10 Factors to Consider When Buying an FDM 3D Printer
1. Experience level and training
Has the end-user 3D printed in the past and what is their experience level? Does he/she have a mechanical background or experience with other machinery that operates on G-code such as a CNC mill?
Light modeling experience (such as Solidworks, Inventor, or Fusion 360) is required and prior experience with generating G-code is helpful. Any combination of experience and/or education in field will ensure a smooth and positive experience. Successful 3D printing requires the following:
- Ensuring that the part is manifold (watertight)
- Determining if overhangs exist that will require support material
- Having the mechanical capacity to replace filament, nozzles, load and remove build plates
Depending on your combination of experience and training you should consider the following important features in a 3D printer.
- Touch screen: Is the interface user-friendly and does it include a touchscreen? What is the process for loading filament or changing nozzles?
- Auto-leveling: Does the printer offer auto-leveling or will the user be required to level the print bed before every print job?
- File preparation: How complicated is the slicing software? Does the manufacturer allow you to download it and take it for a test drive before buying the equipment?
- File loading: Does the machine have to be connected to Wi-Fi to operate or can the G-code be loaded via USB stick or cable connection?
- Part save: Does the machine have the capability to restore prints after either a power off situation or a filament jam?
- Hotend replacement: How easy is to replace the hotend? If you like to experiment with materials and/or push the edge of the envelope, you will service your hot end. Replacement should take no longer than a couple minutes.
- “Locked” consumables: If you do not have an unlimited budget or if you simply do not want to have to rely on one vendor, open filament is critical to an uninterrupted production chain.
- Technical Support: Is technical support available through email or tech portal or can you call on the phone and talk to a live person? Or is the technical support limited to a self-help library of solutions?
2. Value of your time and your budget constraints
There are essentially two classes of desktop 3D printers: hobby and professional machines. If you are on a tight budget and/or have time to devote to bed leveling, troubleshooting, and don’t mind working with simple materials like PLA, then a hobby-grade machine is an option to consider. Be prepared to fix, tune and modify your equipment, experiment with software settings, and reprint parts several times before achieving acceptable results.
Professional-level printers should offer features including a fully heated bed, heated build chamber, engineering grade material options, and optimized, material-specific G-code generation. It is simply not possible to copy over settings from one material to another. Each material will have its own extrusion, bed, and chamber temperatures as well as print speed and infill settings. If your time is valuable and your projects require minimal downtime and timely, accurate results, then a professional level 3D printer packaged with intelligent software, such as the EVO is the best option.
3. Build Envelope
If your projects require large parts then the size of the build envelope is an important consideration. The typical build envelope of a hobby printer is small-less than 10”x10”x10”. Such machines can also cost up to $6,000.
Larger professional 3D printers, such as the EVO 22, offer significantly larger build envelopes and professional quality motion control components to produce parts as tall as 22” in height. EVO 3D printers range between $8,000 and $12,000.
When researching build envelopes, pay close attention to the following:
- Is the advertised build envelope a true representation of the machine’s actual capabilities? Does the build size capability only represent the machine’s capability printing with PLA or PETG? This is important as neither material requires much heat or an enclosed chamber. Manufacturing parts in high-temperature materials requires heated beds capable of over 145C, heated chambers, and high-temperature extruders capable of over 300C to avoid part warpage and cracking.
- Does the machine use linear guides and ball screws for motion control? When working with larger prints, tolerances end to end are especially critical and ball bearings and steel rods are no match for professional linear motion componentry.
- Does the printer have quality components, circuitry and power to withstand the rigor of a large print job of 100+ hours at high temperatures, time and time again? A manufacturer should provide videos, screenshots of machine hours, and parts to demonstrate large FDM capabilities in high temp materials such as ABS and Polycarbonate. Machines should be capable of 4,000+ hours of print time with little maintenance.
4. Print Resolution
If your parts need to have a superior surface finish, consider 4 main factors: smaller interchangeable nozzle sizes, small layer heights, motion control, and material. When making a large part, small details will be less important and using nozzles as large as 1.0mm can save time with little effect on overall part quality. However, when seeking the ultimate resolution, consider using a smaller .35mm nozzle to increase definition and work better with smaller layer heights. With smaller layer heights comes the necessity of precision motion control utilizing linear guides and ball screws. Our guide “3D Printing on a Small Scale” is an absolute must-read for those who want to get the most out of their 3D printer
5. Heat Requirements
Heat requirements will vary depending on the material used. No two user’s heat requirements or settings are the same. There are three heat emitting components in 3D printing: the hot end, heated bed and heated chamber.
Maximum Hot End Temperature
The maximum temperature of the hot end is an important consideration as it can limit the variety of materials that you will be able to extrude. Most hobbyist 3D printers can reach temperatures up to 200C, which is the melting temperature of PLA. Upper-level hobbyist machines typically can reach temperatures up to 240C and print small to medium size parts with ABS.
Some professional 3D printers, such as the EVO, can effortlessly operate at over 300C and successfully 3D print large parts in engineering grade materials such as ABS, Nylon, and Polycarbonate. If most of your parts can be produced in PLA then a low temp 3D printer might do the job. Keep in mind, however, that PLA will not withstand higher temperatures. For example, it will degrade if left in a car on a sunny day. Below is a chart of temperature ranges for various types of materials.
Fully Heated Bed and Maximum Bed Temperature
A powerful heated build plate is critical when printing large parts. So is the power supply, as getting the build plate to over 130C (necessary for ABS) can be very power intensive. Make sure that the entire bed is heated, not just the center part.
Some manufacturers claim to have a heated bed, however, only the center part of the bed is heated and the outer parts are not heated – this will lead to part warpage and lifting. The image below illustrates part warpage due to inferior heated beds.
Containing heat is absolutely mandatory when 3D printing with higher temp materials because these materials, such as ABS and Polycarbonate tend to contract at high rates when they cool. Also, an enclosed build environment tends to contain a large portion of the odor.
For heating large build volumes, a heated bed is a good start, but simply not enough when dealing with large prints. Temperature-controlled chamber heaters can precisely control the chamber temperature and improve surface finish and layer to layer adhesion.
6. Environment and Location
Smells and Filtration System
Will you be operating the 3D printer in a open workshop, an enclosed environment or a classroom? If it is a small, non-ventilated room, you may consider the resulting air quality of the surrounding environment. Although 3D printers release small amounts of VOC and Ultra Fine Particles, these can add up if operated for prolonged periods of times in a non-ventilated workplace. If this is of concern to you, then it is important to investigate the filtration system (if any) that is included with a 3D printer. Be sure to ask about the type of filters, is it an active charcoal filtration and/or Hepa filter? How often should these be replaced and what is the replacement cost?
The same can be said of the sounds emitted. If your 3D printer will operate in a working environment or a classroom, then consider the sounds created by this equipment as to not distract co-workers. Enclosed 3D printers with higher quality components such as motors, pulleys, and belts will create less noise as opposed to open frame printers. If sound quality is of concern, then consider an enclosed 3D printer.
Which material or materials will you use most often? Which material will your projects require in the future?
As mentioned earlier, different materials will require varying degrees of hot end temperatures. Currently, there are over 40 different types of polymers (filaments) available on the market, such as flexible materials like TPU, Nylon, polypropylene, carbon-fiber blends and even water-soluble support materials. Airwolf 3D printers are engineered to print in all 40+ filaments.
Another consideration that goes hand-in-hand with material choice is drive system. There are two main forms of drive: direct and Bowden. Direct drive is far more popular now than it was in desktop 3D printing’s infancy. This is because direct drive is significantly more user friendly and adaptable to a wide range of materials.
Bowden drive however, fails when used with flexible materials. In particular, it is not possible to accurately reproduce sophisticated geometries in flexible materials like TPU and TPE with Bowden drives because of the delay. Airwolf 3D has done extensive research and development on the area of flexible materials and you can read more in our white paper “Direct vs Bowden“. A Bowden configuration will not successfully 3D print sophisticated TPU and TPE parts.
Keep in mind as well that a printer with a Max Hot End Temperature of 280C will not print polycarbonate. Polycarbonate also requires a heated bed temperature of at least 145C and head temperature of at least 300C. The EVO and EVO 22 are both capable of hot end temperature of over 300C and heat bed temperatures up to 160C. The AXIOM series of 3d printers are capable of hot end temperature of over 300C as well.
The takeaway here is, know what materials you will use and if you plan to print with engineering grade materials such as polycarbonate, a 3D printer with a higher Max Hot End Temperature is a necessity. Similarly, if flexible materials are on your horizon, consider direct drive mandatory.
Like CNC machines, 3D printers require the use of slicing software to generate G-code. Most 3D printer manufacturers offer slicing software and include predefined settings to complement the equipment. However, such settings are usually limited to 1-2 materials. Apex slicing software for EVO and EVO 22 is configured for over 20 different materials with part sizes ranging from small to large and quality from draft to fine. This saves the operator time by eliminating the “experimenting” necessary to develop settings for different materials. Airwolf has invested over 10,000 man hours in optimizing settings for most every available material.
Check to see if the manufacturer offers a free download of the software. Check to see how often the manufacturer updates the software and if the manufacturer is actively investing in development. Free free to ask them if, after purchase and delivery, they can assist you in creating the optimal settings for your specific parts and needs and if they develop their software in house. Both considerations go a long way in determining which manufacturer will be your best partner.
Additive manufacturing is still in its infancy and a warranty can be very helpful. Investigate to get a feeling of the manufacturer’s main objectives. For example, if something goes wrong with your 3D printer, is their main objective to get you up and running as soon as possible? Airwolf 3D’s main objective is to keep you 3D printing to meet your deadlines. Be sure to ask the following questions:
- What are the terms of the warranty?
- How are repairs handled and what is the turnaround time after you buy a 3d printer?
- How long has the company been around and is it stable?
- Is the filament manufactured by the 3D printer manufacturer, tested for tolerance, tensile strength or guaranteed to perform well with the printer?
10. Planning for the future
If you intend to keep your 3D equipment long term, you will want to ensure that your 3D printer operator and successors have a positive experience. Ask the following questions:
- Will your company need to print in multiple materials?
- How long has the 3D printer manufacturer been in business?
- Is the manufacturer based in the U.S. or does it offshore its manufacturing?
- Does the manufacturer stock replacement parts such as fuses, circuit boards, hot ends, power supplies for its legacy machines, etc?
- Does the manufacturer have a track record of offering an upgrade path?
- Does the manufacturer have a track record of offering a trade-in plan?
- Does the manufacturer invest in innovation and IP?
- Does the manufacturer offer training options for your successor or other machine operators?
We hope that this guide has informed you and helps you to make the right decision for your company and project needs. Thank you for considering Airwolf 3D equipment in your research.