3D Printer Buying Guide
What to Look for in a 3D Printer
Not sure how to decide which 3D printer is right for you? Here are a few things to consider when shopping for a printer.
Printer type: There are two main types of 3D printers: FFF (fused filament fabrication) and SLA (stereo lithography). FFF printers — which also cover FFM (fused filament manufacturing) and FDM (fused deposition modeling) devices — work by melting a plastic filament in a moving printhead to form the model. SLA printers use an ultraviolet (UV) laser to solidify a resin, focusing the laser to form the solid model. FFF printers are generally cheaper, simpler and easier to use, although SLA models like the XYZprinting Nobel 1.0 (around $1,000) and the $1,295 Peopoly Moai are lowering the price difference.
Printing materials: Whichever type of printer you choose, pay attention to the type of material it uses when printing. The filament material used by FFF printers like the LulzBot TAZ 6 is available in several different materials, such as PLA (a brittle, biodegradable material), ABS (the same plastic used in Lego blocks), nylon, TPE (a soft, rubberlike material) and HDPE (a light, tough polystyrene). Many of these materials, particularly PLA and ABS, are available in a huge range of colors. Filaments come in two sizes: 1.75 mm and 3 mm, which are not interchangeable.
SLA printers have fewer options than their FFF counterparts, but printers like the Form 2 can use resins that produce models ranging from very rigid to flexible and rubbery. The best printers can use a wide range of materials, each of which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. (HDPE, for example, is light and tough, but not suitable for food use, while nylon is food-safe.)
Note that some printers only allow the use of approved materials or materials produced by the same company that made the printer. In that sense, those types of 3D printers are like more traditional paper printers: The manufacturers sell the hardware cheaply and then make money back on the consumables. (Our top budget 3D printer, the da Vinci Mini, only works with PLA filament from manufacturer XYZprinting, for example; however XYZ's filament costs about the same as most third-party materials.) Other 3D printers place no restrictions on the type or origin of the material.
Print volume: All printers have limits on the size of the 3D print they can produce. That limit is defined by the size of the print bed and how far the printer can move the printhead. This is usually measured in cubic inches, but you should also pay attention to each of the individual dimensions, which determine the maximum size 3D print the device can create. So, for example, if a printer like the LulzBot Mini has a print volume of 223 cubic inches (6.2 x 6 x 6 inches), it can print objects that are up to just less than 6 inches high, wide and deep.
Print speed and quality: 3D printing is a slow business, and at present, there's no way to get around this. You should expect a 3- to 4-inch model to typically take between 6 and 12 hours to print, depending on the print quality you select. That's because of the way 3D printing works: The print is constructed in layers. The thicker these layers are, the quicker the print is produced but the lower the print quality is, as the layers become more visible. So, there is a trade-off between print speed and print quality.
The best printers will allow you to determine which way you want to go with this, producing prints quickly or more slowly but at higher quality. The best printers offer a wide range of quality settings, from fast (but low quality) to slow (but high quality).
Filament Buying Guide
How to Select 3D Printing Filament
There are two common diameters of 3D printing filament, 1.75 mm and 3.0 mm. Most commercial printers today are designed to work with one diameter filament and not the other. Always check your printer manufacturers specifications to determine which diameter is compatible with your printer.
Filament Type – ABS vs. PLA
|Material||Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene – copolymer blend of styrene, acryl and butadiene||Polylactic Acid – degradable bioplastic, derived from plants|
|Key features||Harder, more impact resistant||Easier to print – less prone to warping|
|Heat settings||225 – 250º C||190 – 240º C|
|Heated Bed Recommended?||Yes||No|
Can be cut, filed or glued. Acetone smoothing acceptable.
|Can be cut, filed or glued. Do not use with acetone.|
|Transparent options available?||No||Yes|
|Recyclability||Recycling #7||Degradable bio-plastic|
Precision / Diameter Accuracy
Always look for filament manufacturers who publish their diameter tolerances. The tighter the tolerance, the more consistent and accurate the printed results will be. Verbatim 3D printing filaments are manufactured to tight tolerances to ensure stable, accurate prints with consistent feeding.
Spool vs. Coil and Design
Spools are easier to work with than coils. They are easily stored, mount conveniently and distribute the material in an even, consistent manner. However, not all spools are created equal. Verbatim 3D filament spools are custom designed for both strength and to ensure even feeding of filament, resulting in high-quality, consistent printing.
Is your printer equipped with a heated bed? Is the bed platform capable of achieving 100ºC? These are things you should consider when purchasing 3D printing filaments. ABS filament provides much better results when used with a heated print bed – ideally in the range of 80-120º C. The filament will adhere to the print bed better when the bed is heated to temperatures within this range. If your printer is not equipped with a heated print bed, you should consider working with PLA filament.
As a plant based material, PLA is less prone to fumes than ABS material. Depending on your printing environment, this could be a consideration. Printers should only be used in well-ventilated environments, and we recommend use of appropriate respirators to protect against the gasses and particles that can be released by the printing process.