Is Buying a 3D Printer worth it? What You Need to Know

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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If you’re new to the idea of 3D printing you may be wondering if it’s worth it to buy a 3D printer. You might have ideas for things to use a 3D printer for and want to find out more about 3D printing.

If you enjoy DIY projects or have specific ideas like printing miniatures and terrain for gaming, a 3D printer is worth it. 3D printers do require work and have a learning curve so think twice if you aren’t prepared to learn some new skills.

There is quite a bit to unpack about using 3D printers and the value they provide. In this article we will examine the benefits and costs associated with buying a 3D printer. By the end of the article you should have a good idea about 3D printers and if buying one is a good decision for you.

Cost Analysis of 3D Printing

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 weighed 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.

Let’s break down our up-front costs of purchasing all the equipment we need in order to print our miniature. I will assume you already have access to a PC or Mac in order to download the models and slicing software needed to 3D print. If you are curious about what kind of computer you need to 3D print you can 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 cost of the model currently stands at $270 for FDM printing.

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

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.

In the next few sections, we will examine the values of 3D printing, the costs of 3D printers, and the cost of consumables.

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

For between $300 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

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 Amazon 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!

Cost Per Print

In a previous article I discussed the price of resin printing versus filament printing. In that article I made a test case and calculated how much it cost per print for both resin and filament. From my tests I found that an FDM print under perfect conditions cost about six times less per model than resin printing. For my prior test I used a small 28mm tabletop model and calculated how many times I could print the same model on one roll of filament. I then divided the cost of the filament by the number of prints I could make.

One thing that I did not calculate in the prior article was failed prints and lost filament due to oozing or support structures. You will also lose a small bit of resin each time you use a resin printer. After taking the part off the bed a small amount of resin will still cling to the print and built plate. This resin will be lost during the washing stage of the print. The amount of filament or resin lost per print for successful prints is small, but I wanted to point it out. Failed prints will result in the loss of all the resin or filament for that print.

In this article I printed both models and weighed the total filament and resin used in the printing process. I then used those weights to calculate the total cost of the filament and resin used. Because I didn’t calculate the lost filament and resin in the prior article the cost per print was lower despite using a larger model. The cost per print calculation in this article is much more accurate but is an estimate. The cost per model will vary depending on what you print. The numbers in this article are for educational purposes and your results will vary.