To understand the big deal about desktop 3d printers, you need to understand the potential applications of what 3d printing at home can do for you.
3D Printers give you the ability to create custom parts, tools, toys, and just about anything you can think up in your front room. You can easily repair everyday household wear and tear with custom designs and materials that you pick. Imagine the custom switch and outlet plates you can create.
Or maybe you have been having trouble getting the right parts for your workshop. What if you could produce the parts and tools you need on the fly?
From idea to design and print, you can take advantage of the 3D printing revolution to create entirely new objects in as little as a few hours!
Types of Desktop 3D Printers
Manufacturing production technologies are lending their aid to 3D printing applications. The more refined each process becomes, the smaller space we can fit the process in. A lot like computers and smartphones. Not every manufacturing process has been fitted for use on a desktop just yet. I’m going to introduce you to the most commonly used methods for desktop 3d printing at home.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printing is the most commonly known method for 3D printing. This is an additive method that uses computer guidance and a heated nozzle to build tough and stable products layer by layer. It draws your creation into existence. Instead of pencil lead, the 3d printers use thermoplastic materials and combinations like PLA, TPU, ABS, and Nylon.
This method is so stable that it can be built to be safely used by children aged 11 and older. Don’t let that make you think it’s a toy though. FDM can be used to create entirely functional machines, parts, toys, tools, etc. It’s a capable and useful technology that will have you wanting to build new products instead of buying them.
Popular FDM 3D Printers
If you want to get a solid grasp of knowledge around FDM printers, you need to get hands-on experience with one. The second best way to learn is to inspect machine details and find some videos of them being used. It can be a bit of research. You’ll want to understand them well enough to have an easier go at using them.
As a side note, FDM printers are my personal recommendation for beginners and hobbyists who like to tinker with their machines. They offer structural flexibility that allows you to modify and expand the size and capability of the machine over time. They are also often fully open source.
Specs and What They Mean
Luckily, these machines don’t have much to break down. There are only a few main things you want to look for to compare machines properly.
- Build Size: The size of the build plate and the height of the vertical lift of the extruder arm determines the maximum size of an object you can create. Desktop printers typically have a 200 x 200 x 250mm build size.
- Material Compatibility: The built-in heating element and extruder are only capable of handling certain materials. This is important when considering what you want to produce.
- Print Speed: Print speed will most likely not be listed in the product details. There’s a good reason for this. You can adjust every aspect of how your printer function which greatly adjusts the print time. It is not always effective to use the highest possible speed. To inspect print speed and quality, check out some videos of the machines in use for different prints.
Creality Ender 3 Pro
Creality has solidified its place in home 3d printing with the solid performance of one of the most popular printers around. The Ender 3 Pro is a simple, stable design that can be modified piece by piece to fit specific purposes. While its default state only allows for certain materials, you can replace the heating element for an all-metal hot end that can handle TPU and some Carbon Fiber Nylons. Just as well, you can replace the arms and buy an extension kit with a larger build plate to increase the overall build size.
This printer is popular for another reason as well. It is incredibly affordable. If you keep your eye open, you can get your hands on one of these for $159 to $200. Believe it or not, it is enough to start your home 3d print shop.
- Build Size: 220 x 220 x 250 mm
- Material Compatibility: PLA, ABS, PETG
- Print Speed: 0-200mm/s , Recommended: 40-60mm/s
Creality 3d PrintMill
One evolution of the Ender 3 Pro that has become a category of its’ own is the 3D PrintMill. Naomi Wu, a 3D printing technology developer and youtube personality, has introduced this iteration of the Ender 3 that completely redesigns the machine. It achieves an unlimited build height by using a treadmill and tilted hotend position.
This printer is for those who are ready to dive into their new manufacturing home career or the extremely passionate hobbyist.
- Build Size: 200mm x 170mm x Infinite mm
- Material Compatibility: PLA, PETG, TPU
- Print Speed: 0-200mm/s, Recommended: 40-60mm/s
- PLA: Polylactic Acid. This is the most commonly used material for FDM printing. It is widely available, biodegradable, and the least expensive. Not the most durable material available.
- ABS: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. Recyclable thermoplastic with high strength and durability. It can withstand high temperatures and is abrasive resistant. UV sensitive.
- PET: Polyethylene Terephthalate. The thermoplastic polymer with more heat resistance than PLA and is easier to print with than ABS. Food-safe and chemical resistant, excellent for electrical insulation.
- TPU: Thermoplastic polyurethane. This is an elastic polymer that is used for flexible parts. A bit like rubber.
- Nylon: Nylon Polyamides. This material is great for mechanical strength.
- ULTEM: Incredibly heat resistant material for use in automotive, aerospace, chemical, and medical industry. This material requires a hotend with the ability to reach 400 degrees Celsius which is not standard for desktop printers.
Resin 3D Printers
If you’ve ever seen West World, then you’ve laid your eyes on a sci-fi resin printer already. The vats of material that push out the formed models used in the show to create androids and other machinery exists. It’s not quite ready to print self-aware machines but it is ready to provide quality smooth products.
There are two different processes in use for resin printers but they are both upsides down compared to an FDM printer. The build plate is held facing the base of the machine. At the base, there is a vat for whatever resin material you are printing with. The build plate is lowered into the resin and slowly pulls out your 3d model like magic.
DLP vs. SLA
There are two different ways resin printers form the model on the build plate; digital light processing (DLP) and Stereolithography (SLA).
DLP and SLA are both vat photopolymerization methods. This means they use a light source to cause the resin materials in use to harden on the build plate as it rises. SLA utilizes a laser with intensity adjustment for high accuracy. DLP uses light produced by a projector or LCD screen. Both methods produce high-quality results but SLA has become a more common pick for home use. Laser technology is accurate and controllable but more importantly, it is cheaper.
Popular Resin 3d Printers
I recommend resin printers most often to hobbyists with an interest in creating miniatures. The smooth finish of a resin printed product works better for smaller details. Dungeons and dragons character models, Warhammer models, and any miniature model print idea you have will come out clean and ready to paint.
Resin Printer Specs
The technical specifications we are going to use to compare resin printers are the same we used for FDM. Lucky us.
The Elegoo Saturn is an SLA resin printer. It is one of the most affordable entry-level resin printers and offers remarkable quality prints for only $180.
- Build Size: 192mm x 120mm x 200mm
- Print Speed: 22.5mm/h
Phrozen Sonic Mini 4k
This DLP 3d printer uses an LCD screen to offer high-resolution prints at what is claimed to be 4k resolution.
- Build Size: 5.2 in x 2.9 in x 5.1 in
- Print Speed: 80mm/hr
Resin printers have a wide variety of available material bases that are similar or almost the same as FDM printers such as PLA, ABS, TPU. However, there is a lot of custom photopolymer that is made exclusively for specific light methods. Material research on resins will take more time and there truly isn’t a quick breakdown. For these, I would get started with recommended resins and add more to your repertoire as you go.
SLS 3d Printers
These are often the largest 3D printers. Even the desktop models are about the size of a popcorn kettle machine. However, this is the only method to print with metal materials. This is the most useful for creating custom machinery parts that perform up to industry standards.
These printers are often among the most expensive and are geared toward professional use.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS is a powder-based additive manufacturing technology that uses a high-powered laser to sinter powder particles into a solid structure. This process is mostly used to work with high-quality nylon but also can be utilized to form metals like aluminum, glass, and carbon.
The Metal Few
The most exciting use case for an SLS home printer is designing solid functional and resistant products with metal, nylon, and glass. Forming any shape you can think of into a custom part that will work efficiently and last is a dream come true. However, most SLS printers are still focused more on nylon than anything else. There aren’t many manufacturers producing 3D printers with a focus on metal just yet. There is one.
Desktop Metal’s Studio System 2
Desktop Metal is leading the way to desktop metal printing. If you’ve got enough capital, the Studio System 2 from Desktop Metal can get you started in prototyping and manufacturing metal and nylon products. This machine is a factory on its own.
- Build Size: 300mm x 200mm x 200mm
- Material Compatibility: metal
A Few Others
The SLS market for 3D printers is a little less known. This is mostly because the commonly desired function from this method is in use for making metal parts. Most SLS printers work with plastics and nylon powders. However, if that’s what you’re into, check out the Sintratec Kit or Formlabs Fuse 1.
How to Use this Guide to Pick Which is Best for You
Once you’ve read through the capabilities of the different printing methods, you will need to take some time to think of how you want to use them. This is best decided by focusing on the types of creations you want to make. The more you think about your use case, the more you will be able to narrow down the most effective method to achieve your goals.
Consider What You Want to Make
The function and form of your prints can most likely be achieved by any method of printing. That means that you’ll need to spend time to understand and play with different materials to find the best one for your idea. If you can’t get ahold of the materials just yet, internet research will suffice to get you started. Knowledge of material data is necessary to start your home 3D print shop.
As an example, I like to make ocarina as a test print with new materials to see the quality of airflow and sealed surfaces. Different materials produce a different quality sound from the instrument.
Narrow Down Your Budget
The range of costs among printers is astounding. While you can get your first FDM or resin printer for around $200, the price starts to skyrocket with fine-tuning and specific adjusts. Crowd favorites like the 3D Printmill run around $1100 and SLS printers can upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. While you may want to be able to produce finished metal products, your wallet might be asking you to start with PLA.
Think About Expandability
Sometimes you’ll have to settle for the quality you can afford. Don’t let that get you down though. If you need to start on a budget, get a customizable FDM printer and it will get better with you. The open access to an FDM printer's structure lends itself to after-market performance parts and adjustments. This makes it a perfect option if you want to start small and grow as you go.
Resin and SLS printers are usually closed systems with a protective casing that makes them a static machine. If you are selecting one of these, make sure it has the desired build size for your project.