Buying a 3D Printer: What You Need to Know

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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3D Printing has become a standard term that most people have heard. You may be aware of 3D printing and have seen some pictures of incredible 3D printed objects on the Internet. If you are wondering about purchasing a 3D printer but are on the fence, this guide is for you.

3D printers are a great tool to have for DIY projects and repairs around your house. If you love making things or are looking for a way to create customized objects for repairs a 3D printer may be right for you.

In this article we will examine the benefits of 3D printing in detail along with some of the drawbacks. This guide is designed to help you learn about 3D printing and decide if buying a 3D printer is right for you.

What Can You Do with a 3D Printer?

There are lots of things you can print with a 3D printer. Most of the decision relies on what you personally want to print. If you don’t know what you want to use a 3D printer for and think it would be cool to have, your printer will probably end up collecting dust in a corner. 3D printing is a hobby that requires you to learn or improves several skillsets. If you don’t have a specific goal for your 3D Printing you will most likely become frustrated or bored with the hobby and stop printing.

If you already have an idea of what you want to use a printer for, then you will probably get great use out of your printer. 3D printers can be used for many tasks and can print almost anything. In this section I want to talk about the benefits of having a 3D printer and what it can do for you.

“Save” Money

I put save in quotes because in theory a 3D printer can save you money. However, in practice you may end up spending more on your 3D printer than you save in printing. That can happen when a person really gets into the 3D printing hobby and starts purchasing extra filaments, resins, upgrades, or even new printers. It’s quite easy to fall down the rabbit hole of buying “just one more item” to improve your printing experience. I’m currently looking at my container of 3d filaments and I have at least 25 rolls of filament while I write this.

I did an analysis of what it costs to buy and run a 3D printer and how many items you would need to print to break even on your purchase. While it highly depends on what you are planning to print, you will eventually save more money than you spent on your 3D printer setup. I then calculated how many miniatures I needed to print in order to break even compared to buying the miniatures. To break even, it would take about 34 hours of printing time for and FDM and 150 hours of printing time for a resin printer.

After you hit those milestones of printing time you have “saved” the same amount of money you spent on your printer setup. Now you are only paying for consumables when printing meaning you probably will be saving money by printing instead of buying. If you are interested in the full analysis of printing costs you can read my article here.

Educational Value

I’ve previously written about using 3D printers in the classroom and the educational benefits. If you have children, having a 3D printer at home can help inspire wonder and creativity. There are lots of things you can 3D print that will help educate and entertain your children. While there are tons of models available online, I highly recommend teaching your children to design their own objects to print.

Using a free program such a Tinkercad children can easily design and save 3D models for printing. Even as an adult, I still get excited holding a printed item that I modeled from scratch. Letting children have the freedom and creativity to design their own toys to play with can help stimulate creativity and logical problem-solving skills.

When working with 3D printers and children, it is important to always supervise your children. 3D printers have moving parts and the heated components reach temperatures that will burn someone if touched. Be sure to cover safety precautions and never allow a young child to operate a 3D printer on their own. For younger children you will need to slice their models for them before sending to the printer.

Learning New Skillsets

There is a lot of hands on work required of 3D printing, and if you like tinkering with machines and electronics, you will certainly have the chance with 3D printing. If you don’t have a lot of experience with fixing and repairing items, earning to use a 3D printer will help you gain confidence in your DIY abilities.

A typical learning experience for new 3D printer users looks something like this:

  1. Learn about 3D models. How to make them or how to find and download them.
  2. Learn how to use a slicing program to prepare your model for the printer
  3. Learn how to transfer your model from the slicer to the printer
  4. Learn how to print on your 3D printer
  5. Learn how to post process your prints
  6. Learn about maintenance on your printer
  7. You will learn about troubleshooting at every step of the process.

Each step will require different skills and abilities as you learn the printing process. You may be more interested in learning about the software to design 3D prints. Maybe you enjoy the hands-on work with the printer and dive deep into configuration of your printer. No matter what order you choose you will eventually need to learn all the above items. Because of all the skillsets needed you will expand your logic, creativity, and hands-on abilities.

Create Personalized and Custom Items

While you can certainly go and buy items you need around the house, I think it’s much more satisfying to 3D print them. As an example, I needed a way to hold my small needle file set. I designed the model in fusion as seen below:

3D Object Modeled in AutoDesk Fusion360

A file holder I designed in AutoDesk Fusion360

A file holder I designed and printed

Then I printed my file holder and I’ve been using it for several years now.

There are also many customizable objects that you can customize online and download to print. These items do not require you to have 3D modeling or CAD skills. For example, this Customizable U-Hook on Thingiverse can be opened in the online customizer and edited to your liking. Then you can simply download your modified design and prepare it to print on your printer. And there are hundreds more customizable items available online!

Image of Customizable U-Hooks from Thingiverse.com

Customizable U-Hook – Source: Thingiverse.com

Improve Your Other Hobbies with 3D Printing

The reason I started 3D printing was to make prints for my other hobby of tabletop gaming. I wanted to print terrain and objects to use in my games. I started off 3D printing dungeon tiles for tabletop role playing games and moved on to printing miniature. Later, I bought a resin printer so I could 3D print higher quality miniatures for my games.

Below are some images of the terrain and miniatures I have printed since I started 3D printing. Most of the models I have painted for use in gaming.

Variety of 3D Printed Terrain

Some of the terrain pieces I have 3D printed over the years.

Small Wererat miniature printed on an FDM printer and painted

A small Wererat I printed on my FDM printer for a tabletop game.

I’ve also used my 3D printers to make items for storage and organization, such as the file holder. I’ve also designed and printed attachments for my workbench in the garage. I made a holder for my frame saw and cutting lube.

3D Printed Saw Holder

Holder I designed and 3D printed to hang my frame saw on my workbench.

3D Designed and Printed Cut Lube Holder

Holder I designed and 3D printed to hold cutting lube on my workbench.

It’s a Fun Hobby

I absolutely love 3D printing as it allows me to be creative and produce tangible products from my efforts. I really love the feeling of holding an object that I built or made myself. As an instructor, I don’t get that tangible reward like a carpenter does from building his own house. 3D printing scratches the itch of making and creating for me. There are lots of things you can use a 3D printer for, from serious pursuits such as repairing broken items around the house, to fun and silly prints like toys or movie prop replicas.

The Value of 3D Printing

3D printing is a great hobby to get into if you enjoy hands on DIY projects. Learning to 3D print is a fun and rewarding experience with lots of challenges and learning. You must be prepared to learn new skills and have patience as you gain experience. There will be failures, lots of failures, as you learn how to use your printer and how to improve the quality of your prints. If you are hoping for a machine that you take out of the box press print and never interact with, we are not there yet with 3D printing technology.

Buying and using a 3D printer will expose you to several skillsets. You will need to use software to download or create your models. You will need to use software slicing programs to prepare your models for printing. The printer will require calibration and maintenance teaching you about mechanical and electronic components. Big prints have long print times and require patience. Print failures will require you to have tenacity to keep learning from your mistakes. There is great value in hands-on learning and 3D printing can be a great teacher.

If you enjoy creating things, there is something amazing about designing a model on the computer and the being able to hold it in your hands after it prints. I still get excited when I print out something I designed, and it works as intended. Even printing models, I didn’t design brings me joy each time I pull a successful print off the build plate.

There are many reasons that make buying a 3D printer worth it and it comes down to you. You are the only person who can decide if it’s worth it to you. The catch is you need to know in advance what you will do with the printer. If you want to get a 3D printer because it sounds cool to have, your printer will probably end up collecting dust after a few weeks. Having a purpose for using your printer will keep you learning and trying to make better prints despite the learning curve and failures that you will encounter.

For me, the journey started because I wanted to 3D print terrain for tabletop games. Then I wanted to print objects to solve problems around the house. Then I wanted to print miniatures for use in tabletop games. I’ve spent a lot of money on 3D printers and supplies and I don’t regret it. Could I have saved money by simply buying the items I wanted instead of printing them? Yes, I certainly could, but then the objects wouldn’t be mine. For me the ability to print my own models makes 3D printing worth it to me.

How Much Does a 3D Printer Cost?

Ok, philosophical discussion aside, let’s start looking at the numbers. 3D printers can cost as little as $150 to hundreds of thousands for industrial printers. I will assume if you are reading this article you are considering an affordable consumer grade 3D printer. Consumer grade printers can run between $150 and $1500. For the budget minded reader, you can get into 3D printing for less than $200 if you don’t mind some DIY work. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for and buying the cheapest 3D printer as a beginner is not necessarily the best option.

FDM Printers

Creality Ender3 3D Printer

Creality Ender3 courtesy of creality3dofficial.com. Find it here on Amazon

For between $270 and $500 you can purchase reliable and decent quality 3D printers. These printers will work decently right out of the box. With some time and upgrades they can print as well as printers that cost twice as much. If you are looking for great print quality and minimum tinkering right out of the box, you’re going to be spending closer to $1000. Click here for my list of recommended FDM printers.

Resin Printers

Elegoo Mars 3D Printer

Elegoo Mars – Courtesy of elegoo.com Find it here on Amazon.

Budget resin printers start around $250 for entry-level models. However, there is a catch with resin printing, you need more supplies to print in resin than just the printer. While resin printers give you amazing detail and quality, they have a higher total cost of ownership than an FDM printer.  You will need to spend anywhere from $100 to $250 to purchase the extra supplies needed. When I bought my first resin printer, I spent an extra $200 to buy a wash and cure machine, washing solution, gloves, and paper towels.

Be sure to research what you will need for resin printing before creating a budget for your resin printer. I recommend reading my guide on What You Need for Resin Printing to learn about all the items you will need to have. You can also check out my list of recommended resin printers here.

3D Printing Consumables

In addition to buying a printer you will also need to purchase and replace your printer’s consumables. The main consumable is filament for and FDM printer, and resin for DLP or SLA printer. However, there are other consumables that we will talk about later in this section.

FDM Consumables

Arguably, FDM printers have less consumables than resin printers, but there are still a couple items to keep in mind. In addition to filament there are other items on 3D printers that are consumable. If you are not using a heated bed you will need to use a PEI sheet or painters’ tape for bed adhesion.

PEI sheets last a long time but eventually will need to be replaced. Painters tape can last several prints with care but will need to be replaced frequently. PEI sheets run around $15 and will last a long time. Usually the PEI will need to be replaced due to the nozzle digging into it or damage from removing a stuck print.

If you are using painter’s tape you can buy a 100-foot roll for less than $30. Painters tape will not last nearly as long as PEI and cost wise it makes more sense to get a PEI sheet.

Over time the nozzle in your printer will slowly wear out and will need to be replaced. Luckily, nozzles are a low-cost item and last for a long time. If you are printing with specialty filaments like glow in the dark your nozzle will wear out much more quickly. If you plan to print with filaments other than PLA, I recommend getting a steel nozzle as they will last longer. Brass nozzles are inexpensive, and you can get a pack with multiple nozzle diameters for around $9. Steel nozzles are more expensive and run around $9 a piece.

Filament will be your main consumable expense for an FDM printer. Budget PLA can be purchased for around $20 for a 1-kilogram spool. Specialty filaments such as polycarbonate can cost over $70 per 1kg spool. At a minimum you will need at least one spool of filament to get started FDM printing. I highly recommend PLA to start with as it is the easiest and least expensive filament to work with.

Resin Consumables

Unlike and FDM printed part, resin prints are not finished as soon as the printer stops. The prints need to be washed and cured for the model to be ready for use and for that you need more consumables.

Here is a list of the consumables with links to the items you will need for your resin printer:

That’s a lot of extra supplies just to print a resin model. A washing and curing machine will run half as much as you paid for your printer. And you will go through gallons of cleaning solution and hundreds of nitrile gloves! If you’d like to learn more about these items and why you need them head over to my article “What You Need for Resin 3D Printing.” All the necessary consumables for resin printing can double or triple your cost per model!

I cannot stress the next point enough. Resin is toxic, get proper personal protective equipment! The masks that come with some resin kits are not rated to filter volatile organic compounds. Do your body a favor and go buy a proper respirator!

Price Per Print

We’ve talked about saving money with a 3D printer and I briefly mentioned how much time you need to spend printing in order to break even. In this section I will review the test I performed in order to arrive at those calculations.

It is difficult to present an actual cost analysis of 3D printing because each person will use their printer differently. Each model you print will take a certain amount of time and filament or resin. Because each print is unique it is hard to give an exact cost analysis for how you will use your printer. I will give a cost analysis for using your 3D printer for tabletop gaming since that is why I started 3D printing.

For this analysis we will use a single model to do our cost breakdown. I will examine printing the model on both an FDM printer and a resin printer. After determining the cost of the print including consumables, I will show how many times you would have to print that model to break even compared to just purchasing a similar item.

For my cost analysis I will be using the dwarf model pictured below which is a free file available from Towai on Thingiverse.com

3D Tabletop Gaming Model

The model is 36mm tall and 22mm wide so quite a small print. I used .16mm layer height to get better details for the print. After printing the model, I weighed all the filament used for the model. This includes a skirt, support structures, and some ooze from the nozzle after the print finished. Total Material cost for the model is 5 cents.

Now we will print the dwarf on my Elegoo Mars resin printer. To find the amount of resin used I weight my resin vat before and after printing. The total resin used was 5 grams which converts to 5mL of resin used. Total cost for the model is 19 cents.

Below are the results of my two test prints resin print on the left and FDM print on the right. Sadly, I was too hasty trying to remove supports on the FDM print and broke off the staff.

3D Printed Miniatures one Resin and One FDM

 

Ok, now we know how much the model will cost to print for both FDM and resin. Let’s find a similar sized model that we can buy. I found this D&D Dwarf Male wizard on Amazon which is similar enough for our purposes. The model sells for a little less than $8. For our FDM print the cost was 5 cents so we “saved” $7.95 by printing the model. And for the resin print the cost was 19 cents for the model so we “saved” $7.81. Except we haven’t saved anything yet. Because we must factor in the total cost of everything, we purchased in order to print the miniature.

Our total cost to print our first miniature is $270 for an FDM printer and $400 for a resin printer. Not exactly saving any money at this point. How many miniatures would you need to print in order to break even on your printing setup? For our FDM printer you will need to print 34 miniatures to have spent the same amount buying the premade as buying your printing setup. For the resin printer you will need to print 50 miniatures to have spent the same amount on the miniatures as you did on the printer setup.

We know how many miniatures we need to print now in order to make the printer financially viable, but how long will it take? For my FDM printer I ran it at .16mm layer height and around 70mm/s which was slowed down by the detail in the model. The total print time for the model on my printer was 38 minutes. I need to add about 20 minutes for the bed to cool down and release bringing the total to 58 minutes. I’m going to round up to 1 hour to make the math easier. It will take approximately 34 hours of printing time on my FDM printer before I break even.

For the resin printer I printed the model at .05mm layer height at 7.5 second exposure per layer. The total print time was 2 hours and 44 minutes. Then another 15 minutes of washing and curing time. Rounding up it was approximately 3 hours total time for the dwarf miniature. In order to break even on the resin printer, we will need to print for 150 hours.

There we have it. A quantified breakdown of what it costs to buy a 3D printer and what it will take to make it worth it. Remember, this is based on a single test I performed with specific circumstances. Your break-even point will differ depending on what printer you choose and what models you are printing. The point of the test was to give you an idea of cost to help in your decision about getting a 3D printer.

Total Cost for Getting Started

Now that we have covered what you can do with a 3D printer, prices for 3D printers, consumables, and cost per print, let’s talk about total cost to get started 3D printing. I will assume you have access to a computer that you can use for the necessary software. If you are curious about the kind of computer you need for 3D printing, read my article here.

For the FDM printer I will choose a Creality Ender3 printer as our printer. Currently, the Ender3 runs a little less than $250. We will also need a spool of filament. We’ll use some basic PLA since that is the best starting point for new 3D printer hobbyists. We can purchase a decent spool of PLA filament for around $20.  Those two items are enough for us to print out our model. The total startup cost is around $270 for FDM printing. Your price will vary depending on the FDM printer you decide to use. You can review my printer recommendations here.

In order to use your resin printer, you will need several items. I’ve selected the budget option and use a DIY setup for washing and curing your prints. If you want to get a machine instead that will add around $200 to the cost. Here is a list of the items you need to resin print and the approximate cost for each:

Item Cost
Resin Printer $250
Resin $38/Liter
Washing Solvent $5/gallon
Washing Container $15
Curing Setup $30
Nitrile Gloves $10/box of 100
Respirator $50
Paper Towels $2/roll
Total: $400

Total startup cost for a resin printer is around $400 but can easily be closer to $600 if you also buy a wash and cure machine. That is a big upfront cost that will take about 150 hours of printing time to pay for itself. If you’re not sure what resin printer to buy check out my recommended resin printers here.

In order to get started printing you will need to save between $270 – $400 depending on your choice of FDM or resin and what printer you buy. So, should you buy a 3D printer? If you have an idea of what you will use your printer to do and have enough money saved up, I say go for it! 3D printing is a great hobby and well worth the money if you can afford it. If you don’t know for sure what you’d use the printer for I’d recommend holding off on purchasing a printer.