Be on the lookout for “Definitive Guides” to desktop 3D printing.
I’m sure you’ve seen these passing by as you slide through the Internets. They are quickly-written pieces that purport to provide the reader with “The Answer” to their 3D printing needs.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is terribly unfortunate that the general public by and large still does not have a proper understanding of what 3D printing is and what it isn’t. Many people have heard of the technology, but incorrectly assume that one 3D printer is like another: they can print anything you want.
That’s just not true.
There are literally hundreds of different 3D printers on the market, each with their own advantages, disadvantages and prices. Pricing of 3D printers these days ranges from perhaps US$100 to US$10,000,000, a difference of five orders of magnitude.
3D printing is now a highly competitive market in almost all niches, and the market entrants compete strongly by focusing their equipment on specific applications and materials. If they don’t, they won’t survive.
The result is a massive choice in 3D printing where there should be something for almost everyone’s (reasonable) needs. The issue is in selecting products from the enormous list of options now present.
This means the issue is less “which machine?”, and far more “what am I using it for?” That, and your budget.
The proper process for selecting a desktop 3D printer is first to set your budget, and that’s where things could stop immediately. If you’re not willing to spend at least US$300-400 on equipment, materials, software, tools and setup, then you probably shouldn’t be in the space. Yes, you could find some combination that might be lower cost, but there would be compromises and most people don’t have the skills and experience to do so.
After that there are series of questions one might pose to help narrow down the choice of equipment. Instead of going through a “Definitive Guide”, here are some typical questions one might consider beyond the budget:
Am I making parts for outdoor use?
If yes, then you’d need to be able to print in ASA material, which is UV-resistant and thermally stable at outside temperatures. That requires a machine with an enclosed chamber and heating.
Will all of my parts be used indoors for decorative purposes?
If yes, then most open gantry PLA or PETG machines would be sufficient. These are the least expensive on the market.
Will your parts be used in mechanical situations?
If yes, then you should consider machines that can print engineering materials like nylon, ABS, ASA and others.
Will your parts require extreme detail?
If yes, then you should consider a resin 3D printer using SLA, MSLA or DLP processes. These achieve ultra-fine resolution, but are much more challenging to operate due to toxic resins used.
Are you able to repair simple mechanical and electronic systems?
If yes, then you could consider getting a kit, which would be lower in cost. If not, then make sure your 3D printer is “fully assembled”.
Are you patient and able to find your way through difficult problems?
If yes, then any machine should be fine. However, if you’re not, then you should focus on machines that emphasize ease of use. Machines with pre-made print profiles, standard materials, etc., will allow more seamless and straightforward use.
Do you have a room or space that can be easily ventilated for long periods when the machine is in use?
If not, then you should not be considering a resin 3D printer, as the fumes from the resin could travel through your home or office and over a long period affect the inhabitants.
Do you have small children or pets?
If yes, then you should consider machines with enclosed chambers and even locking doors to keep fingers and wet noses away from 250C hot components and moving assemblies.
Do you intend on teaching children how to use the machine?
If yes, then consider machines that come with associated learning aids. There are books on 3D printing, but they often focus on a particular machine or two. If using one of those books, then you probably want the same kind of machine.
There are more questions, of course, but you get the idea. If you truly know your intentions, the choice of 3D printer becomes far easier. Unfortunately, you may be surprised to find the machine that you need might be out of your budget.