What is a 3D printer, and how much do they cost?

It’s been a while since 3D printers became available and started allowing people to create 3D objects in the real world right from their own home.

If you’re interested in getting a rundown of what 3D printers are, how they work, how much they cost, and what you could do with them, you’ve come to the right place.

What is a 3-D printer?

A Monoprice MP10 3D Printer is creating an octahedron in blue plastic.
Monoprice MP10 printer produces an octahedron from blue plastic. Monoprice

A 3D printer can produce physical objects using a digital model. The end result is typically plastic. This model may be rough-edged and often only one color. Despite those limitations, holding a real-world copy of a 3D model makes it easier to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

The best 3D Printers are able to create parts that can be used in everyday life. Long-term, the goal of the industry will be to extend the lifespan of consumer products by allowing anyone to create a critical replacement part that a manufacturer no longer stocks.

A 3D printer is not only useful for recreating missing or damaged parts, but can also produce enough pieces to assemble an entire product. This technology is ideal for rapid prototypes, as it allows quick changes to improve the design before investing in expensive injection moulds for high-volume manufacturing.

The 3D printer is also used in commercial manufacturing. Sometimes, when producing small quantities of products, the high-quality but slow and expensive 3D printed parts make more sense than the traditional methods that have high initial costs, and low unit cost.

How do 3D Printers Work?

Fused Deposition Modeling, the most popular 3D printer technology, is similar to inkjet printing. The FDM printer moves from side to side and deposits material on the moving platform. A 3D printer, unlike an inkjet printer that sprays ink onto paper, extrudes hot plastic on a glass or metal plate.

Two computer-controlled electric motors control the flow of plastic across the entire length and width, one for each printhead. To add height, a motor raises the rail on which the printhead is positioned.

3D printing, when compared to other manufacturing techniques, is slow. It can sometimes take hours to bring an object into the third dimensional. It can be made faster by extruding a larger amount of material, but this increases the layer height. The result is a print with a rough texture. In addition to the smooth surfaces, vertical angles and curves also have steps.

A detailed 3D object sits beside the Elegoo Mars 4 9K UV resin 3D printer.
Elegoo Mars 4 9K UV resin 3D printer. Elegoo

This is the second most popular type of consumer 3D printer. Instead of using heat, it uses light to create shapes from plastic. This type of 3D printer is known as a resin one. It uses UV light to create an image on liquid resin, which reacts with the wavelength and solidifies.

It is faster to use resin for 3D printing because it can cure an entire layer in one go. However, UV resin usually isn’t as durable as the thermoplastics used for FDM 3D printing.

FDM filaments can be made from a more durable plastic or other materials such as metal, glass and ceramic. The 3D printer component takes on the appearance and characteristics of those materials. With specialized 3D printers, it’s possible to create objects in a variety of materials, even cheesecake.

What can a 3D-printer make?

Cute Mini Octopus 3D printer file by Javi Rodríguez aka McGybeer.
Cute 3D-printed mini octopuses by Javi Rodríguez, aka McGybeer. Javi Rodríguez aka McGybeer / Thingiverse

Commercial 3D printers are capable of producing almost anything. Some 3D printers melt metal using powerful lasers, resulting in strong parts that can be used for rockets and other rugged machinery.

The size and material of consumer-grade 3D printing devices are limited. The build plate size determines the maximum width and length of a 3D printed part.

3D printed objects can usually fit in your palm. Consumer 3D printers that are larger can handle objects up to a little bit over one cubic foot. It’s also possible to make a large object by assembling several smaller parts.

The $30 3D scanner V7 updates by Dave Clarke.
The $30 3D scanner V7 from Dave Clarke. Dave Clarke/Thingiverse

A whistle is one of the most popular 3D items. Another is a phone holder that has a manual turning table for scanning 3D objects.

The possibilities are endless. For example, Thingiverse is one of the largest libraries of 3D objects designed for 3D printing, with over 2.5 million digital files — and most are free.

With the rise of generative AI, it’s now possible to create 3D objects with text prompts. At present, AI isn’t creating designs optimized for 3D printing, so you would need to convert the file to a compatible format and process it through a 3D-printing app before use.

How much do 3D printers cost?

3D Printers start at around $100. That’s a great price for such powerful technology. Advanced models are more expensive, but have larger print plates and faster printing speeds.

You can buy a good 3D consumer printer for around $300. If you’re a frequent printer and an enthusiast, $500-$1,000 will get you a larger, faster 3D printer. Commercial 3D Printers can cost anywhere from a few thousands of dollars to more than $1 million.

An engineer tests the thickness of a Relativity space rocket 3D print.
An engineer measures the thickness of Relativity 3D prints. Relativity Space

Be aware you’ll need supplies and might want accessories for your 3D printer, so keep a little more in the budget for those added costs. FDM filaments and UV resin are relatively inexpensive, but are sold in bulk, so you’ll spend at least $20 to get the necessary supplies.

Accessories include an enclosure that reduces the noise from an FDM 3D Printer, better buildplates, cooling fans for faster printing, UV light to harden resin and tools for 3D Printer cleaning and maintenance. You usually don’t need accessories to get started, and some 3D printers come with a small amount of filament or resin to create the first few prints.

The Ender-3 V2 3 is an FDM 3D printer.
The Creality Ender-3 V2 3D printer is an FDM. Creativity

A 3D printer unlocks the potential to inexpensively create replacement parts, duplicate designs that are available online, or prototype entirely new products that don’t yet exist. This amazing technology has existed for decades, but became more affordable and easier to use only in the past few years.

If you haven’t explored 3D printing recently, it’s time to take another look. If you’re new to 3D printing, now is a great time to get started.

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