10 Questions to Ask When Buying a Desktop 3D Printer
- How do I intend to create models?
I want to start here because I think way too many people underestimate or don’t fully understand the process of creating a 3D model. 3D modelling is not rocket science, but it is time consuming and requires a fair amount of skill when modelling complex shapes. So the first question to ask is, “Do I know how to use some sort of CAD software (that can export .stl ); and if not, what software should I buy or learn to use?” And yes, you can download models off the Internet from places like thingiverse.com, but they often aren’t perfect and sometimes need to be touched up or repaired.
- What type of extruder head print technology do I need, and what can I afford?
- FFF – Good for creating hollow or low infill prototype models.
- PJP – Good for small production runs or quick production of durable parts for jigs or fixtures as well as fit and function testing of models with clips or snap fits.
- SLA – More expensive and time consuming than FFF or PJP technologies, but much preferred for creating prototypes with tight tolerances.
- Multiple Heads – Allow printing of multiple colors or materials. This would be the newest technology and the most expensive.
- What are microns and why do they matter?
Microns are a unit of measure. There are 1,000 microns in 1mm; a human hair is between 50 and 100 microns. This is important in 3D printing because it affects both the layer height and the printer’s X, Y and Z resolution.
The layer height is the measurement of how thick each layer of material is when a 3D model is printed.
- Layer height matters because it determines how finely details can be printed.
- The resolution is a similar concept to the layer height, except it also takes into account the accuracy in terms of X, Y and Z planes of your models.
- What is build volume?
Build volume is the amount of space within the printing chamber in which a model can be printed. This lets you know how large of a model the printer can create. Most images can be printed in slices which you then assemble to create a larger model if necessary, so you may not need your printer to have a huge build volume, but you will need to be sure it is large enough for what you need.
- What software does the printer come with?
This aspect is so often overlooked. You go through the process of understanding 3D printer tech specs and what they mean, and then your shiny new 3D printer arrives with its amazing resolution so good you can 3D print the eyelash of an ant and with a build volume that comfortably allows you to print a life size white rhino. But none of this matters because the software the printer came with is so difficult to use you can’t get the model loaded, scaled or positioned, much less printed. It is also very important to be sure the software can auto-generate supports for the 3D model and that they break away easily.
- What operating systems are supported?
You can buy the most amazing 3D printer on the market, but if it doesn’t support your operating system, it’s going to be just a big expensive paperweight. Most printers are compatible with both PCs and Macs, but even if you aren’t running Linux or some other operating system, it is still extremely important to verify which systems are supported.
- What are print materials and production going to cost?
Materials are going to vary in cost depending on what the printer is capable of using, or what you decide you want your models created from. ABS and PLA are the two most commonly used printing materials, but there are several others which can be used as well, depending on what kind of models are going to be created and what they will be used for. Production costs will also differ depending on the size and number of pieces to be printed in a typical print job. Make sure you have a good idea of what you will be printing so you can ensure doing so will be within your budget.
- What kind of warranty and support comes with the printer?
If an issue arises with the printer, whether it is a question of how to get it to perform to your specifications or if it breaks down, what then? How long will you receive support? What is covered under the warranty? How easy will it be to obtain spare parts? If you have a problem with the printer, how much is it going to cost you to ship it to the manufacturer for repairs? Be sure you know the answers to these questions before buying a printer.
- What type of print bed and enclosure should I get?
A heated print bed and enclosed build chamber hold several advantages over non-heated print beds and open printers. A heated print bed keeps the lower levels of a model warm as the higher levels are printed, which allows the overall cooling to be more consistent. An enclosed chamber reduces printer noise and smell, and protects the internal machinery of the printer. In addition, the enclosure protects models from drafts or outside influences which may cause uneven cooling of the printed material. Uneven cooling, no matter what the cause, can cause the model to warp or curl, effectively ruining the model. If you plan to only print small simple items, this may not be an issue. However, if larger or more complex models will be printed, these are two printer features to pay close attention to.
10. What is auto bed levelling and why is it important?
In order for printed models to come out right the printing bed must be level, ensuring good adhesion of the foundation. That means the bed must be parallel in respect to both the X and Y planes and that the height of the first level is set correctly. If the first level height is not correct, either the printing material won’t stick to the bed or it will flatten out. Even worse, the print head could come in contact with the bed, jamming the nozzle. If the bed is not parallel to the X and Y planes, the model will tilt and deform the model. The Z axis also needs to be calibrated to ensure the vertical motion of the bed is correct. The auto bed levelling feature allows these complicated calibrations to be automatically performed by the printer, making life much easier for the user.