2020 Buying Guide :
How To Choose The Best 3D Printer
As 3D printing technology continues to develop, the quality of what can be achieved on a desktop printer now rivals much more expensive industrial machines, while the range of materials available is growing all the time. In manufacturing industries, 3D printing is known as additive manufacturing. More and more companies are purchasing fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printers as an important addition to the innovation and production process. The technology is ideal for applications such as rapid prototyping, product development, proof of concepts, producing customized parts, manufacturing tools, and complex geometrical parts. It is also used in education to develop and empower students to become future innovators. More and more professionals like designers, engineers, architects and educators are also utilizing 3D printers in their work.
If you are new to the 3D printer market, the choice on offer can seem overwhelming at first. Different manufacturers offer a variety of printer sizes, service agreements, material compatibility, and software – across a wide price range. For your business, the bottom line is that a 3D printer must be able to safely, reliably, and affordably produce usable products within your required time frame.
This guide covers everything you need to know and learn before buying a professional 3D printer that meets your requirements and applications.
Analyzing your 3D printing requirements
Before you start the process of choosing hardware, you should work out how much of what you produce can be printed on your new 3D printer. Are you going to be printing prototypes or models? Should the model be visually attractive or does it need to be functional? Do you need to print production volumes? If you have this information available, you can decide on the following requirements.
What is the maximum size of a print that you will need? Each 3D printer has a maximum area that it can print within – you will see this referred to as the build volume (or build envelope). A bigger build volume is ideal for small-batch production or printing large parts The build volume determines the biggest part dimensions that a printer can produce. For example, the Ultimaker S5 has a build surface of 330 x 240 mm and can print parts up to 300 mm tall. For 3D printing smaller parts, the Ultimaker S3 can be considered, as it has a compact size with a great price point.
When choosing what 3D printer build volume you need, go with the largest part size that you plan to print most frequently. Another benefit of a large 3D printer with a large build plate surface is that you can produce prints in higher quantity. This enables you to print parts in batches which will save a lot of time compared to setting up and removing each print separately.
Print quality and speed
The print quality has a great influence on the print speed. Printing an object with detailed 100-micron accuracy will take much longer than only 300 micron. Because of the additive nature of FFF 3D printing, which prints layer on layer, the layer height determines surface smoothness. To ensure your chosen 3D printer can create smooth surfaces, check the ‘layer resolution’ or ‘minimum layer height’ in its specifications. The smaller this is, the more detail it is capable of producing. The typical layer thickness capability of an FFF 3D printer is between 20 and 600 micron. A lower minimum thickness of 20 micron means your printer can be used for more niche applications, such as creating molds for parts. Keep in mind that not all parts need the best quality. For a simple prototype to check fit or dimensions, a faster print is preferable.
Printing multiple materials
Not all FFF 3D printers have the same capabilities when it comes to printing multiple materials or creating complex geometries. This is because not all FFF printers have the same number of nozzles. Most printers have only one nozzle and can print only one material (or color) at a time. This is called ‘single extrusion’. However, if you want to use two colors or two materials simultaneously ( for example, PVA and PLA ), ‘dual extrusion’ or ‘multiple extrusion’ (i.e. more than one nozzle) is necessary. A dual extrusion printer has the great advantage of enabling you to use a separate ‘support’ material. A 3D printer cannot print features in mid-air, so if your print has any overhangs or cavities, support is required. Printing supports with PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) makes it possible to create very complex parts, and is easy to remove as it dissolves in water and can be safely disposed of down a conventional drain. Printing PVA effectively and reliably requires a separate nozzle to the one used for ‘build’ materials, so make sure the printer you choose comes with this. Ultimaker 3D printers use a quick-swap ‘print cores’ system allowing you to change nozzles in seconds if you want to set up for a print with PVA.
Choosing the right materials
Although FFF 3D printing material (often referred to as ‘filament’) only costs a few cents per gram, it is important to know which material will work best for the product you intend to produce. The material an object is made of largely determines its characteristics. So before you choose a 3D printer, you need to make sure it is compatible with the materials you plan to print with. For example, the Ultimaker S5 3D printer is compatible with high-strength glass and carbon fiber filament. The most commonly used material in FFF 3D printing is a vegetable-based plastic called PLA. This is a great go-to material, especially for visual prototyping. But sometimes you may need more mechanical properties from your material like flexibility, toughness, or heat resistance. Because different materials require different capabilities from a printer to print successfully – such as nozzle temperature, build plate temperature, or extra-strong components – not all printers are compatible with all materials.
Open filament system
One thing to be aware of when choosing a 3D printer is that not all printers are compatible with all materials. Some brands of printer limit you to using only their own materials. Or some printers are only capable of printing one or two material types. Ultimaker’s materials are all tested and optimized to work well with Ultimaker printers. But Ultimaker printers also have an ‘open filament system’, so if you already have a preferred material supplier or you want to experiment with another filament, you are free to do so. Some other 3D printer brands will leave you locked in to only using their materials, so be aware.
Determining software requirements
Once you have a 3D model that has either been designed in CAD software or created from 3D scan data, you will need to prepare it for 3D printing. This is done using print preparation, or ‘slicing’, software. This slicing software converts your 3D model into layers, then sends the output to the 3D printer in a file format it understands. Some slicer software packages are proprietary while others, such as Ultimaker Cura, can be used with multiple brands of 3D printer. This slicing software should be intuitive and simple to use. Software that includes default profiles for materials and your 3D printer will make it easy to get started. This means you won’t have to calibrate the printer or manually enter lots of data (for example, how hot the nozzle and build plate need to be). As you get more familiar with your printer, you may also find it important that the slicer software lets you fine-tune your print settings.
Open or semi-closed printer
In an FFF 3D printer, plastic filament is melted and applied in thin layers on top of each other. This technique is temperature-sensitive and when the temperature inside the printer cools rapidly, deformation called ‘warping’ can occur on the print. To limit this, choose a closed or semi-closed printer with side walls. This will reduce heat loss and temperature changes. Printers with no side walls are more likely to result in deformations to your print.
Type of build plate
You should also consider your printer’s build plate – the surface onto which the first layer is printed. Not all materials adhere sufficiently to all surface types, so it is preferable to choose a printer with the option to replace the build plate or to apply sheets to the surface to aid adhesion for certain materials. Check a printer’s material compatibility information to determine this. Removable build plates are much easier to keep clean, which is important for good adhesion.
Uptime and support
When you rely on a 3D printer for your business, maximum availability and uptime and good customer support are very important. That’s why high-quality, quick-response and good customer support through a local dealer is important. It is important to choose a manufacturer with a support network that covers your location, and with extensive experience in producing 3D printers. For Singapore customers, Ultimaker’s APAC office is located in Singapore while Print-IQ has been supporting many local business for a long time and is a part of the listed Serial System group.