What you need to know when choosing a 3D printer

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Last week our school received news that our submission to the federal government “Inspiring Australia” Makerspace grants had been successful. This funding will allow us to purchase a 3D printer and lasercutter for the school. I have contacted several sources to find out which machines will be most suitable for our purposes and the following information provided by Quantum Victoria has been most useful:

FFD 3D Printer Recommendations

“As 3D printer technology and pricing is moving so quickly it is difficult to recommend a single printer as many new models come out every year and we cannot possibly use them all. This guide looks at FFF (fused filament fabrication) printers, as they are still the most common for schools to purchase. FFF 3D printers provide reasonable resolution and low running costs, however prices for the machine can vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. This guide will go through the main features of a 3D printer and the impact that will have in order for you to make an informed decision on what printer to buy.”

“When considering the size of a printer the size it will take up on a bench / in storage is obviously going to be a factor you must consider. More importantly though is the print volume, this is how large an object it is possible to print. A larger print volume means bigger objects. Generally anything smaller than 150mm x 150mm x 150mm is considered a small print area, 200mm x 200mm x 200mm is considered a medium print area and larger than 300mm x 300mm x 300mm is considered a large print area.”

“Printers that feature an enclosed printing environment should produce more reliable prints. As 3D printing works on the melting and cooling of plastic to create objects, variances in the air temperature around the print can adversely affect the print (causing warping or delamination). A 3D printer that doesn’t have an enclosure is usually cheaper however you must consider where it’s going to be placed, ideally it should be kept out of the direct paths of any fans or air conditioners for best results.”

Automatic Levelling / Calibration
“Having the print bed Level and the print head start the correct distance away from the printing bed are crucial to a successful print and can be quite arduous to calibrate manually. Having a printer that can automatically calibrate itself is extremely useful for having more consistently successful prints. Over time this has become a standard feature in almost all 3D printers.”

“Newer printers are starting to contain air filters to capture particle emissions from printers. There is still much research to be done on the health and safety aspects of 3D printing so make sure the printer is located in a well ventilated area and consult latest research as it becomes available. Read this article for more information on emissions from 3D printers. 

Printing Materials
“Whilst there are many materials that can be used in a printer, each with their own unique properties, the two main materials that will be available are PLA and ABS plastic. Our recommendation would be to use PLA as it:

  • Has less warping and delamination issues when compared with ABS
  • Doesn’t require a heated print bed
  • Seems to produce less ultra-fine particles (see link above)
  • Produces less toxic particles (see link above)
  • Biodegradable

ABS however is stronger, less brittle and has higher temperature resistance and therefore more desirable in engineering applications.”

Number of Heads
“Whilst most printers have a single head, some printers have two or more allowing you to print more materials simultaneously. Whilst many will advertise the use of multiple colours of plastic we feel the better use of multiple heads is to be able to print in multiple materials. Particularly useful is the ability to print support structures in a dissolvable material. If you are looking at buying a multi-headed printer, check to see if it has this functionality.”

Cartridges Vs Spools
“3D printers use spools of plastic filament as their consumable. Just like how printers use proprietary ink cartridges many newer printers require the use of specific cartridges designed by the manufacturer. This allows the manufacturer to ensure the quality of the plastic used in the printer however also comes with a significant increase to the price for the same amount of plastic. If you are concerned about the cost of your consumables, we would recommend choosing a printer that uses generic spools. If you decide to buy a printer that requires cartridges, ensure that you check the prices of them before being locked in.”

Printing surface
“One of the biggest hurdles still to be overcome by 3D printing is making sure that printed objects don’t delaminate from the surface they are being printed.
There are various print surfaces that comes with printers, we have found none that fully solve the adhesion problem. Note that some printers come with a consumable print surface, that is a surface that is meant to be printed on once and then replaced which will add to your printing costs.
Currently we are using a thin layer of glue (from a regular glue stick) to help with adhesion. Having a heated bed will also help with adhesion and is considered necessary if you want to print with ABS.”

Headless Printing
“Some printers support headless printing; that is being able to print without being connected to a computer. This can often be desired as prints can often be multiple hours or need to be left to run over night. Headless printing often comes in two varieties:

  • The printer will have an SD card slot. Files need to be saved from the 3D printing software onto the SD card. You can then plug the card into the machine and the printer will print from it. Note that some of these style of printers can only print from SD card and cannot directly print via a USB cable
  • Some printers will connect to a computer via a USB cable, when you hit print from the 3D printing software it will load the entire print job into the printer and the USB cable can then be disconnected.”

“There is a plethora of 3D printing software available. This is not to be confused with 3D Modelling software which is what allows you to design 3D Objects, 3D printing software is what transforms the 3D Object into a series of instructions the printer can understand. Depending on what software the printer uses will affect how much control you have over the way in which the printer prints.”

Buying Guide
“Decide on a budget and then see what printers are available, depending on what sort of projects you want to do at school you’ll need to consider if it’s worth getting a greater number of cheaper printers, or fewer more expensive printers. Keep in mind 3D printing is a slow process and a single print will generally take at least an hour, something large can easily take 8+ hours of printing.”

Of all the features we’d consider them in this order:
Must Have: Automatic Levelling / Calibration
Desirable: Uses Generic Spools; Enclosure; Heated Bed
Optional: Multiple Heads; Filtering

3D Printer Resellers
Some Australian based 3D printer resellers are listed below:

About Quantum Victoria
Quantum Victoria is a leader in STEM Education, inspiring the next generation of innovators. For more information, such as student programs, teacher professional development and special events please visit the website.

Disclaimer The information contained in this document is for general information purposes only. The information is provided by Quantum Victoria and while we endeavour to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability or availability with respect to the document or the information, products, services, or related graphics contained in the document for any purpose. Any reliance you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk.

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