3D printing technology allows objects to be created from digital files by building up successive layers of materials like plastics, resins, metals, ceramics, and even food. As the technology has advanced over the past decades, many different types of 3D printers have emerged, each with their own capabilities and ideal applications.
There are several major 3D printing processes used by various types of printers:
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
- FDM printers build objects by heating and extruding thermoplastic filaments.
- The printer head moves based on a pre-loaded digital file, depositing the material along the print path.
- FDM is the most common and affordable type of 3D printing.
- SLA printers use a UV laser to cure liquid plastic resin layer-by-layer.
- Exceptionally high print resolution and smooth surface finishes.
- Ideal for detailed prints like jewelry, dental aligners, and figurines.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
- SLS uses a laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass powder.
- Allows prints in specialty materials like aluminum and titanium alloys.
- Mainly used for industrial applications like aerospace and medical implants.
Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
- MJF rapidly deposits fusing and detailing printing agents onto a bed of powder.
- The agents absorb infrared light which fuses the powder together into hardened material.
Types of 3D Printers
There is an ever-growing range of 3D printers available with different capabilities, suitable applications, advantages and disadvantages. Here we explore some of the most common established types on the consumer and industrial markets.
Desktop FDM Printers
Desktop FDM printers are the most affordable and widely-used machines for hobbyists and home users. They heat ABS or PLA plastic filament and extrude it through a nozzle to build prints layer-by-layer.
- Low cost (under $500)
- Small footprint to fit on a desk
- Open materials with ABS and PLA filaments
- Average print speeds
- Rapid prototyping
- Custom gadgets and household items
- Models, figurines, and art pieces
- Creality Ender 3
- FlashForge Adventurer 3
- Ultimaker S3
Enclosed FDM Printers
Enclosed FDM printers contain the print area inside an enclosed chamber and typically have HEPA filters. This helps control temperatures and improves overall print quality and reliability.
Advantages Over Open FDM Printers:
- More stable temperature control
- Draft and debris shielding
- Lower noise levels
Ideal For: Education, office, and workshop settings
- Raise3D Pro 2 Plus
- Ultimaker S5 Pro Bundle
- MakerBot Method X
Dual Extruder FDM Printers
Dual extruder FDM printers have two print heads and can print using two filament colors and materials for more complex and functional prints.
- Multi-material capabilities
- Mix color blends
- Easily print supports in secondary material
- Enable advanced techniques like dissolvable supports
- Multi-color models, prototypes, art pieces
- Functional prints with specialty filament mixes
- FlashForge Creator Max 2
- Ultimaker S3
- MakerBot Method X
Resin SLA Printers
Resin SLA printers offer exceptional detail and surface finish by curing liquid resin with light. A range of affordable desktop models now brings this technology to more consumers.
- Very high print resolution potential
- Smooth surface finish
- Faster than FDM printing
- Compatible with various resins
- Jewelry, dental aligners, detailed miniatures
- Manufacturing prototypes, end-use parts
- Pattern making, master molds
- AnyCubic Photon
- Peopoly Phenom
- Formlabs Form 3
Metal 3D Printers
Metal powder bed fusion and directed energy deposition printers allow printing of dense end-use metal parts for tooling and industrial applications.
- Print fully-dense metal components
- Avoid post-processing unlike with binder jetting
- Use reactive and exotic alloys
- Leverage design freedoms of 3D printing
- Aerospace and automotive components
- Patient-matched implants and prosthetics
- Conformal cooling mold tooling
- Aftermarket repairs and upgrades
- 3D Systems DMP Factory 500
- EOS M 400-4
- Velo3D Sapphire XC
Bioprinters deposit and fuse living cell structures layer-by-layer to produce functional human tissue and potentially whole organs for transplant.
- Print human cells, growth factors, and biomaterials
- Replicate native tissues and structures
- Significantly advance medical treatments
- Producing tissues and organs for transplantation
- Developing precision drug testing models
- Studying cell/material interactions
- Allevi 2
- Cellink Bio X
- Digitial Tools 3D Discovery Evolution
Food 3D Printers
Food 3D printers build objects out of edible ingredients for unique culinary creations through precise extrusion-based deposition.
- Custom print shapes with food materials
- Experiment with textures, flavors, and structure
- Reduce food waste with on-demand printing
- Restaurants and culinary schools
- Supermarket and food manufacturers
- Novel cuisine art and dishes
- 3D Systems ChefJet Pro
- Natural Machines Foodini Pro
- BeeHex Chef 3D Printer
- Many 3D printing processes exist, with FDM, SLA, and SLS being widely used both for personal desktop printers as well as industrial systems.
- Desktop FDM printers provide an affordable entry point for hobbyists and casual users. Enclosed models offer reliability benefits.
- Dual extruder FDM printers enable multi-color prints as well as specialty filament techniques.
- Resin SLA printers produce exceptionally detailed miniatures and jewelry using liquid resin cured by light.
- Metal printers allow direct 3D printing of dense end-use metal components without excessive post-processing.
- Emerging bioprinting and food printing applications highlight the expanding versatility of additive manufacturing.
3D printers now serve both professional industrial markets as well as hobbyists and consumers with desktop models. As the capabilities expand, printers can produce highly detailed prototypes, functional end-use parts in plastics and metals, artificial human tissue structures, and even unique food items. With more printer types and materials emerging, 3D printing delivers new found freedoms in design and manufacturing across virtually all fields.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are the main types of 3D printing processes?
The most common processes are Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) and variations. Each applies layers of plastic, resin, powder or other materials to construct objects.
- What printers are best for hobbyists and home use?
Desktop FDM printers like the Creality Ender 3 offer an affordable introduction for hobbyists prints using ABS and PLA filaments. Enclosed printers improve reliability for beginners.
- What types of 3D printers offer the highest print quality?
Resin-based SLA printers offer exceptional resolution and surface smoothness ideal for highly detailed miniatures and jewelry using liquid photopolymers cured by light projectors or lasers.
- Can metal 3D printers produce functional parts?
Yes, powder bed fusion printers allow dense metal materials like aluminum, titanium, tool steel, and super alloys to be printed for end-use industrial components without excessive post-processing.
- What unique applications exist for 3D printing?
Emerging bioprinters produce living tissue and organ structures using bio-inks containing human cells. Food 3D printers allow creative chefs to print unique culinary decorations, shapes, and textures from edible ingredients.
- What should I consider when selecting a 3D printer?
Key considerations are budget, print quality needs, preferred materials and post-processing efforts, print speed, application requirements, and whether hobbyist or industrial production use.
- How much does an industrial metal 3D printer cost?
Industrial metal printers range from around $100,000 to over $1,000,000 depending on build volume, materials capabilities, and included automation features.
- Can I 3D print silicone or flexible materials?
While challenging, flexible and elastic materials like silicone, thermoplastic urethane (TPU) and other filaments are growing more compatible with desktop FDM printers, allowing flexible prints.
- What 3D printing materials are food safe?
PLA and PETG plastics, as well as ceramic resins, offer food safe properties. Some direct food printers use cooked vegetable powders, edible binding resins, chocolate, and other ingredients.
- How accessible are resin SLA printers for beginners?
Resin printers are more complex than FDM with post-print processing, but recent desktop printers like the Any Cubic Photon simplify the process for hobbyists with good instructions and communities.