These days, there are so many people who are very excited with the latest developments in 3D printing.  There are so many different options out there for people who want to purchase their own machine.  Having worked with them before, I’ve come up with a list of considerations for buying a 3D printer.

Print Volume

This is the amount volume that the printer is able to print in.  Generally, the measurement is given by the three dimensions of a rectangular prism.  The thing to watch out for here is that just because a printer has a large print volume, it does not mean the printer can reliably print in all of it.  Say the design calls for a thin flat plate.  If the plate is too wide, then the edges of the plate will peel/warp during the print and the flat shape that was intended will be slightly curved.  To visualize what warping is, imagine a flat plate lying on the print bed as it is being printed.  Warping is when the corners of the plate start peeling off the base during a print.  Warping will be explained in a little more detail later on.

Resolution

This describes the accuracy of the nozzle’s positioning.  It is usually measured in microns or inches.  Clearly a smaller value means that the printer will be more accurate in its position.

Layer Thickness

Because the printer works by extruding layers of plastic, thinner layers allow for more fine details.  However, more layers means that the part will take longer to print (all other things being equal).

Print Speed

3D printing is generally a slow process, but a faster print speed could definitely help offset that.

Nozzle Diameter

A small nozzle diameter means that the extruded plastic will be narrow and thus allow for fine details.  It also improves the smoothness of the printed object.

Ease of Removing Parts off the Platform

Because during a print, the base of the part (ideally) should be firmly adhered to the print bed, one must take care when removing the part from the print bed.  In some cases, removing a part requires a little bit of force to pry the part off the print bed.  This application of force may affect the alignment of the print bed relative to the nozzle.  In lower quality printers this can permanently affect the alignment or require frequent re-calibration   Seeing how “rigid” the print bed assembly can help assess how the machine accuracy can be affect during part removal.  For example, if the print bed is mounted on really large support structure, then the affect of misalignment is less of a problem than a machine where the print bed is mounted in a smaller support.

Enclosure

Some printers enclose the part to be printed in a box and some don’t.  The reason an enclosure exists is so that the machine is able to prevent the part being printed from losing too much heat during print.  Loss of heat during a print negatively affects the adhesion of the printed plastic.  Also a larger temperature difference means the part will warp more.  Without an enclosure, heat is able to freely transfer to the ambient.  High quality printers generally have an enclosure.

Variety of Printed Materials

A common material to print with is ABS.  Other materials such as PLA can be printed as well.  The use of the particular material can be quite dependent on the application of the printed part.  The cost of material also differs.  It is worthwhile to determine what material will be printed.  In many cases, ABS should be sufficient.

Warping

This is probably one of the biggest limitations of 3D printing.  Because of the use of heat during print, it is natural for the part to shrink as it cools down.  The problem is that the shrinkage is not uniform.  Some parts of the model shrink more than others and most of the time it is very unpredictable.  While there are some general guidelines that designers can follow to reduce warping, there are definitely some machine features that are good to have to help reduce warping even further.  Because the nature of the way the printer prints is that plastic is extruded layer by layer, the plastic layer at the very bottom is the first to cool down.  Cooling down means shrinkage.  This also means that as the bottom of the model shrinks, the printer is still printing on top of a slightly shrunken part.  Sometimes the shrinkage can be so bad that the part pulls itself off the print bed.  When the part is no longer securely adhered to the print bed, the part may slide around and ruin the entire print.  Warping is the enemy of 3D printing.

Below are some qualities of a machine that help reduce shrinkage:

  • Heated print bed – a heated print bed keeps the plastic hot during the print and does not let the base cool down as much as if there were no heated print bed
  • Enclosure – described above

There are more ways to reduce warping that the designer can do, but that is outside the scope of this article.

Number of Nozzles

A lot of printers just have the one print nozzle, but there are some with multiple.  This allows printing with multiple colours or in some cases printing with a water soluble support material.  Generally, support material has to be manually removed from the printed part, but if the support material is water soluble, this saves a lot of the manual labor involved in cleaning up the model.

Nozzle Maintenance

Through extended use, the nozzle can become quite dirty, that is black gunk starts building up on the surface of the nozzle.  If one is not careful, this can clog the print nozzle.  It is worthwhile to find out how often the nozzle needs to be replaced.  There are also other factors that may result in the need to replace a nozzle.  This is a recurring cost of maintaining the printer.  Some nozzles are cheaper and more common than others and it is worth it to see how often the nozzle needs to be replaced and how much it will cost each time.  Machines may come with extra nozzles.

Lubrication

Over time, moving parts may have to be lubricated.  Printers should come with a maintenance manual to help instruct the user how to do this.  It is also helpful to know the cost of the lubricant and how often it will be required.

Machine Lifetime Cost

Aside from the cost of the machine, operating a 3D printer can also incur the following costs:

  • Shipping
  • Insurance
  • Brokerage fees
  • Tools for removing support material
  • Currency conversion
  • Sales tax
  • Print material (recurring)
  • Replacement nozzles (recurring)
  • Lubricants for moving parts (recurring)

As it can be seen, the extra costs can be quite significant.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has given a good general overview of some of the considerations in buying a 3D printer.  Different people will value different things in the printer and hopefully this subset of possible considerations for buying a 3D printer helps people make a decision as to what to look for in a printer.