What You Need to Know Before Buying a 3D Printer

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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Many people looking to get into the 3D printing hobby have ideas of how they plan to use a 3D printer. What a lot of people don’t realize is that 3D printing still has a learning curve. Lots of people purchase a 3D printer without understanding exactly what they are getting into.

Here is a list of 12 things you need to know before buying a 3D printer:

  1. It’s not as simple as clicking print
  2. You will need to learn several skillsets
  3. 3D printers can be noisy
  4. 3D printers smell
  5. You will have failed prints
  6. 3D printing will take longer than you expect
  7. Buying a cheap printer may cost you more
  8. 3D printers require maintenance
  9. Resin 3D printers require more consumables than filament printers
  10. Resin printers cost more per print than filament printers
  11. You will need a computer
  12. You will need to learn what works best for your printer by gaining experience

In this article we will examine each of these topics in detail so you will understand what 3D printing is about. I will share my experience and advice to help you make an informed decision about buying a 3D printer.

It’s Not as Simple as Clicking Print

Unlike a laser or inkjet printer where we click print and have a printed page in a few seconds, 3D printing requires a few more steps. The first thing you need is a 3D model to print. The easiest way to get a model for printing is to download a free model from a site like Thinigverse.comAfter downloading the model, you can’t just click print in a program and have your printer start building your model. You will need to use a slicing program to prepare the model for printing.

A slicer is used to convert the model file you downloaded into machine readable G-Code. The printer will read the G-Code the slicer produced and use it to print the model. There are a lot of settings and options inside a slicing program and it will take some time to learn what they do. It is important to learn how to properly slice your models to ensure successful prints. Learning to tweak the settings in your slicer will allow you to get better quality prints.

Once you have the G-Code file you can then transfer it to your printer. Most printers will use some form of digital media such as an SD, Micro-SD, or USB drive. You will need to copy the G-Code file to the appropriate media and insert it into the printer. After the printer reads the file, you can finally click print.

You Will Need to Learn Several Skillsets

3D printing requires several abilities for successful printing. The good news is each of these is easy to learn by working with your 3D printer. When you first get your printer there will be some assembly and setup required. You will need to calibrate your printer to ensure that your prints are successful. Printer calibration will require some software skills to update the printer settings and analytical skills to analyze your prints and determine what settings to adjust for improved quality.

You will need to learn how to use software to slice your models. Depending on your printer you may need to use software to connect and update printer settings. If you want to update the firmware on the printer you will need to connect to it with a computer.

If your printer board fails, you will need to learn some basic electronics to remove and replace the board. Electronic knowledge will be necessary if you decide to add upgrades to your printer such as better fans or even a better main board.

Mechanical skills will be important to help you maintain your printer. You will need to tighten belts, lubricate bearings, and identify areas of wear and tear on the printer. Some tasks such as replacing parts will require you to disassemble parts of the machine. You will need to get comfortable taking apart and reassembling various components of your printer.

Most importantly, you will need patience. 3D printers are not perfect and that 20+ hour print that was on hour 19 will fail. Accept that failures will happen and learn from each. As you gain more printing experience you will learn to identify ways that a print will fail. This knowledge will help you prevent failures.

3D Printers Can Be Noisy

When the printer is printing it will generate between 15 – 75 decibels right next to the printer. For comparison, 75dB is the same noise level as running a vacuum cleaner. Your family may not be too happy if they must listen to the printer running all night long while they try to sleep. If you live in an apartment the printer noise may make your neighbors unhappy with you. The vibrations of the printer can travel through the surface it sits on and resonate in the floor. People on the floor below you may be able to hear the printer running.

You need to be prepared to either deal with the noise or try to mitigate it. There are methods you can follow to reduce the overall noise of the printer. Adding motor dampers, using shock absorbing feet, or placing the printer in an enclosure all will help reduce the amount of noise it makes. While FDM printers are typically nosier than resin printers, resin printers will make noise as well. However, the biggest issue with resin printers is the smell.

For a comparison here is a chart of how loud three of my printers are:

  • Printrbot Play (open printer) 60dB
  • Wanhao Dulpicator 6 (enclosed printer) 54dB
  • Elegoo Mars (resin printer) 55dB

You can read more about 3D printer noise and how to mitigate in the article I wrote here.

3D Printers Smell

When printing with FDM printers, the melting plastic will release an odor into the room. FDM printers work by melting the plastic and fusing it together. In order to melt the plastic an extruder head nozzle is typically heated to temperatures between 190° to 270° Celsius. As the plastic is pushed through the nozzle by the extruder motor the plastic melts and is fused to the previous layer as it cools. This heating and melting of the plastic cause the plastic to release gases and volatile organic compounds (VCOs). The gases and VCOs are what you smell when 3D printing.

Smells from FDM printers can range from a sweet honey-like aroma to acrid melting plastic. Some filaments like Nylon don’t have a smell but release toxic gases while printing. It is important to learn about the filaments you are using and what precautions to take.

Unlike filaments all resins give off some amount of odor even when not printing. These resins will also not be heated up to high temperatures like the FDM filaments. The resin will warm up to around 40°C due to ambient heat of the printer but the resin itself is not directly heated. As the resin temperature rises during the printing process the odor can become stronger.

Resins smell like chemicals and some resins smell worse than others. It is important to keep a resin printer in a well-ventilated area especially if you have pets or children. Also be sure to wear gloves and a respirator when working with resin! If you’d like to learn more about 3D printing smells read my article here.

You Will Have Failed Prints

At some point due to improper settings in the printer, slicer or combination of, you will experience failed prints. Failed prints are a part of the learning process and even experienced users will still have failed prints. Even if all your slicer settings are perfect and the printer is well calibrated something as simple as a flaw in the filament can result in failure. My first experience with a major failure was 10.5 hours into an 11-hour print when I looked up and saw the print had broken free from the bed. That was not a happy day.

But I took the opportunity to learn from the problem. I researched how to improve my bed adhesion to figure out why the print failed. After troubleshooting the problem, I was able to reprint the model successfully. I recommend reading about bed adhesion issues in my article here.

Resin print failure can be even more frustrating. In addition to losing precious resin to the failure, you will need to drain and clean your resin vat. This can be tedious as you must be careful not to damage the FEP film on the bottom of the vat. In a worst-case scenario, your vat may leak resin onto the LCD screen requiring you to replace the screen.

3D Printing Will Take Longer Than You Expect

Unlike Laser and Inkjet printers that can spit out dozens of pages per minute 3D printers take much longer to print. There are several factors that can affect the length of time that a 3D print will take. Prints can take anywhere from a few minutes to many days in order to print. The larger and more complex your model is, the longer it will take to print. If you have started downloading models to print once your printer arrives be prepared for it to take a while to get through your print queue.

If you have plans to use a print be sure to allow yourself enough time. Using your slicer software, you can import and slice the file to get an estimated print time. I like to add around 30% to the print time given by the slicer. In another post I talked about 3D printing times with examples of prints and how long they take to print. You can read about print times here.

Buying a Cheap Printer May Cost You More

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.

I looked at how much it would cost to upgrade the Anet A8, arguably the least expensive FDM printer currently, and it ended up doubling the cost of the machine. This approach is ok if you are looking to learn a lot about 3D printing and don’t mind tinkering. However, if you really want to get good quality out of the box, save up the money and buy a higher quality printer. For example, the Creality Ender3 is more expensive but you will have a better out of the box experience.

If you are not a mechanically or technically inclined person, I would recommend staying away from the cheapest 3D printers. You will end up frustrated at the amount of time you have to spend getting them to print well. In fact, if your first experience is fighting to get a printer to work you may end up with a printer collecting dust in the corner.

3D Printers Require Maintenance

Both FDM and resin printers have moving parts that need to be maintained and cared for. FDM requires more maintenance than resin because FDM printers have three times as many motors. You will need to be sure that you check your printer for wear and tear, that the belts are tight, and that bearings are properly lubricated. Eventually you will need to replace the nozzle in your printer as they wear out over time. Keeping dirt and debris off the belts, rods, and lead screws will help extend the life of your printer.

I recommend getting PTFE lubricant and an oil pen applicator (Amazon link) so you can lubricate the machine without making a mess. Some printers ship with cheap grease on the rods and lead screws. Cheap grease can make it harder for the motors to move properly. You may need to remove the grease that ships from the factory and lubricate the printer with a quality PTFE lubricant.

Resin 3D Printers Require More Consumables Than Filament Printers

I keep repeating this sentiment in a lot of my posts and it is critical to understand. Resin printers do not ship with everything you need to print. When a resin print comes out of the printer it needs to be washed and cured. You need to purchase the supplies necessary to pot process your prints safely.

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

All together the necessary supplies can add over $100 to the price of the resin printer. And do not skimp on a proper respirator or gloves. Resin is toxic and you need to avoid breathing the fumes or getting it on your skin!

Resin printers also have more consumable parts than an FDM printer. The FEP film on the bottom of the vat will eventually wear out and you’ll need to replace it. The LCD screen has a limited life span as well. I recommend keeping a spare FEP and LCD screen on hand so you can quickly swap them out and keep on printing.  If you want to learn more about the materials you’ll need for resin printing go check out my article here.

Resin Printers Cost More Per Print Than Filament Printers

We just looked at the list of items you need to in order to print with resin. Because resin requires so many more consumables it will cost more per print than filament printing. Depending on the resin and machine you are using prints can cost 3-4 times more for resin than for an FDM print. Remember to calculate the cost of all your consumables in your cost per print. That includes the nitrile gloves, paper towels, and washing solvent in addition to replacement parts like the LCD and FEP film. I covered the topic of resin versus FDM in this post.

You Will Need a Computer

In order to get 3D models for printing you will either need to download or create them yourself. To prepare the models for the printer you will need to use a slicing program. That means, you need a computer in order to 3D print. The good news is the computer doesn’t need to be top of the line, especially if you are only slicing premade models. If you want to make models with programs like Blender or AutoDesk Fusion360, you will need a computer with decent specifications.

If you want to know what specifications a computer needs for 3D printing, I covered that topic in another post.

You Will Need to Learn What Works Best for Your Printer by Gaining Experience

There are many different makes and models of 3D printer on the market today. A lot of the general advice on getting the best out of your printer will apply to most printers. But each printer works a little differently dues to variation in manufacturing and quality control. You will need to gain experience printing with your printer to learn how to best apply the guidance you find online.

When looking for a 3D printer see if the printer has a Facebook group or a sub-Reddit. If a printer doesn’t have a large following there might be a good reason to steer clear of that printer. Most printer communities are helpful, and you will learn a lot of good information just by reading through the questions that other users have.

Conclusion

My goal for this post was to share knowledge about 3D printing to help you decide if it’s right for you. If you’ve red through the list and are still excited about getting a 3D printer, good for you! Even if this article has dissuaded you from getting a 3D printer, I’m happy that the information was helpful to you. I would rather you decide not to get into printing than to spend a lot of money and be unhappy with your decision. If you are interested in purchasing a 3D printer check out my personal recommendations here.