What is 3D printing? – CNET


Spend some time on an online craft marketplace like Etsy, and you’ll notice that many products are 3D printed or include 3D printed parts. But what do we really mean by that, and how easy is it to start 3D printing your own items?

The answer is not as simple as you might hope, but also not as complicated as you might fear.

How does a 3D printer work?

3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing that uses materials to create layers in 3D objects. Essentially, it prints by adding material (usually some form of plastic) one drop at a time. The 3D printer draws a shape on a flat surface, then draws another on top of it until the model is complete.

There are many different types of materials used to create these layers, but the ones you are most likely to use as a hobbyist are fused plastic and UV resin. The type you use will depend on the result you want to achieve. The best 3D printers automate much of the process, but there’s still a lot of trial and error to get it right.

This image shows one of the benefits of owning a 3D printer. My colleague Dan Ackerman needed a stand for his iPhone to attach to his MacBook. A few hours and about $0.15 worth of hardware later, he had one running. It’s satisfying to solve this kind of problem almost immediately.

Manufacturing 3D printed parts saves you time and money

Dan Ackerman/CNET

What are the types of 3D printer?

Printers come in many shapes and sizes and can be configured in different ways depending on your end goals, but most that a hobbyist or small business will use can be divided into two distinct types: FDM and resin.

Modeling of molten deposits

This is the most common and widely used type of printer by businesses and hobbyists. An FDM 3D printer is simply a plotting device. It pushes a plastic filament through a hot nozzle to crush layers into the print surface in a pattern.

There are many different materials you can use with an FDM printer. I won’t go into detail here – if you want more information check out our list of the best 3D printer filaments – but the easiest to use is PLA. It is a type of non-toxic vegetable plastic that prints at fairly low temperatures.

You should buy an FDM 3D printer if you are looking to 3D print practical parts, medium-sized decorative models, and cosplay armors.

SLA (stereolithography) or resin 3D printing

SLA printing, more commonly known as resin printing, is almost the opposite of FDM printing. Instead of melting the plastic into a liquid, it uses a UV-reactive liquid that hardens under light. Each layer is “cured” using an array of LEDs, which emit light in a set pattern.

Resin printing produces much more detailed models in the end, but is much harder to work with. There are many great resins to try, but you need a wash and dry station to ensure they are safe to handle after you print them.

You should buy an SLA resin 3D printer if you want to print very detailed models such as Dungeons and Dragons miniature jewelry or even dentistry (assuming you are a dentist).

There is another 3D printing process: sintering uses a laser to fuse the powder into shape. It’s expensive and produces amazing results, but it requires big machines and a lot of space. It’s definitely not ideal for use in your garage.

Elegoo Neptune 2 on a shelf with Anycubic Vyper in the background

Even though it costs very little, this printer delivers excellent quality every time.

James Bricknell/CBS

How much does a 3D printer cost?

Prices for 3D printers vary wildly depending on what you want to do with it, the size of the printer, and how detailed you want the printer models to be. We have a list of the best budget 3D printers on the site if you’re looking for something under $500. Or we can recommend the best 3D printers overall if you have a bit more cash to spare. There are even semi-professional rigs that can cost a few thousand dollars.

The Neptune 2 is a good starting point for beginners. It’s easy to set up and use, and it’s usually priced under $200. Although it won’t print the most detailed models, it will give you a good understanding of all that 3D printing entails. The most important thing is that it is cheap which makes it accessible.

If money is no object and you want an amazing 3D printing experience at home, then the Prusa Mk3S Plus is the best choice. It comes in both kit and pre-assembled form, but if you want to learn more about 3D printing, you need to buy the kit. It’s a great introduction to how the whole process works and it will save you money.

At $799 plus shipping, it’s not the cheapest 3D printer, but it is the best out-of-the-box 3D printing experience money can buy. It’s an investment when you’re just starting out, but it can save you money in the long run: some cheaper 3D printers require upgrades and spare parts to really shine.

In the four years I’ve owned it, it’s been my most consistent 3D printer in terms of reliability and output quality.

Resin 3D printers are priced the same as their FDM counterparts, although the price differences are more about speed and size than quality. An economical resin printer like the Anycubic M3 may be as low as $270, but the level of detail it can capture is as good as printers five times as expensive. What keeps the price cheap is the size of the build area. Quite simply; the more space you want, the more you expect to pay.

Is it the right time to buy a 3D printer?

3D printing is currently in a golden age. Unlike days past when you needed an engineering degree to use a 3D printer, today you can set up and get started with most printers in less than 15 minutes.

Advanced safety features like filament run-out sensors and power loss protection are now standard, even on budget options, so you’re less likely to fail and more likely to succeed. That’s not to say you’ll never get failures – you will, I promise. But failures are a good learning experience, and they won’t make up the majority of your results anymore, like they used to.


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