How Expensive are 3D Printers? A Quick Look

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

When it comes to 3D printing a big factor in someone’s decision to start the hobby is the cost. People want to know how much it costs to get started 3D printing. They don’t realize there are ongoing costs with this hobby.

3D printers cost from under $200 for a budget home printer to over $100,000 for an industrial printer. Total cost of ownership for a 3D printer can range from $200 to over $1000.

You can purchase a budget printer setup and get started printing for $200 – $300. However, you also need to consider the consumables that are necessary for 3D printing. You will need more than just your printer and some filament or resin. In this article we will examine all the costs involved with buying and using a 3D printer.

How Much Does It Cost to Purchase a 3D Printer?

For this article we will focus on consumer level 3D printers that most hobbyists would purchase. The first question that needs to be answered is what do you want to do with your 3D printer? Are you looking to print large objects where minute details are not critical or perhaps you want to print highly detailed models for tabletop gaming?

What you plan to do with the printer will impact the style of printer you buy. For larger prints an FDM printer is the way to go and if you want highly detailed prints a resin printer is for you.

Entry level FDM printers can be bought for less than $200 if you don’t mind a little DIY assembly. That low price comes at a cost of quality and reliability of the printer. You will need to spend a good deal of time calibrating and dialing in your printer to get the best print quality. You will also need to upgrade the printer, either with 3D printed parts or buying upgrade parts. Click here to see my list of recommended FDM printers.

Creality Ender3 3D Printer
Creality Ender i3 – Courtesy of creality3doffical.com

Entry level resin printers have decent quality out of the box with less tinkering than an FDM printer. You can purchase an entry level resin printer for around $250. What you lose on in a budget resin printer is resolution and exposure time. Click here to see my list of recommended resin printers.

Elegoo Mars 3D Printer
Elegoo Mars Printer - Courtesy of Elegoo.com

A print’s detail level is directly related the resolution of the printer in all 3 axes. Budget printers typically have a 1440×2560 (2K) resolution LCD screen that masks the UV light source. The all-important XY axes are what determine the minimum feature size on a print.  The 2K resolution screen is common for all budget resin printers. The screens in most of the entry-level resin printers are also RGB. With an RGB LCD only about 1/3 of the UV light passes through the LCD screen. Monochrome screens allow all the light to pass through decreasing print times.

Purchasing an entry-level resin printer with an RGB screen will result in more time spent waiting for prints to finish. For the price, the time trade off is acceptable for most users. Even professional level resin printers can take a while to print. I have a Formlabs Form 2 at work which costs 10 times as much as an entry level DLP printer. Small prints like the Benchy take several hours to print even on the Form2.

Cost of a Budget FDM Printer after Upgrades

How much would it cost to buy a super budget FDM printer and then upgrade it for the best quality prints possible? In this section we are going to look at the total cost of upgrading an Anet A8 printer, arguably the least expensive FDM printer out there right now. The base price of the Anet is around $160 and it comes as a kit that you need to assemble yourself. We will group the upgrades based on their function. First, we’ll start with reliability and safety.

Anet A8 Budget 3D Printer
The Anet A8 - Courtesy of anet3d.com

In the A8 community there is concern about overheating and fire hazards with the printer. To reduce the overheating and fire risk adding a MOSFET to the A8 is one of the most important upgrades you’ll make. The A8 does not ship with a power switch. You need to unplug the power cord in order to turn off the printer. Adding a power switch improves the safety and convenience of the printer. There are some A8 users who feel that the power supply that ships with the unit is underpowered. Upgrading to a bigger power supply can add an extra layer of safety to the printer.

The net upgrades will help with the quality of your print. The factory belts that come with the A8 are cheap and easily stretched. Upgrading fiberglass reinforced belts will result in less backlash of the printer head allowing for better print quality. Replacing the bearings with Igus DryLin bearings will improve the print quality of the printer and reduce the noise it makes! If you are curious about how much noise 3D printers make read my article here.

Adding a heated glass bed to the A8 will greatly improve your bed adhesion and have a longer lifespan than the stock bed. An auto leveling sensor is another great upgrade that will help with bed adhesion. Using an auto leveling sensor will allow the first print layer to be uniform across the entire build plate.

If you want to print other materials besides PLA or just want a more consistent experience printing PLA, upgrading the extruder is the next step. An E3D Titan extruder offers a huge upgrade over the stock extruder of the A8. This upgrade will be one of the most expensive that you make. If you upgrade the extruder, I recommend upgrading the hot end as well. The E3D v6 all metal hot end can improve reliability when printing high temperatures.

UpgradeCost
MOSFET$8 average
Power Switch$8
Power Supply$20
Fiberglass Reinforced Belts$10
Igus DryLin Bearings$13
Glass Bed$14
Auto Leveling Sensor$17
E3D Titan Extruder$63
E3D V6 Hot End$58
Total Cost of Upgrades$211

After buying the printer and adding all the upgrades you are now looking at a total cost of $380 for the printer. At that price point you could certainly buy a better or larger printer. However, if you buy and upgrade the A8 you can do so over time and not pay as much money upfront. The learning experience of upgrading the printer will be invaluable as well.

There are also further upgrades for the printer that you can 3D print and add to the A8. Your cost for these upgrades will be the time you spend printing the upgrades. Which brings us to our next topic, time cost for 3D printing.

How Much is Your Time Worth?

This is a philosophical question that I can’t answer for you. Instead, let’s talk about how your time will be spent with a 3D printer so you can make your own decisions about time. 3D printing is not perfect, despite being around since the 1980s consumer grade 3D printing is only a few years old. No matter how good your machine you will inevitably have failed prints or maintenance issues with your printer.

I will admit, I love tinkering with and fixing things, so working on a 3D printer to make it work better or troubleshoot it doesn’t bother me. I enjoy the challenge of problem solving and the feeling of triumph when I fix an issue with my printers. If you enjoy DIY and learning about the details of how machines and electronics work, you probably won’t mind calibrating and upgrading a budget printer. If you just want something that works with little fuss and tinkering, you will want to consider a more expensive printer with higher quality standards.

Calibrating and upgrading your printer will take time. How much time is dependent on the printer you buy and your experience with 3D printing. If you are first starting out it could take weeks as you learn how to calibrate the printer and get better results. You will constantly learn about new things to tweak such as acceleration, jitter, jerk, and stepper motors. As you gain more experience the time to calibrate a printer will go down.

I would love to give you an example of how much time I spend calibrating a printer, but I’ve never kept track. When I first started 3D printing and found out that I would need to spend time making the printer reach its full potential I didn’t think twice. I dove headlong into the process learning how to best optimize all the settings on my printer and in my slicer. I’ve spent countless hours testing and tinkering with all my printers trying to get the best prints possible. I feel that it was time well spent on my hobby.

I know we are talking about cost in this article but I’m not going to put a price on the time spent learning or calibrating your printer. Everyone will have a different opinion of how much time is worth and no matter what price I put on it, someone is going to disagree. But keep it in the back of your mind when choosing a printer. The cheaper you go on the printer the more time you will spend getting good and reliable prints out of it.

FDM Printer 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 Printer Consumables

This is the elephant in the room when it comes to resin printing. People that are new to the hobby see the detailed prints that are possible with resin and become hooked. Then they see that a new resin printer can be purchased for around $250 and before they know it, they’ve clicked buy. What many people don’t realize is the number of consumables you need. 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 (Amazon) 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!

In another post I examined the cost of resin versus filament. The cost of the resin alone to print a small model was about 11 cents. After adding the consumables, the price per model jumped to 34 cents! Resin printing has a much higher consumable cost than FDM printing. If you are looking to keep the printing cost low stick with FDM.

How Much Electricity Does a 3D Printer Use?

To determine the amount of electricity 3D printers use I conducted a test. I connected my Kill-a-Watt meter to my Wanhao D6 and Elegoo mars. I then printed a Benchy on each one and measured the total Kilowatt hours used by each printer.

The D6 is a 24volt FDM printer with a heated bed. It took 1 hour and 28 minutes to print the Benchy and used 0.15 kilowatt-hours.

Printing the Benchy on my Elegoo Mars resin printer took 4 hours and 51 minutes and used 0.13kWh. The print took longer on the Mars, but it used less energy than the D6.

Using the average United States cost of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour we find that the D6 cost 1.8 cents to run for one hour and 28 minutes. The mars cost 1.5 cents to run for 4 hour and 51 minutes. For this print the cost of electricity seems reasonable. But what if we were to run the printers 24/7 for a month? How much electricity would the printers use then?

Before we discuss the cost for running all month I want to point out that while you could leave your printer on all month, it will not be printing continuously. In an idle state the printer will consume less electricity. This calculation is merely for fun and to give an idea of what the cost might be for an extreme situation. 1 month of full-time printing is 744 hours (for a month with 31 days). Running the D6 continuously for 744 hours would cost approximately $8.93. Running the Mars for 744 hours would cost $1.79.

As we can see running a consumer grade printer at home does not cost much in electric usage. We also learned that DLP resin printers use much less electricity than an FDM printer. In the grand scheme of things, we can say that the electric cost is negligible for 3D printing.