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How to choose a 3D printer: A buyer's guide

Middle School/High School

Want to explore 3D printing in your classroom but don’t know where to start? 3D printers can give you and your students the power to create anything you can imagine (well, almost anything).

Here are four key questions to help you choose a 3D printer that’s right for your unique classes and projects.

  1. How big are the objects you’ll be printing?

Choose a printer with a build size that can accommodate your printing needs. Here’s what we mean by ‘build size’:

The build size for each printer is limited by the cubic dimensions of the print platform. Designs can be accommodated up to the total size of the vertical and horizontal axis of the print plate.

  1. Are you a speed demon—or a stickler for details?

Decide whether you want to print rough prototypes and simple objects as quickly as possible … or whether you’d rather wait for a finished design to print the highest-quality detail. This will determine the resolution settings you need.

Resolution is the level of detail between each layer of the object that the printer is capable of printing—measured in microns. The greater the micron setting, the faster your object can print, but the less detail it will possess between layers.

For example, 300 microns is equivalent to 0.3 mm, and 100 microns is equivalent to 0.1 mm. If you print a ball, the 300-micron setting will take less time, but the detail between each layer will be less smooth.

Many printers offer a range of resolution settings, so you can adjust to the print speed and level of detail your design requires. How’s that for control?

  1. Are you a monochromatic maker—or do you see color, color, everywhere?

If you want to design an object with more than one color/type of filament, then choose a printer with more than one extruder. Printers can accommodate as many filament types/colors as they have extruders.

Colors can do more than just look pretty—they can also play a useful role in the engineering process. If, for example, your project requires a support structure that will be removed afterwards, a different color makes the structure easier to see and so to remove.

Some filaments even dissolve in water or other chemicals, making the final object easier to clean. If you want to make a movable part but need a gap between parts, then the second extruder could also contain the dissolvable filament.

  1. Material matters. What are you printing with?

Filament is the physical material your printer uses to print. It’s the stuff your final object will be made of. Many types of filaments are available (though not all 3D printers accept all types).

ABS and PLA are the types of filaments mostly commonly used in schools:

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) filament requires a heated build platform; otherwise it could deform as it cools. ABS objects shrink in size after they’ve cooled. ABS is ideal if the object will be handled in a rough manner or will be in a warmer environment. Printers that work with ABS filament are often in a closed environment, and slight fumes may be present during production.

PLA (Polylactic Acid) filament doesn’t require a heated build platform. Finished builds have very little shrinkage compared to ABS. PLA can be recycled or composted (you go, Earth!). PLA is more sensitive to heat and may distort or become brittle if the object is particularly small or thin.

Dissolvable filament does as the name suggests: it dissolves away. It’s intended to be used as a supporting element in conjunction with either PLA or ABS. If you need internal supporting structures you can’t physically cut away afterwards, a dissolvable filament is a good choice. Every dissolvable filament has different characteristics: some dissolve away in hot water, while others need a strong acid.

A 3D printer in your classroom can make you the envy of the school. What student wouldn’t want to be able to make digital designs come alive? Now that you’re armed with the right questions to ask, you can gather the information you need to make an informed decision.

Ready to build your 3D world? Shop and compare all 3D printers and supplies here or contact the Ward’s Science Plus Us team for one-on-one guidance and product recommendations.