It’s been a while since 3D printers came onto the market, allowing people to create 3D objects in the real world right from their homes.
If you want an overview of what 3D printers are, how they work, how much they cost, and what you can do with them, you’ve come to the right place.
What is a 3D printer?
A Monoprice MP10 3D printer creates an octahedron out of blue plastic. Mono price
A 3D printer is a device that can create physical objects from a digital file. The result is usually plastic. It can have rough edges and is often solid color. Despite these limitations, it’s easier to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when you hold a real copy of a 3D model.
The best 3D printers can produce parts that are sturdy enough for everyday use. The industry’s long-term goal is to extend the life of consumer products and allow anyone to print an important replacement part that the manufacturer no longer has in stock.
While it is useful to recreate a missing or broken part, a 3D printer can also produce enough parts to assemble entire products. This technology is ideal for rapid prototyping, allowing for quick changes to refine the design before the need to use expensive injection molds for mass production.
And 3D printing also has its place in commercial manufacturing. When producing a small number of products, high-quality but relatively slow and expensive 3D printing of parts sometimes makes more sense than traditional methods with high acquisition costs and low unit costs.
How do 3D printers work?
The most common 3D printer design, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), is similar to an inkjet printer. The FDM print head moves back and forth, depositing material on a moving platform. While an inkjet printer sprays droplets of ink onto paper, a 3D printer extrudes hot plastic onto a glass or metal build plate.
Two computer-controlled motors direct the flow of plastic along the length and width of the finished object, one for the print head and one for the build plate. To create height, a third motor raises the rail over which the print head slides.
The downside is that 3D printing is a slow process compared to traditional manufacturing techniques, sometimes taking hours to bring an object into the third dimension. You can make it faster by extruding more material at once, but that increases the layer height and results in a print that feels rough. Vertical curves and angles also have steps instead of the smooth surfaces and flat planes of most manufactured products.
The Elegoo Mars 4 9K is a UV resin 3D printer. Elegoo
The second most popular type of consumer 3D printer uses light instead of heat to form shapes out of plastic. This so-called resin 3D printer uses UV light to project an image onto liquid resin, which reacts to that wavelength and solidifies.
3D printing with resin is often faster and cures an entire layer at once. However, UV resin is typically not as durable as the thermoplastics used for FDM 3D printing.
Special FDM filaments include more durable plastic as well as various types of metal, glass, ceramic and even wood. The 3D printer part adopts the appearance and some of the properties of these materials. With special 3D printers it is possible to create objects from a wide variety of materials, even cheesecake.
What can a 3D printer make?
Cute 3D printed mini octopuses by Javi Rodríguez, also known as McGybeer. Javi Rodriguez aka McGybeer/Thingiverse
Commercial 3D printers can make almost anything. Some 3D printers use powerful lasers to melt metal to create sturdy parts for use in rockets and other sturdy machines.
Consumer 3D printers are limited in size and material. The size of the build plate determines the maximum length and width of a part, while the height of the printer influences how tall a 3D printed object can be.
In most cases, 3D prints fit in the palm of your hand. Larger consumer 3D printers can handle objects slightly larger than a cubic foot. It is also possible to make a large object by putting several smaller pieces together.
Dave Clarke’s $30 V7 3D Scanner. Dave Clarke/Thingiverse
Some of the most popular 3D objects include a whistle, a phone holder with a manual turntable for scanning objects in 3D, a clever digital sundial that uses sunlight to cast a shadow that shows the time in easy-to-read digits, and a mini octopus with flexible hinged legs that does not require assembly.
The possibilities are endless. Thingiverse, for example, is one of the largest libraries of 3D objects for 3D printing, with over 2.5 million digital files – and most of them are free.
With the advent of generative AI, it is now possible to create 3D objects using text prompts. Currently, AI does not create designs optimized for 3D printing, so you would need to convert the file to a compatible format and process it with a 3D printing app before use.
How much do 3D printers cost?
You can purchase 3D printers starting at around $100, an incredible bargain for such powerful technology. More advanced models have larger build plates and faster print speeds, but cost more.
For around $300 you can get a very good consumer 3D printer. If you become an enthusiast who prints frequently, you can get a much faster and larger 3D printer for $500 to $1,000. Commercial 3D printers cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over $1 million.
An engineer tests the thickness of a 3D print of a Relativity space rocket. Relativity space / relativity space
Keep in mind that you will need supplies and possibly accessories for your 3D printer, so budget a little more for these additional costs. FDM filaments and UV resin are relatively inexpensive, but are sold in bulk, so you’ll need to spend at least $20 to get the necessary supplies.
Accessories include an enclosure to reduce noise in an FDM 3D printer, better build plates, cooling fans for faster printing, UV light for curing resin, and tools for cleaning and maintaining the 3D printer. You typically don’t need any accessories to get started and some 3D printers come with a small amount of filament or resin to create your first prints.
The Creality Ender-3 V2 is an FDM 3D printer. creativity
A 3D printer opens up the possibility of cost-effectively producing replacement parts, duplicating designs available online, or prototyping entirely new products that don’t yet exist. This incredible technology has been around for decades, but only in recent years has it become affordable and easy to use.
If you haven’t dabbled in 3D printing lately, it’s time to take another look. If you’re new to 3D printing, now is a good time to start.