Choosing the Right 3D Printer: An Overview of Different Types

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Are you ready to bring your wildest ideas to life? With a 3D printer, the possibilities are endless. But with so many 3D printers available, deciding which is the perfect match for you can be challenging. Trust me, as a 3D printing enthusiast myself. I know the feeling of investing in a machine that doesn’t cut it. That’s why I’m excited to share my knowledge with you! In this article, we’ll look at the different types of 3D printers, from classic filament-based to high-tech resin ones and more. 

So, grab a cup of coffee (or tea, I don’t judge), and let’s dive into 3D printing together.

What is 3D Printing?

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3D printing is a manufacturing process that allows you to create physical objects from digital designs. Instead of cutting away material from a block, 3D printing adds layers of material until the final product is complete. It’s like printing a document, but instead of ink on paper, it’s layers of plastic, metal, or even food!

How Does 3D Printing Work?

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Now that you know what 3D printing is, let’s discuss how it works. The 3D printing process has three main steps: design, 3D printing, and post-process.


3D printing begins with designing a three-dimensional model using computer-aided design (CAD) software. It then exports the design as an STL or OBJ file, which the printer’s software can read. The software slices the model into layers, and the user can adjust printing settings like orientation, support structures, layer height, and material. Once the settings are done, the software sends printing instructions to the printer through a wireless or cable.

3D Print

3D printers use various techniques to build parts, such as using a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic or fusing polymer powder particles at high temperatures. Most 3D printers can run without any problem until the print is complete. Modern systems automatically refill the materials for the parts from cartridges.


After the 3D printing is complete, the printed parts may need post-processing depending on the technology and material. This can include rinsing in isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to remove any uncured resin, post-curing to stabilize mechanical properties, manual removal of support structures, and cleaning with compressed air or a media blaster.

You can automate some of these processes with accessories. You can use these 3D-printed parts directly or after post-processing for specific applications. The necessary finish is achieved by machining, priming, painting, fastening, or joining. In some cases, 3D printing is an intermediate step along with conventional manufacturing methods, like creating molds for custom parts and casting jewelry, and dental appliances.

And there you have it! A basic overview of how 3D printing works. With that out of the way, let’s look at popular types of 3D printers.

Types Of 3D Printers And Their Uses

types of 3d printers

There are various types of 3D printing materials. In 2015, ISO/ASTM 52900 standardized seven broad categories of 3D Printers. These are:

VAT Polymerization Printers

Vat photopolymerization is a type of 3D printing that uses a liquid photopolymer resin and a UV light source.

The printer submerges a build platform in a resin tank, directing light across the surface with mirrors. Each layer is cured, and the platform is raised or lowered to allow new liquid to flow.

Three main types of vat photopolymerization printers are SLA, DLP, and CLIP. SLA 3D printing is the most common and popular. DLP is faster but offers a slightly lower resolution. CLIP is even faster than DLP due to its continuous motion build platform.

Vat photopolymerization printers use proprietary photopolymer resins, which come in many different types for different purposes. These resins can produce highly accurate and smooth prints with fine details but have smaller build volumes and can need support structures.

Vat photopolymerization printers can produce fully isotropic parts with excellent surface finishing, making them suitable for applications requiring watertight and airtight properties. However, the curing process is irreversible, and the material can be more expensive than other types of 3D printing.

Commercial Applications of VAT Polymerization Printers:

  • High-detail prototypes for design and testing, such as complex geometries, intricate surfaces, and fine features
  • Functional parts and small-scale production runs, including molds, jigs, and fixtures.
  • End-use products with smooth surface finishes, including jewelry, dental and medical models, and electronic components
  • Models and figurines for art, entertainment, and collectibles
  • Rapid tooling for injection molding and other manufacturing processes
  • Custom parts with specific mechanical properties, such as flexible, tough, or high-temperature-resistant resins
  • Architectural models and maquettes with high accuracy and resolution
  • Educational models and teaching aids for science and engineering
  • Replacement parts for legacy systems or obsolete machinery

Material Extrusion Printers

Material extrusion is a way of creating parts by printing layers of melted thermoplastic filament on top of each other. It’s like a hot glue gun moving over a flat surface.

There are two types of material extrusion printers. These are Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). FDM is the most widely available and cost-efficient printing technology.

Now there are various types of FDM 3D printers. They can use thousands of filaments, including ABS, PETG, PLA, Nylon, PC, TPU, and PEI. Some filaments are even reinforced with carbon, Kevlar, fiberglass, wood, and metal fibers.

FDM printers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are small enough to fit on your desk. But, there may be better choices for printing complex components.

However, these printers are not usually used for producing functional end-use parts. They’re not the most accurate 3D printers, and the parts they print are a bit weak along the z-axes.

Still, FDM printers are affordable, with desktop machines costing between $500 and $5,000. Industrial-grade printers can be much more expensive.

Standard FDM materials are readily available, and competition keeps the cost down. Printing times are rather quick for single parts but not for high-volume runs.

Commercial Applications of Material Extrusion Printers

  • Prototypes and functional parts
  • Models and mockups
  • Customized and personalized products
  • Replacement parts and spare components
  • Tools, jigs, and fixtures
  • Educational aids and learning tools
  • Artistic and decorative objects
  • DIY and hobby projects

Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) Printers

Powder bed fusion printers are 3D printers that selectively melt or sinter powdered particles to form a whole object. The process involves heating the material to just below its melting point and spreading it over the platform in a very thin layer. After that, it directs a laser or electron beam across the powder’s surface, fusing all the particles to form a single cross-section. After each layer, the platform is lowered, and the process repeats until all the layers have been fused into a single whole object.

The unfused particles work just like a support structure for the print. They eliminate the need for separate support structures. Once the print finishes, the excess supporting powder can be removed and recycled.

There are many types of PBF printers available such as:

  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
  • Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
  • HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
  • High-Speed Sintering (HSS)
  • Electron Beam Melting (EBM)

SLS is the most common for plastics, while DMLS and SLM are popular for metals.

PBF printers can produce parts from complex digital models and can be manufactured larger than vat photopolymerization printers. PBF prints have a slightly rough finish but can easily be polished smoothly with simple post-processing.

While PBF market competition continues to drive prices down, it remains expensive, especially for metal 3D printing, which usually costs more than CNC machining. For plastics, the expense is like vat photopolymerization. But MJF is generally around 10 percent cheaper than SLS.

PBF parts are much stronger than those produced by vat photopolymerization and can have mechanical properties like traditional manufacturing technologies such as machining and forging. MJF prints are somewhat stronger than SLS and have a smoother surface finish.

Commercial Applications of PBF Printers

  • Prototypes and models for product development and design
  • Replacement parts for machinery and equipment
  • Dental and medical implants
  • Aerospace and automotive components
  • Jewelry and fashion accessories
  • Architectural models and art pieces
  • Tooling and molds for manufacturing
  • Electronic components and circuit boards
  • Functional end-use parts for consumer goods
  • Complex geometries

Material Jet Printers

Material Jetting is a process where tiny droplets of liquid material are jetted onto a build platform and then solidified with heat or light. Like 2D ink jetting, a printhead with material jets moves over a build platform. It deposits material along an X-axis carrier, sweeping back and forth like windshield wipers on a car. This way, it covers one whole layer in a single pass.

What’s cool is that one printhead can carry jets for multiple materials. It allows full-color, multi-material, and dispensing disposable support structures like wax.

PolyJet, NanoParticle Jetting (NPJ), and Drop-On Demand (DOD) are a few printing technologies within the material jetting category. PolyJet is currently the most popular. It dispenses liquid photopolymer resins and uses easy-to-remove support materials from the printhead, which is then cured by UV light.

The best part is that a wide range of materials is available with material jetting printers, including photopolymers, flexible plastics, casting wax, metals, and ceramics. PolyJet printers are even known for being able to produce full-color, multi-material, multi-texture prints.

Material jetting printers are highly precise and can produce parts with very high tolerances. But their strength is typically less than what FDM or PBF can achieve. Moreover, material jetting can be quite expensive due to the costly materials and support structures that produce a lot of material wastage per part.

The production speeds for these printers are comparable to PBF printers.

Commercial Applications of Material Jet Printers

  • Detailed prototypes with high resolution and smooth surface finishes.
  • Creating visually appealing models and product designs.
  • Dental and medical models, as well as custom hearing aids and orthotics.
  • Jewelry industry for creating wax molds for investment casting.
  • Production of small, intricate parts for aerospace and defense industries.
  • Creation of architectural models and art pieces.

Binder Jet Printers

Binder jetting is a technology that produces various parts by selectively depositing binding agents all over a powder bed.

Here’s how it works: the build platform is covered with a thin layer of material powder, and a printhead covered in inkjet nozzles passes over, depositing the binding agent where the print needs to form.

Some binder jetting printers can also color print. They deposit a colored ink after the binding agent and before a new powder layer covers the previous one.

After the final layer is finished, the part is left to cure in the powder, allowing the binding agent to gain strength. If parts are for practical use, they need to be infiltrated and sintered. This causes them to shrink by up to 40 percent.

While binder jetting can print various materials, the most common ones are sand, ceramics, and metals, though plastics can also be used. Binder jetting is most suitable for parts smaller than the size of a fist, and complex components are possible due to the natural support structure provided by the unused powder. However, the thickness should always be at most 10mm, and the resolution should be high, on par with PBF.

Binder jetting is affordable, costing even less than vat photopolymerization and PBF. Print speeds are comparable to PBF, and the technology is fast for higher volumes, making it cost-efficient for low-volume runs.

While binder jetting can produce parts with good tolerances, the final tolerance can be hard to predict since shrinkage occurs with post-processing. The surface roughness of metal parts made through binder jetting is better than that achieved with DMLS and SLM.

Commercial Applications of Binder Jet Printers

  • Complex parts with intricate shapes and geometries
  • Large and small parts, depending on the size of the printer
  • Multi-color and multi-material parts, depending on the printer’s capabilities
  • Metal, ceramic, and sand parts, as well as some polymers
  • High-resolution parts, with layer thicknesses ranging from 20-100 microns
  • Functional parts, such as prototypes and end-use parts, depending on the material properties and printer capabilities
  • Parts with smooth surface finish, depending on post-processing techniques applied.
  • Highly customized and unique parts, as binder jetting allows for creating parts with high complexity and detail at a relatively low cost.

Direct Energy Deposition (DED) Printers

DED is a process that creates parts by layering molten material, typically metal, through a nozzle that continuously pushes powder or wire feedstock material. The material is melted by a laser or electron beam at the point of deposition, where it cools and solidifies.

The nozzle moves along multiple axes, and machines can either be three-axis or five-axis. Three-axis machines layer cross-sections on top of one another to build up the part, while five-axis machines can deposit material from any angle and can do more than just build up parts from scratch.

DED is often called Direct Metal Deposition (DMD), and different proprietary technologies use similar principles. Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) by Optomec and Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) by Sciaky are examples of DED technologies.

Moreover, DED is excellent for printing metals and ceramics, with a range of weldable materials available such as aluminum, steel, titanium, and nickel. However, the resolution is poor compared to other metal 3D printers, and support structures are difficult to create.

The two most significant advantages of DED are print speed and material cost. DED technologies are fast at laying down material, and the metal feedstock used is cheaper than other metal 3D printers. But for straightforward parts, traditional manufacturing is still cheaper.

So while DED may not be the best choice for every application, it is a powerful tool for creating parts quickly and cost-effectively, with fully dense parts and good mechanical properties as good as forged metal parts.

Commercial Applications of DED Printers

  • Metal and ceramic parts
  • Various metals like aluminum, steel, titanium, Inconel, tantalum, tungsten, nickel, and niobium
  • Large parts with built envelopes that are multiple meters long along any dimension.
  • Fully dense parts with mechanical properties
  • Repairing existing parts or adding features to existing components by depositing material on multiple sides of the object.

Sheet Lamination Printers

Sheet lamination creates 3D models by stacking and laminating sheets of material. This material is cut to match a part’s single-horizontal cross-sections. This can be achieved in different ways depending on your printer.

There are various types of sheet lamination printers available. Despite being one of the simplest methods of building 3D models, many proprietary technologies are based on material, lamination, and cutting methods.

Materials such as papers, most polymers, fiber-reinforced polymers, ceramics, and metals can all be used for sheet lamination. By using colored sheets, it’s possible to produce full-color prints across the color spectrum.

While sheet lamination print beds vary in size, they are comparable to SLA and SLS printers, and large-format printers are uncommon. Although highly complex shapes are not possible, internal structures can be produced without support structures.

One additional design option with sheet lamination is to lay embedded wiring between sheets. Typical layer resolution depend heavily on the material feedstock.

Regarding mechanical properties, the dimensional accuracy and surface finishes are comparable to what can be achieved with a simple CNC milling machine, laser cutter, or water-jet cutter. However, the weakness of the bond between sheets means that these parts are not suitable for structural or functional purposes.

LOM is a very cost-effective method of 3D printing due to the ready availability of raw materials. The lack of pre-production preparation means that printers are also very fast.

Commercial Applications of Sheet Lamination Printers

  • Rapid prototyping and model-making applications
  • 3D models, including architectural models, product prototypes, and medical models.
  • Production of molds for casting
  • Production of bespoke packaging for products of all shapes and sizes.
  • Produce large format prints for advertising and display purposes.
  • Creation of art and sculptures.
  • Creation of visual models of cars and automotive parts.
  • Creation of various models of aircraft parts and prototypes of spacecraft.
  • Creation of models of bones and organs for surgical planning and training.

Types Of 3D Printers – FAQs

How Do I Decide The Right 3d Printing Technology For My Custom Parts?

Well, choosing the right 3D printing technology for your custom parts depends on various factors. These are: the material you intend to use, the design complexity, and the level of detail and accuracy. Some common technologies include FDM, SLA, SLS, and DMLS. 

What 3d Printer Is Optimal For Complex Geometries?

SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) and MJF (Multi-Jet Fusion) are optimal 3D printing technologies for complex geometries. These technologies use a powder bed fusion process that allows intricate shapes and complex geometries with high accuracy and precision. They are ideal for creating functional parts with complex internal structures.

What Do I Do If Several 3d Printers Work For My Custom Parts?

If several 3D printers work for your custom parts, consider the material properties, cost, lead time, and design complexity. Compare the specifications of each technology and know which printer best meets your needs. Also, consider outsourcing to a 3D printing service with access to multiple technologies.

What 3d Printing Technology Is Right For Functional Polymer Parts?

FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) and SLA (Stereolithography) are popular 3D printing technologies for functional polymer parts. FDM is most suitable for producing parts with high strength, durability, and chemical resistance. On the other hand, SLA is ideal for parts that require fine details and accuracy.

What 3d Printing Methods Will Give Me The Best Cosmetic Appearance?

SLA (Stereolithography) and PolyJet technologies offer the best cosmetic appearance for 3D-printed parts. SLA provides a smooth and glossy surface finish, while PolyJet technology can produce highly detailed, multi-colored parts with a range of finishes and textures.

What’s The Best 3d Printing Technology For Metal Parts?

DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) is the best 3D printing technology for metal parts. It produces strong, durable metal parts with high accuracy and precision. Other metal 3D printing technologies, like SLM (Selective Laser Melting) and Binder Jetting, can also produce metal parts. Still, DMLS is the most commonly used technology for high-strength metal parts.