3D printers are steadily gaining traction in the consumer market. However, this is not to say you will find it in every home you walk into. Unlike your conventional printers, 3d printers are designed for professional life-like prints with a little technicality. The printers can print anything you want it to, provided you have the file to back it. However, with the technology still considerably foreign to many, buying a 3d printer can be daunting.
The prices of 3d printers vary, and with it, the quality and efficiency of each. Contrary to what people say, the best product is not always the most expensive. Conversely, the best is not always the cheapest. Instead, the goal should be to balance the price-quality ratio for a valuable purchase. This is why we have come up with 5 things you need to know before buying a 3D printer.
5 things you need to know before buying a 3D printer
The type of printer
We know you want to choose a 3D printer. However, 3D is a broad term that covers different aspects of technologies needed for the physical result. Hence, you should be more specific about the type of printer you choose. Some of the different technologies used include:
Fused deposition modeling (FDM)
FDM is an additive process that involves model creation through the heating and extrusion of plastic, pieced together by each layer. FDM is the most popular 3D printing method used for building parts with a production-grade thermoplastic. This is because the plastic has excellent thermal, chemical, and mechanical properties for manufacturing and engineering. The method lets you build objects from the base by heating and extruding the plastic filament via an extrusion head. The head is deposited in the X and Y axis while the build table passes the objects by layer in the Z-direction. This method is environmentally-friendly and is used for cavities and geometrics
Selective laser sintering and melting
Selective laser sintering or SLS uses a laser beam for precise printing. The laser melts the powder to create a layer of printed material instead of using liquids and UV light beams. The print material includes glass, ceramics, steel, aluminum, nylon, and silver. However, the method is expensive. On the other hand, selective laser melting or SLM, although regarded as a sub-category of SLS, is different. It melts metallic powders into 3D parts with a high-powered laser beam. It is popularly used for aluminum, cobalt chrome, titanium, and stainless steel to create thin-walled structures and complex geometries. SLS, unlike SLM, uses powdered material instead of liquid resin in the vat.
SLS is the oldest method of them all, and like FDM, it uses an additive process. However, it utilizes a UV light beam to harden the model instead of extruding plastics. The method creates a smooth surface that mechanical engineers use to verify their design or create prototypes. It exposes a pool of photosensitive liquid to the beam to harden the plastic and join the layer below. As a result, each layer forms on top of the one before it forms into a model. When the project is complete, the object is baked in a UV oven after it is rinsed in a solvent.
Laminated object manufacturing (LOM)
LOM is a rapid prototyping method involving layers of metal or plastic laminates and adhesive-coated paper fused under pressure and heat. A computer-controlled knife or laser is used to cut and shape the paper, and the procedure is usually followed by drilling or machining. Hence, the object is created by layer, and the excess material is discarded. The final object is either sealed with paint or sanded to refine the finish. Unlike others, the printing method is very fast and affordable. It is also ideal for creating large parts.
Electronic Beam Melting (EBM)
This method uses a computer-controlled electron beam at a high temperature to melt the metallic powder. The con with this method is that it is expensive and slow.
The materials used to print
Like the methods, different materials are required for a successful 3D print project. They include ceramics, plastics, metals, etc.
Polylactic acid and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene are the common plastics used for 3D printing. Both plastics are malleable and soft when heat and freeze when cooled.
Polylactic acid (PLA)
PLA is a bio-degradable and environmentally material derived from cornstarch. It is ideal for beginners and is available as filaments. Apart from being environmentally sound, the material cools quickly to let you avoid model warping issues and is available in translucent and solid colors. By implication, it gives your object a glossy look at completion. On the downside, it has a low melting point; hence, objects may be deformed if exposed to high heat. It can also be challenging to work with if the project involves interlocking and joint parts.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
Abs plastic is petroleum-based and is handy for its flexibility and strength. This flexibility lets you create joints and interlocking pieces with ease, unlike the other type. Apart from this, it has a high melting point; hence, it won’t deform if exposed to high heat. As expected, it takes a longer time to cool down and is prone to warping. It also emits form when you paint.
Metal composites and metal are handy for industrial-grade printing. Cobalt derivative and aluminum are common materials, although stainless steel is stronger. You can extend the material used to titanium, gold, and silver, especially for aerospace and industrial applications.
Paper and ceramics
Like normal printing, regular A4 paper is sometimes used for 3D printing. The papers are very affordable, recyclable, and environmentally-friendly. On the other hand, ceramics is relatively new and news to be exposed to extreme heat after printing.
There are researches about using food substances like chocolate and biomaterials for 3D printing. For example, printing human organs and tissues for transplant in medical applications.
Printer quality and safety
The print quality depends largely on print speed and resolution. The resolution determines how much detail the printer can produce in either the horizontal or vertical axes. Put differently; the resolution means the level of detail the printer can achieve and is measured in microns. Small positional increments reveal the horizontal resolution that the laser beam or extruder makes within the layer. On the other hand, the vertical resolution represents the minimal layer height the printer produces during every pass. Generally, the lower the resolution value, the higher the detail the printer will produce. Not just this, finer prints require a longer time.
The print speed refers to how fast the printer can move its extruder. Hence, a fast print speed will produce a faster print. The way the printer accelerates and decelerates affects the printer speed. However, you should know that the resolution and speed affect each other. There is often a trade-off between the two as a high resolution often means a low speed.
3D printing is not without inherent risks and complications. As a result, you should pay attention to a few safety precautions to ensure the best print quality.
Plastic and consumption
3D printers can create different types of household items, including the ones you eat with. However, not all the additives used in either PLA or ABS are food safe. Apart from this, products created with FDM printers have porous surfaces that bacteria can pool. Therefore, you should limit the amount of kitchenware you 3D print and restrict major use to object coating.
Heating and fumes
You should be extra careful when you work with heated plastics to prevent burning yourself ad possible things around you. You can buy printers with an enclosure near the print area to prevent accidents. Apart from this, you near to print in a well-ventilated room, especially if you use ABS plastic since the fume can be overwhelming. For a quality result, you should take the necessary precautions.
STL files and slicing software
The STL file is the standard format used to print 3D models into actual objects. It uses several triangle meshes to determine the surface to be printed. CAD systems create the files by exporting the model to an STL binary format with tailored precision. You can either purchase the files or download them from free communities of enthusiasts. After obtaining the STL file, you need to run it through slicing software to know how to print. The software tells the printer how to print your project by providing instructions on the layers needed and positioning. You can check through different software to know which will work best for your printer.
Camera: A camera feature on the printer lets you monitor the progress of your print. You can use it to check the print progress from your phone or computer remotely. Apart from this, the camera is handy for scanning objects you want to print. The scanned images are converted to a printable file. However, this feature may add to the purchase price.
Interface: the interface provides an intuitive platform for user interaction. You can send an instruction to monitor or adjust your print job via the interface. The touchscreen interface is the most popular type as it lets you handle projects without pushing hard buttons.
Connectivity features: there are different ways to connect to your printer to print a 3d file. For example, cloud-based printers can be accessed through the cloud; hence, you don’t need a separate memory card. However, this type is not so common. We recommend that you look for different and compatible connectivity features on the printer before buying it.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
- How much should I spend on a 3d printer?
There is always a trade-off as to whether the price should determine the type of printer to buy. As with all purchases, price is an important factor to consider. However, it should not be a major determinant. In a bid to save cost, some buyers purchase overly-cheap products that don’t end up adding much to their projects. Conversely, some buyers stray too far from the chain and buy an overly-expensive product. The secret is to balance price and quality to find an affordable printer at your price level. Since there is always a printer at your price level, you don’t need to break the bank to make your purchase.
- Should I buy a 3d printer or make my own?
Pre-assembled 3d printers are convenient and are fabricated by manufacturers according to tailored and specific guidelines. However, some creative communities offer the parts for sale for personal assembly. Put simply; buying a pre-assembled printer is better than a DIY printer. While nothing major can go wrong with a purchase, everything can go wrong with DIY assembly. Besides, you can’t call on anybody when things go south.
- Are 3D printers safe?
3d printers are safe for use, provided you take necessary precautions during use. For example, working with high temperatures is risky in itself. To take care of this, the printers have fans and cooling systems. However, when you push it too hard, it could break down. Apart from this, you should not use materials that can be harmful to you. We recommend that you always close the printing area during use. Apart from this, keep children away from the printer.
- How do I use a 3D printer?
Before using the printer, you should go through the manufacturer’s manual for instruction on how to use. Spend time going through the settings, the software needed, calibrations, and other features. Since the models differ, don’t expect that knowledge of one model will help you with another. Most of the products have user-friendly designs; hence, you won’t have much problem figuring out what to do.
You should be able to buy a 3d printer unassisted with the few information we have provided in this guide. There are lots of 3d printers, each with tailored specifications. However, the method for buying any of them is pretty much the same.