscaping. This filament comes in two different forms, Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polylactic acid (PLA).

ABS – You’ve probably heard the term ABS plastic before in relation to items such as car bumpers, computer cases, and toys—basically any electronic with a plastic case or shell. For 3D printing, ABS works well as it can be easily molded when heated. ABS is a non-organic plastic that is very malleable even when cold.

However, melted ABS plastic can warp a little bit when it comes in contact with a cold surface such as the bed of a 3D printer. Another issue is that the smell of printing ABS isn’t exactly pleasant.

PLA – An organic compound that is more environmentally friendly than ABS. PLA does not require the use of a heated bed as it will not warp or deform when laid down on a cold surface. It has a lower melting point than ABS so print temperatures do not reach as high. But this also means PLA can melt much more easily. Leaving a printed PLA object in a car during a sunny day for instance will make for a melted part.

PLA objects are also more brittle than other plastics, so they tend to chip. Print something too thin and it may snap when bent. But at least you won’t get the acrid fumes while printing with PLA. When heated, it gives off a pleasant sweet smell.

Questions to Ask When Purchasing a 3D Printer

Do you want to build or buy a printer? You don’t need to purchase a complete 3D printer to get started. You can build your own 3D printer by purchasing the individual components and piecing them together or purchasing a complete kit. Building a 3D printer can be cheaper but the quality of the printer can vary greatly.

How much do you want to spend? 3D printers come in a variety of price points.

  • $350 – $1000: The XYZprinting daVinci 1.0 3D Printer costs $350 and represents you basic 3D FDM 3D printer. At this price point, expect smaller print beds and fairly basic software packages. Unfortunately, you won’t find SLA printers at this price point. You may find some dual extruder models such as the Zeepro ZIM Black starting at $1000, but they won’t be common.
  • $1000 – $3000: At this price point, you have higher end of FDM printers with multiple extruders and support for more than one filament spool. These printers will also be able to print in finer detail and have bigger print beds.
  • $3000+: In this price range, you have premium FDM 3D printer
  • s along with SLA printers. SLA 3D printers can make objects with very fine detail and print in very thin layers. But keep in mind that because resin cannot be reused, printing with SLA comes at a higher cost than FDM.

How big of a printer do you need? The size of the printer determines how big of an object you can build. If you want to make an object 10 inches tall, you’ll need a printer that supports that size. In addition, you need to consider how much space you have for the printer as a large printer can take up quite a bit of desk space.

What type of filament do you want to use? Some printers support both ABS and PLA while others support one or the other. As we covered above, PLA and ABS have their pros and cons and you should choose the one that best fits your needs.

How quickly do you want to print objects? Remember that extruder we discussed earlier and how it was similar to a nozzle in an inkjet printer? Well, it turns out having more than one extruder can save you time printing. A dual extruder 3D printer doesn’t print at twice the speed however. It just means the printer doesn’t need to pause to reload filament, which then saves you time.

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Photo by Keith Kissel, taken from Flickr Creative Commons
It Came From the 3rd Dimension: 3D Printer Buying Guide
Article Name
It Came From the 3rd Dimension: 3D Printer Buying Guide
Choosing a 3D printer can be difficult as there are a variety of different technologies available. We give you some tips for choosing the right printer.
Wallace Chu

Author Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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