3D Printing is revolutionising the manufacturing industry. It is being called as the first manufacturing revolution of the 21st century. Due to the relative ease of operation and easy availability of 3D printers at cheaper costs, people are lining up to buy a 3D printer. From hobbyists, to engineers, from jewelers to dentists, from artists to architects, everyone is buying a 3D printer for the on-demand manufacturing advantage it offers.
But not every 3D printer is suitable for each and every user. 3D printing is a broad term under which many technologies have emerged to cater to specific applications. An industrial prototyping 3D printer is not suitable for dental applications and vice versa.
A wide variety of 3D printers are available in the market and buying one is a difficult proposition for a person without an expertise in the field. So, we have gathered a list of the major factors to consider while buying a 3D printer. These can help you in buying the most suitable 3D printer for your need.
Important Factors to Consider when Buying a 3D Printer
The most important factor to consider when buying a 3D printer is to ask yourself the core application of 3D printing for your purpose. Is it for hobby purpose, household use, industrial prototyping, specialised applications of 3D printing like jewellery, dental, or gifting? A lot will depend on this factor. Different technologies are suitable for different type of applications and choosing the perfect printer for your application will go a long way in having a successful 3D printing experience.
Material compatibility is also an important factor to consider when buying a 3D printer. If your 3D printed output is to be used for a specific application then the part has to be 3D printed in the most appropriate technology. The material must possess the needed properties to perform as per the designed specifications.
For example, material properties as displayed by nylon from an SLS technology are far apart from what yon from FDM technology displays.
So, choosing the technology which offers printing in materials similar to your application will be the best option.
Build volume is simply the printing space. The printer should be selected keeping in mind the most common size to be printed. Just buying a large printer to accommodate all sizes of print is not a viable option. The printer cost increases and it may hamper the quality offered for smaller delicate prints. Large prints can even be outsourced if they are required fewer numbers.
For example, SLA/DLP printers are quite small compared to other build volumes. Buying an SLA printer just on the basis of its high quality finish, will not be helpful when larger prints are required. A bigger sized FDM or SLS printer can print a slightly coarse part and it can be post-processed to achieve a fine finish. The appropriate trade-off has to be achieved while making such decisions.
Material Availability & Cost
The material library for almost all 3D printing technologies is increasing day-by-day. But still the material properties are not similar for every technology. So, carefully analysing the type of parts you have to 3D print in the future with your 3D printer and the material required for that will help you in understanding which technology offers the best material for your application.
Most of the FDM filaments are easily available across the world at reasonable prices but special materials like flame retardant polymers or metallic materials are not easily available and may take a significant amount of time to be imported increasing the lead time and the cost of such materials.
Material cost is another factor to consider while buying a 3D printer which can increase the cost of the prototyping exercise. Powdered materials used in DMLS/SLM technologies are costly and for some industries it may not be justified to use metal 3D printing as the material cost is higher. Powdered material also has a limited shelf life, the unused powder cannot be reused once it has passed through 4-5 printing cycles.
Resolution has a direct effect on the printing of tiny features and finishing of the printed object. A printer with high resolution will easily print tiniest of features and the layer height will be thinner leading to a smooth surface finish. Buying a 3D printer with a high resolution can prove highly beneficial in the long run.
SLA/DLP printers have the finest resolution of around 20 microns, whereas SLS has around 60 microns and FDM has 100 microns.
(Note: The resolution specifications will change over time as technology is undergoing continuous research)
Additional Factors to Consider when Buying a 3D Printer
Single Colour or Full-Colour
This may not be the most compelling factor to consider while buying a 3D but it can prove helpful if you are into printing of 3D selfies, characters, figurines, or gifting items. This can help eliminate the colouring process if your final products demand such a post-processing work.
Proprietary Slicing Software
Most of the established 3D printer manufacturers also provide their own slicing software. The advantage is that these software are fully compatible with their 3D printer and as a result you always get good printing results.
Without proprietary software you have to depend on free slicing software, which are no doubt good, but are not calibrated to suit your specific 3D printer. 3D Printer brands like Ultimaker, MakerBot, Formlabs and many other brands also offer their software suite along with their 3D printers.
Buying a 3D printer is a tough ask especially for people who are new to 3D printing and many of the times people end up owning the wrong type of 3D printer for their application. The above list can help you brainstorm the crucial points before you make your buying decision.
(Note: The specifications mentioned in the article are subject to change as the 3D printing technology is undergoing continuous research)
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