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Everything You Need to Know About 3D Printers

A 3D printer with three 3D printed boats on its bed.

3D printers have transformed from an expensive curiosity to an affordable, useful, appliance. But if you’re thinking about getting your first 3D printer, there are some things you should keep in mind, like the different types of 3D printers, the accessories you’ll need to buy, maintenance, and more.

You may have even seen a few purchases arrive with 3D printed parts instead of injection-molded plastic pieces. For example, a support bracket for a graphics card may include a couple of 3D printed contact pieces. Other items might be entirely 3D printed.

Printing those things yourself might beat the Amazon delivery driver by a day or two. Or if you’re the creative type, a 3D printer might be what you need to bring your dreams to life. Let’s break it all down and see if 3D printing is worth the money and effort.

The Two Main Types of 3D Printer You Can Buy

Several kinds of 3D printers are available, but the two main types are stereolithography (SLA),  which uses resin and fused deposition modeling (FDM). FDM is both the most common kind of 3D printer and the most popular with people who want to 3D print at home. But resin printing may suit your needs better.

FDM is historically the cheaper of the two options, though resin printer prices are dropping. Your FDM printer will take a plastic filament a few millimeters wide, heat it, and apply layer after layer until your object comes together.

SLA printing involves forming objects by curing bits of liquid resin with UV light. Using resin comes with some downsides—a few of which may be hazardous to your health. The process releases fumes, and the resins themselves can be harmful to your skin and eyes. So eye protection, gloves, and ventilation are all recommended. Prints may need to be washed and cured afterward—which you can do with a specialist wash and cure station, or just a sink and a windowsill if it’s sunny outside.

But there are benefits. Resin printers can include more details and show less layering (those horizontal lines) than FDM printers. The variety of resins is immense, allowing creators to choose the level of hardness, color, and flexibility their object will have.

3D Printers Don’t Have to be Expensive

If you want to get started with 3D printing, you can pick an entry-level machine up for less than $200. Although entry-level printers are in the low hundreds, you can pay a few thousand for higher-end consumer models. The extra money allows you to print with a more comprehensive range of filaments, a larger print bed allowing for bigger prints, improved printing speed, and higher quality prints in general. With FDM printers, the cheaper models may not have heated print beds—which may leave you unable to use certain filaments without significant issues.

Filaments and resins also vary in price depending on quality and application. A reasonable quality, one-kilogram spool of PLA or ABS filament can cost between $20 and $40. How long this lasts depends on how much you intend to print—limit yourself to one 10g object a week, and your filament will last years. Knock out numerous large projects, and you may be replacing your spool every few days. More specialist filaments, some of which contain metals or carbon fiber, will command a heftier price tag and can’t be used in all 3D printers.

Everything You Need to Get Started

Someone peeling a boat of a 3d printer bed with a spatula
Studio Peace/Shutterstock.com

The first thing you need is a 3D printer of some kind. As mentioned above, you can get your hands on an FDM printer for less than $200, and the price of an entry-level SLA printer isn’t much higher these days.

You’ll also need some material to print with, either filament or resin depending on your printer choice. If you’re desperate to get started and on a tight budget, one roll of filament which is usually sold by the kilogram, or a liter of resin. will get you going. You can add more printing material and expand your options as time goes on.

A lot of 3D Printers don’t just work on their own, so you will need some software. There are several options that will cost you money, but there is also enough free software around to get you going. An SD card can also come in handy if you can’t wire your printer to a laptop and need another way to let it know what to print.

There are a number of accessories that will come in handy. You might need something to prise the print from the bed. Resin printers may need pairing with one of the washing and curing stations I mentioned earlier. Stray bits of filament may need trimming or sanding. And you will need tools you can use to maintain your printer and keep it working properly.

3D Printers Require Some Maintenance

Eventually, you will have to put that maintenance toolkit to use. FDM printers will require more work than SLA printers, but both will benefit from a regular maintenance schedule. The manufacturer’s guide might provide a checklist you can use to make sure your printer stays in good condition. Either way here are the basics.

As with most things, a 3D printer will benefit from regular cleaning. Make sure the printer is dust-free if it hasn’t been used in a while as contamination could ruin a print. Equally, a wipe down after each use won’t do your printer any harm either.

The belts your printer relies on may need tensioning or replacing from time to time. Certain parts require lubrication to keep everything running smoothly. A level printer bed is important, so check your printer bed often and adjusted it as required.

Your printer’s nozzle may require some special attention. It will become clogged with melted filament at some point, and can usually be cleaned. This will involve heating the nozzle up and either brushing it clean or pulling the clog free with pliers. If it is gunked up beyond all hope, the nozzle may need replacing altogether.

You Can Print Almost Anything

ExoMy Rover

You can print pretty much any object you can imagine—provided you can get that idea into a CAD file. So if you’re an inventor that wants to get a prototype together, a cosplayer who wants costume parts, or just a DIY enthusiast who needs a missing piece for their second-hand IKEA wardrobe—3D printing might be for you.

Some objects only take one print; others may require printing and assembling multiple parts—along with some trimming, sanding, and painting. The limitations of the filaments you can use may also play a role. Sometimes 3D printed parts need to work with other parts made from metal—or nuts and bolts from the hardware store.

Despite the shortcomings, printing an item is far easier than sculpting one from clay, carving one from wood, or casting an object. All of those things tend to require skill and an array of equipment. At its base level, 3D printing requires a 3D printer.

You Don’t Have to be a Design Expert to Use One

The Thingiverse website with pre-made 3d printer files

You can use a 3D printer without any design expertise or ability whatsoever. Tons of objects are available on 3D databases, some of which are free. You can look for something that matches your needs, download the file, and send it to the printer. The whole process can be as simple as using a conventional printer.

If there is something specific you were aiming for, but you can’t find an existing CAD document that fits, then there are other ways to bring your designs to life. You might be unable to use CAD effectively, but websites like Fiverr are full of people who can. Shop around, find someone good who will design what you need for a reasonable price, then commission it.

They’re Becoming More Useful, But Still Aren’t For Everyone

Just like a standard printer, not everyone will need a 3D printer, but the usefulness of having one is growing all the time. Think about conventional printers for a moment, a piece of tech once owned by very few but now found in most (but not all) homes.

If you don’t have one, and you need to print a return or shipping label, you might lament your lack of a printer as you trudge to the local copy shop or forward the return slip to your printer-owning friend’s email address. However, should the handle on the kitchen drawer break, you’ll likely be planning a trip to the hardware store instead of cursing the fact you can’t just set a new handle to print and move on with your day.

This will change as 3D printing gets more mainstream. You’ll see the ways it could impact your life and then you can assess whether a leap into 3D printing is worth the outlay. If you need the occasional one-off object, then paying someone to print that for you is the more financially sensible option. If you find yourself wishing you could conjure things from resin two or three times a week, then it’s time to make the leap.

There is Still More to Come

Habitat for Humanity

At the extreme end, 3D printing is already pushing the limits of what people may think is possible. It has applications in the medical field—if you’re unfortunate enough to need a transplant in a few years, your new organ may have been 3D printed. Previously expensive prosthetic limbs are now being printed for a fraction of their previous cost and changing lives.

3D-printed homes could revolutionize the housing market. The houses can be “printed” from concrete and raw earth materials. Using this technique the outer walls can be constructed in 12 hours, which is four weeks faster than conventional building methods.

If the idea of printing with plastic puts you off, 3D printers that use metal or wood are currently available—though quite expensive. You can even print a steak. All of this increases the number of applications 3D printing plays a part in and increases the chances you’re going to encounter one while going about your daily life.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »