How to Choose the Best 3D Printer

How to Choose the Best 3D Printer

Finding the best 3D printer is no easy task. With so many factors to consider and options to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin and what to look for. To help make your decision a little easier and your shopping experience a lot less stressful, we’ve put together this primer on 3D printers. Read on to find the answers to all of your important 3D-printing questions.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—is the process of creating a three-dimensional object from a digital model using a specialized printing device (i.e., a 3D printer). The creation process varies, depending on the type of printer and material used; however, the basic mechanism involves adding (or “printing”) materials layer by layer until the 3D object is complete.

What are the different types of 3D printers?

It might surprise you to learn that there are multiple types of 3D printers, each with its own set of advantages and limitations. Three of the most common and well-established types of 3D printers are fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography (SLA), and stereo laser sintering (SLS).

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is the most common and readily available type of desktop 3D printer. Using thermoplastic filaments, FDM printers produce 3D objects layer by layer, starting at the bottom-most layer (which is printed directly onto the build platform) and building upward until the object is complete.

The speedy Creality K1 Max is one of the fastest FDM printers on the market.
The speedy Creality K1 Max is one of the fastest FDM printers on the market.

FDM printers are ideal for low-res designs, proof-of-concept models, and prototyping. They can also be used for printing simple, ready-to-use products such as LEGO-style bricks and other non-complex components.

Because of their low resolution and comparatively lower accuracy, consumer-level FDM printers are generally not ideal for printing overly complex or intricate designs. This doesn’t mean you can’t achieve a high-quality print with an FDM printer, but doing so will likely require additional steps and equipment—e.g., you can greatly improve the visual quality of FDM prints using various smoothing and polishing techniques.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): Unlike FDM printers, which use thermoplastic filaments, selective laser sintering (SLS) printers utilize thermoplastic polymer powders to construct 3D objects.

One of the biggest benefits of using an SLS printer is that it allows you to print 3D objects without dedicated support structures, which, in turn, makes SLS printers a great solution for specific use cases, including printing complex geometric objects, short-run prints, and custom manufacturing.

Many different types of powder material are available for SLS printers, including nylon, glass, and ceramic—to name just a few. Of those, nylon powder is arguably the most popular, thanks to outstanding mechanical properties that include superior strength, durability, and flexibility.

Stereolithography (SLA): Credited as being the world’s first 3D printing technology, stereolithography (SLA) printing was first introduced in the early 1980s by Japanese inventor Dr. Hideo Kodama. Despite it being a 40-year-old technology, SLA is still one of the most popular 3D printing technologies available today, especially among professionals, thanks in part to its high precision level, print quality, and widespread application.

To construct a 3D object, SLA printers utilize a UV-laser to cure liquid resin into a hardened pattern. Like FDM printers, SLA printers build 3D objects layer by layer until the object is complete; however, because SLA printers use a surgically precise laser (as opposed to a heated nozzle), they are able to achieve a much higher degree of accuracy and detail.

SLA printers are ideal for creating detailed, highly accurate 3D objects, with fine features and smooth surfaces—e.g., jewelry, statues and figurines, detailed molds, functional parts and components, and countless more objects across a wide range of fields and industries.

Although FDM, SLS, and SLA are the three most common types of 3D printers, they are by no means the only available options. In your quest to find the best 3D printer for your needs, you’ll likely run into many other printer types and technologies, including fused filament fabrication (FFF), digital light processing (DLP), and liquid crystal display (LCD).

LCD 3D printers like the HALOT-MAGE PRO from Creality are prized for their speed and outstanding precision.
LCD 3D printers like the HALOT-MAGE PRO from Creality are prized for their speed and outstanding precision.

Don’t let the avalanche of acronyms confuse you. As long as you remember the core characteristics and capabilities of the three main printer types, you’ll have a solid grasp of what any variety of 3D printer can do and the type of results you should expect.

What are the different types of 3D printing materials?

Not only are there multiple types of 3D printers, but there are also different types of 3D printing materials. The majority of these materials can be divided into two categories: thermoplastic and thermoset.

Thermoplastic: Thermoplastics are plastic polymers that melt and become moldable when heated to a certain temperature. Upon cooling, moldable thermoplastic returns to a solid state. This process can be repeated several times, meaning thermoplastics can be shaped, recycled, and reused over and over.

Thermoset: Unlike thermoplastics, a thermosetting polymer (or thermoset) cannot be recycled or reused once it’s cured into a solid state. Once a thermoset has been cured, it remains in a solid state permanently. If you expose a solid-state thermoset to sufficient heat, it will simply decompose; reconstitution is not possible.

Within the two major printing material categories are several subcategories, each supported by a specific type of 3D printer. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular subcategory types.

ABS: Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. One of the most popular thermoplastic polymers used for 3D printing; most commonly used with FDM printer types. Hallmarks of ABS material include durability, impact resistance, and rigidity. ABS material is ideal for printing products that connect to one another (e.g., LEGO-style bricks) and functional prototypes.

ABS materials like this 1.75mm CR-ABS filament from Creality are perfect for printing functional prototypes.
ABS materials like this 1.75mm CR-ABS filament from Creality are perfect for printing functional prototypes.

PLA: Polylactic acid. A biodegradable and beginner-friendly thermoplastic commonly used with FDM printers. PLA is very easy to work, and relatively durable—although it’s not as strong or heat-resistant as ABS. It’s ideal for building concept models or looks-like prototypes.

Resin: A thermosetting polymer that comes in a wide range of formulations, each with its own specific set of properties and attributes. Liquid resins are used with vat polymerization printers (e.g., SLA printers) to produce highly accurate 3D objects, with fine features and smooth surfaces, including jewelry, hi-res figurines, intricate molds, complex working components, and more.

TPU: Thermoplastic polyurethane. A thermoplastic polymer known for its flexibility and strength, TPU is available as a filament and a powder, meaning it can be used with compatible FDM and SLS printers. Thanks to its inherent flexibility, TPU materials are great for printing rubber-like end parts, wearables, flexible prototypes, and more.

TPU printing materials like this 1.75mm TPU filament from Creality are great for producing flexible, working prototypes and operational designs.
TPU printing materials like this 1.75mm TPU filament from Creality are great for producing flexible, working prototypes and operational designs.

These are just a few of the many different types and variations of 3D printing materials available. With the right printer, you can also print 3D objects using materials such as metal, ceramic, and carbon fiber. You can even print 3D objects using certain foodstuffs, such as chocolate.

What software do I need for 3D printing?

When it comes to 3D printing, the software you use to create your design files is every bit as important as the printer itself. No matter how good your printer is, if you’re not using the best 3D printing software for your application, you’re putting the quality of your final product at risk.

Fortunately for anyone interested in 3D printing, there are tons of software tools and modeling programs available, many of them very easy to learn. Deciding which of these options is best for you depends on important factors such as intended use-case and application, skill level, and so on. That being said, some of the most popular 3D printing software options include Blender, Ultimaker Cura, Tinkercad, and more.

What can I do with a 3D printer?

One of the incredible things about 3D printing is that it really is a process that’s bound only by the limits of your imagination. If you can dream it, odds are you can print it—within reason, of course. Here are some of the most common 3D printing use cases and applications.

Entertainment Models: Creating super-detailed, high-resolution models and figurines of characters from your favorite video game, manga, anime, and more is easier than ever, thanks to the advancements of 3D printing.

Healthcare: 3D printers can produce a wide range of products and instruments that serve various sectors of the healthcare industry, including crown and bridge models, dental aligners, insoles and orthotics, and so much more.

Jewelry: Jewelry designers use 3D printers to prototype designs, produce casts and molds, client fittings, and more.

Jigs and Fixtures: 3D printers are excellent resources for producing various part-specific jigs, including assembly, disassembly, and bonding jigs. You can also use a 3D printer to create surrogate parts for product testing and process validation.

Prototyping: With a 3D printer, you can quickly manufacture various types of prototypes (functional, cosmetic, etc.), as well as product proofs of concept (POC) and other design models.

3D printing serves a vast array of industries and applications, far more than we could ever list here. And while that far-ranging support does grant an almost unlimited amount of design freedom, it’s important to know (or have a general idea) what type of 3D objects you want to create before your purchase your 3D printer.

That about wraps it up for our guide on how to choose the best 3D printer. Hopefully, some of the information presented here will prove useful. If you have questions about anything we’ve discussed, or if you would like information on anything we might have left out, be sure to drop us a line below.