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3D Printer: The Ultimate Buying Guide
Dubbed the “next trillion-dollar industry”, 3D printing is considered to be one of the most innovative and imaginative technologies the world has ever seen. From building homes, car parts and accessories to printing food and even artificial organs, the possibilities of 3D printing are endless. As any other type of printer, a 3D printer comes in a variety of sizes and models, optimized for different needs and different markets. This guide will help you explore different types of 3D printers, their available features and the latest in 3D printing technology.
So, what is 3D printing, after all?
We can all agree that 3D printing is revolutionizing the world, changing the way we build and produce objects. But, what is 3D printing exactly, what impact does it have on our lives and how can you benefit from it? Simply put, 3D printing is the process of building a physical object from a virtual design. The printer scans the design and, using different materials, builds a 3-dimensional object. Although this cutting-edge technology may seem like something new, 3D printing was first developed in the 1980s, when inventor Chuck Hull started experimenting with liquid plastic. The most common material used in 3D printing is plastic, but, as the market grows and 3D printers become more affordable, more and more materials become available for use. For example, using a person’s cells, doctors can 3D print small body organs, such as ears and noses.
How does 3D printing work?
When 3D printing was first introduced, not too many people could afford it. Nowadays, for less than $1.000, you can have your own 3D printer. However, even today, not everyone knows how 3D printing works. 3D printers are similar to regular printers in the sense that you put something in and get something out (printed paper). The difference is that, instead of ink, 3D printers use a variety of different filaments to print layer after layer after layer. This technique is called “additive manufacturing” and allows designers to create complex parts for cars, airplanes, machines and so on at a lower price. Let’s imagine for a moment you are printing a cup. To start, you will need a virtual model of the cup you want to print. You can either design the model yourself or use 3D-modeling software. You can even download different models from the Internet or scan an existing cup. Once you have the model, the printer will build it layer by layer until a solid figure is created. Then, lasers cut through the material giving it the desired shape. The unused material is collected and used in the next printing process.
A look at the different types of 3D printers
3D printers use different methods to add the layers of material to the object. Let’s take a look at the different types of 3D printers and 3D printing technologies.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
3D printers using fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology build objects layer by layer by heating and extruding thermoplastic filaments. There are two popular types of FDM 3D printers:
Entry-level Filament 3D Printers
Entry-level filament 3D printers are the most affordable models on the market. Easy-to-use and to configure, they often include basic software package. They use one of two possible types of plastic: ABS or an organic version called PLA. Most entry-level filament printers can print in just one color.
High-end Filament 3D Printers
Similar to entry-level filament printers, high-end filament 3D printers melt the plastic filament and deposit it in thin layers. Equipped with more sophisticated features, such as multiple extruders and thinner layers, high-end filament printers are much more expensive. Furthermore, they can print in multiple colors or use different materials to build 3-dimensional objects.
Stereolithography Printers (SLA)
Unlike the FDM technology, where the plastic is heated and extruded, stereolithography printers use an ultraviolet light beam to harden liquid plastic. After a layer of plastic is harden, the printer raises the platform in order for a new coating to be added. The process is repeated until the object is built and the liquid plastic is hardened. Although more costly than most FDM 3D printers, SLA allows for a higher quality printout. The prints are produced in high resolution, are softer and more visually appealing. However, because the technology is rather new, there aren’t too many options in terms of colors.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Also known as powder printer, selective laser sintering (SLS) printers use a fine powder that is spread over the print surface. Then, a laser or a solvent melts or liquefies the powder, forcing it to glue together in a layer. One of the main advantages or SLS printers is that they can use a wide variety of materials, from plastic and metal to glass or ceramics. Due to this feature, SLS printers are extremely popular for 3D printing custom-made objects.
What to consider when buying a 3D printer?
3D printing is an exciting technology and, as the market grows and matures, it becomes more and more consumer-friendly. And, the great news is, improvements keep coming. If you decided to invest in a 3D printer, but you don’t know which one is right for you, here is a list of things you should consider.
What do you want to print?
Probably the most important question you need to ask yourself before buying a 3D printer is what do you want to print? Do you want a 3D printer for your own entertainment or do you need it for new products or prototypes? Are you a domestic consumer or a manufacturer? Based on these answers, you can narrow down your list to a few models. It goes without saying that a domestic buyer, who wants a 3D printer for entertainment purposes only can opt for an entry-level printer.
What type of printing materials are you planning to use?
Most 3D printers use plastic filament, which is melted, extruded and then hardened to form the object. Depending on your needs, you can decide whether a 3D printer that uses only plastic is enough.
How fast do you want to 3D print?
Although 3D printers became more and more advanced, the consumer models are still very limited. This means that the printing time is rather long. An entry-level FDM 3D printer, for example, has a printing speed of between 40mm/s to 150 mm/s. The higher the resolution is, the lower the print speed will be. Furthermore, the material and the complexity of the design can have an impact on the print speed.
What type of layer resolution are you looking to get?
Layer resolution translates into how thin the layers are and how smooth the surface of the object is. Some 3D printers allow you to enter layer resolution values, while others provide only few options, such as slow, medium or high resolution.
Do you want to print in multiple colors?
Are colors important to you? Than you should probably opt for a 3D printer that can print objects in two or more colors.
How large are the objects you want to 3D print?
Think of the largest object you plan to print and make the decision with its dimensions in mind. The build area of a 3D printer can range from a few inches to more than two feet.
3D printer connectivity
Most 3D printers need a computer and an USB connection in order to start printing. Some 3D printers have an internal memory and they can continue printing even if the USB cable is disconnected. There also are some printers which offer wireless connectivity.
What software do you need?
As you probably guessed, you need special software to design and create 3-dimensional objects. Nowadays, 3D printers come with software, which is compatible with most operating systems, including Linux. You can also download a number of 3D modeling software, such as Solidworks, Blender, AutoCAD or SketchUp.
What is your budget?
Another important factor that can help you decide which 3D printer is best for you is the price. A decent quality 3D printer can go as low as $750, while a high-end 3D printer can go above $2000.
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