Parts of a 3D Printer Explained
Ever wondered how a 3D printer works to provide those artistically designed pieces? Whether it’s tools for home use, office accessories, medical prosthetics, firearms, or food, a 3D printer has the powerful ability to produce practically anything you can imagine. But the work of a 3D printer is never efficient if its parts are not complete.
You may be very much familiar with how a conventional printer works and even know the name of most of the parts and how they function. But a 3D printer is not a conventional printer. It works differently from the paper printer and has incorporated certain components that make 3D printing possible.
Take this as your ultimate guide to discovering what parts make a 3D printer and how each of them functions to complete a task.
Before we begin, you must understand that there are different kinds of 3D printers. The two major groups of 3D printers are the Cartesian and Delta 3D printers. Each 3D printer takes on a model determined by the manufacturer. However, all of them would conform to the structure of the major group they belong to.
That being said, there may be slight differences in the structure of the two 3D printer models. Still, each one contains essentially the same parts. We have focused on Cartesian 3D printers for this article as they are the easiest to use for beginners. A Delta 3D printer also has the essential parts of the former type, except for some slight inclusions that make how they function distinct.
The controller board of a 3D printer is also called the motherboard or mainboard. Like a typical computer system, the motherboard is the brain of the printer. It oversees every operation using commands received from a computer. The controller board interprets these commands and uses them to direct the operations of every other part of the 3D printer.
It is safe to say that the controller board is responsible for all the fundamental operations of a 3D printer. Therefore, its quality determines the overall functionality of the printing machine.
Think of the filament as the ink used in a regular paper printer. That's right. The filament is the part that prints objects on a 3D printer. The filament is contained in a spool, which in turn is loaded into the spool holder.
The filament works very closely with the extruder and it comes in different types. Usually, the design of a 3D printer or the nature of the extruder will determine what filament to use. Some printers will only allow printing with PLA, which is the most basic type of filament.
Most 3D printers used filaments having a diameter of 1.75 millimeters. A few models allow the use of filaments with larger diameters and are versatile enough for all kinds of printing.
The extruder is also referred to as the print head. This is another very important component of a 3D printer. Its work is closely associated with the name. The end of the filament is inserted into the extruder, which extrudes or thrusts out the filament in order to produce the required 3D model on the print bed.
The extruder has two main sections: the cold end and the hot end. The cold end locks the filament in place while pushing it gradually towards the hot end down the line. On the other hand, the hot end has a nozzle attached to it. It maintains a temperature high enough to melt the filament such that the filament melts as it is being deposited into the print bed.
The extruder is a system of its own and is made of several smaller parts. These include:
- The Filament Drive Gear: Also called the extruder drive gear. This pushes the filament into the hot end.
- Heat Sink and Heat Sink Fan: These two work to ensure the filament stays solid until it gets to the nozzle.
- Heater Cartridge: This does the actual work of heating the filament.
- Thermocouple or Thermistor: This is the hot end's temperature sensor. It ensures that the part maintains just the right temperature.
- Cooling Fan: This works to make sure the filament begins to cool down just as once as it is melted and deposited. This way, it maintains the desired shape before the next layer of melted filament drops on it.
- Nozzle: This is the extrusion point of the melted filament. There are different sizes of nozzles, with most 3D printers using the 0.4mm size. The smaller the diameter of the nozzle, the finer the details it can achieve in 3D printing. Meanwhile, a large nozzle will help print at a higher speed. You can always replace the nozzle of your extruder depending on what purpose needs to be served.
Some printers come with dual extruders. In this case, there are two different nozzles through which filament can pass through, and printing can be done through them simultaneously. For example, you can print a model with two different colors or two different filament materials using a dual extruder.
The feeder system determines how the filament is passed into the extruder. There are two main feeder system types: the Bowden feeder system and the direct feeder system.
In the Bowden feeder system, the cold end is placed somewhere else on the 3D printer frame but not on the print head. The cold end connects to the hot end on the printer head through a filament tube. This makes the extruder lightweight and makes it move faster to ensure faster printing.
For the direct feeder system, the cold and hot ends are connected. This system is mostly used when printing with a flexible filament material.
Like a piece of paper when using a conventional office printer, the print bed is where the melted filament drops. Here, the filament solidifies and forms the printed 3D object.
A print bed can be heated or non-heated. Most simple 3D printers have a non-heated print head. However, a heated print bed is advisable when printing with high-temperature filament materials so as to avoid warping issues when cooling.
Also, a print bed can be made of aluminum or glass. Aluminum beds heat faster, while glass print beds are flatter with easier maintenance routines. Lastly, print beds come in different shapes and calibrations. Usually, Cartesian 3D printers have square or rectangular print beds.
On the print bed is the print bed surface, which is the material the heated filament has contact with when it drops. The print surface ensures the printed material stays in place as it drops and also makes it easy to remove after printing.
Different materials are used as print bed surfaces, including BuildTak, PEI, hairspray, and glue.
These are the moving parts of the printer that provide the 3-dimensional shape patterns. Of course, you would have known that 3D patterns can be seen from different perspectives and have the three distinct x, y, and z axes.
When a 3D printer works, specific components move in these three axes to provide the 3-dimensional effect after printing. These parts are called the motion components or motion controllers.
The motion components receive instructions from the controller board, which determines the direction each component moves. These are the basic motion controllers of a 3D printer:
- Stepper motors
- Threaded rods
- End stops
7. Stepper Motors
The stepper motors are controlled by stepper drivers. These are what determine the mechanical movement of the overall printer. The stepper motors move in all three axes, and the way they move along these axes drives the print head, print bed, and threaded rods. They are called stepper motors because they make rotations in a step-like manner.
The belts move along the x and y axes. Hence, they either go from side to side or up to down. The movement of the belts affects printing speed, and how tight or loose they are can determine printing accuracy. You may use belt tensioning devices to keep the belts in optimum tightness and easily adjust their tightness.
9. Threaded Rods
The threaded rods move along the z-axis. Leadscrews can also perform this task with even smoother movements.
The rotation of the threaded rods or leadscrews causes the print head and, sometimes, the print bed to move upward and downward to provide a formation in the z-axis.
10. End Stops
End stops mark the movement range of all motion components along their axes. This would determine how far the components can stretch and prevent mechanical damage due to the movement of components beyond their normal range.
The frame is the chassis where all the components of the 3D printer are head together as appropriate. The frame ensures the stability and overall durability of a 3D printer. If the frame is not properly designed or made with the right material, it could give way and make the printer's parts fall out, loosen, or malfunction due to unwarranted friction.
Frames can be made from acrylic materials, metal, and sometimes, wood. Metal frames provide the most durability and stability. A 3D printer can also have an open, enclosed, or semi-enclosed frame. These frame structures determine how much access you can have to the printer’s parts. They also prevent dust from reaching delicate parts and provide safety by keeping the heated components away from human reach.
The Power Supply Unit is simply the power source of the 3D printer. The PSU can be mounted on the printer frame or housed separately in a controller box. A PSU mounted on the printer frame takes less space and makes the printer more compact.
The strength of the Power Supply Unit determines what temperatures your printer can get to and can also determine how fast-moving parts are driven.
The user interface of a 3D printer is where you operate from and input commands for the printer to work on. A printer can either have a user interface that is mounted on the frame or a standalone computer where operations are entered. In the latter case, connectivity is required between the operating computer and the 3D printer. 3D printers with the Wi-Fi connectivity option can let you operate them from a computer or even a tablet or phone.
Most 3D printers, though, have a basic LCD interface comprising of an operating knob and dial. Some sophisticated printers have a full-color touchscreen interface for smooth operation.
Most 3D printers also come with USB ports for inserting a flash drive. You can therefore load files with compatible formats into the printer so it can print the patterns on them right away.
Understanding how a 3D printer works is really not as technical as it seems. In fact, you do not need to have much technical background to operate a 3D printer.
Having the right knowledge about how each part works would, however, put you in a better position to operate the machine. And who knows, you may someday have enough courage and experience to create your own 3D printing machine!