Over the past few years, there have been significant advances in 3D printing technology. These advances have affected many industries, from the medical field and architecture to automotive and consumer electronics. 3D printing has literally changed the way products are designed and manufactured.
In 2019, the global 3D printing market size was valued at $11.58 billion, and it is estimated to grow at a CAGR of over 14% between 2020 and 2027. In 2018, nearly 1.4 million units of 3D printers were shipped, and this figure is estimated to reach more than 8 million units by 2027 — Grand View Research report.
The stats show that people could build a strong career in 3D printing. However, they need to have a good understanding of numerous parts that make up for the most revolutionary technology.
Although 3D printers are complex machines, when examined closely, they can be made easier to understand and work with. Below, we have listed all crucial 3D printer parts that make the additive manufacturing process feasible. They can be segmented into hardware, software, and services.
The precise sizing and quality of these components are of paramount importance while developing machinery and systems. Due to the significant increase in demand for designing and building various functional parts of 3D printers, these components are expected to register a CAGR of 14.9% between 2020 and 2027.
1. Print Material (Filament)
3D printing filament spools with models printed using the filament
Example: Nylon; Resin; PLA (Polylactic Acid); ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
When it comes to 3D printing, there are dozens of materials to choose from. Each has its own unique feature, strength, and weakness. New 3D printing machines are still being developed to print many different kinds of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites.
Nylon (also known as polyamide) is a well-known 3D printing filament that is mostly used for creating delicate and complex geometries. Its flexibility, low friction, durability, and corrosion-resistant properties make it suitable for Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printers.
Filaments of nylon (or other materials) are available in spools. They are heated to specific temperatures and liquified to be deposited on the printing platform. The filament is deposited layer by layer until the complete object is printed. Generally, the layer thickness ranges between 16 µm and 150 µm, depending on the 3D printing technique used.
It is important to note that not all 3D printers support nylon filament. Some work with multiple choices of filaments, while some only accept proprietary filaments.
An extruder depositing material on a 3D printing platform
Example: Zesty Nimble (Direct extruder); E3D V6 (Bowden extruder)
The extruder ejects material in a liquid or semi-liquid form, depositing it in successive layers within the 3D printing volume. In some 3D printers, the extruder only deposits a bonding agent to solidify a powdered material.
The extruder can be segmented into two parts: the cold end and the hot end.
The cold end is the upper portion of the extruder where the filament is fed. It contains a stepper motor (brushless DC motor), hobbed bolt, toothed gearing, and spring-loaded idler to hold the filament and PolyTetraFluoroEthylene tubing to guide the filament.
The hot end is the lower portion where the filament gets melted and squirted out. This is where the filament is transferred for melting and extrusion onto the print end. One of the integral parts of the hot end is the nozzle — a metal piece with a tiny hole through which the melted filament comes out for deposition.
These nozzles are interchangeable and come in many different sizes. The most common size is 0.4 millimeters. One can achieve finer details and higher accuracy by keeping the size of the nozzle small. Nozzles with larger diameters, on the other hand, enable high-speed printing.
There are two types of extruders:
- Direct extruders: As the name suggests, they are directly attached to the hot end, which makes the filament path shorter. This means, 3D printers using direct extruders can be more responsive to extrusion and retraction, so they can make clearer prints with less oozing and stringing.
- Bowden extruders: They have a large, thin tube connecting the hot end with the extruder body. This setup allows the 3D machine to print faster with more accuracy. However, it is prone to retraction and stringing.
Some printers contain dual extruders, which allow users to print concurrently with two different filaments. In such machines, either two nozzles are connected to two different print heads, or both are included in a single print head.
3. Controller Board / Motherboard
SKR V1.4 32bit Controller Board
Example: SKR Mini E3; Duet 2 Wifi
The controller board handles all the electronic functioning of a 3D printer. Without it, the printer would not be able to do much more than just turning certain components on and off via the manual flick of a switch.
The microcontroller enacts code from the 3D printer software to create a 3D-printed object. It not only forwards commands but also monitors and responds to various components. More specifically, it is responsible for parsing G-code files, regulating the extruder temperature, and controlling motion (especially in fused filament fabrication printers).
The number of stepper motors, extruders, sensors, heaters, and physical connectors that are supported is often a deciding factor when buying a controller board.
Also, it should have firmware to support the 3D printer geometry. For example, all cartesian printers have the same quantity of electrical components as a delta printer, so if the motherboard can support a delta printer, then it should be able to support a cartesian printer.
Today’s motherboards, such as SKR Mini E3, use 32-bit processors to quickly calculate complex motion paths. They are also equipped with an Ethernet module or WiFi that enables remote monitoring of 3D prints.
4. Motion Control System
Example: PI (Physik Instrumente) ACS-based motion controller
Motion controllers receive instruction from the motherboard and perform the actual movements along the three axes to print the object. In other words, they regulate and coordinate several moving parts in a 3D printer.
The motion control system is responsible for accurately synchronizing all axes, increasing the preciseness of printing mechanisms while maintaining decent print speed, and reducing noise.
It includes multiple components such as stepper motors, belts and threaded rods, and end stops. Stepper motors are connected to belts and threaded rods to move the extrude or the build platform along the x, y, and z-axis. The end stops (installed at each axis) notify stepper motors when they reach the limits of an axis.
Today’s 3D printers utilize high-performance motion controllers and advanced robotic technology to boost the production of high-quality products. The motion controller system enables high-speed position, velocity, and torque control on all axis, providing faster and consistent flow with jam detection.
5. Print Bed
Example: Prusa i3 MK2 print bed
A print bed is a flat surface the printed objects stick to during a print. It comes in numerous variations, with different surfaces, thermal properties, and price tags.
Most print beds are made of glass because it is extremely stiff and flat. Although glass takes longer to heat up, it spreads the heat more event around the build area. When paired with certain adhesives, such as painter’s tape or glue stick, it provides ultra-smooth finishes to the bottom of prints.
There are other types of print beds that offer more flexibility. BuildTak FlexPlate, for example, contains magnets and a removable spring plate that allows users to pop 3D prints off the bed by flexing the steel. It was one of the biggest selling features of the Prusa i3 MK3.
Another print bed named Anycubic Ultrabase features a unique layer of nanoparticles on its surface, which holds the 3D print when it is hot, but easily releases it after it cools. However, it does have a drawback – it can’t provide the same smooth finishes at the bottom of the print as seen while printing with just conventional glass.
Prusa I3 steel frame
Example: Prusa I3 steel frame (laser cut); BLV MGN aluminum frame kit for Cube 3D printer (joint construction)
The frame keeps all components of the 3D printer together while maintaining the stability of the whole machine. Although it looks simple, its design can actually be pretty complex. This is because there are hundreds of different design possibilities.
In addition to supporting all the mechanical and electrical parts, the frame also determines the total build volume of a 3D printer. It makes the machine robust and more durable.
Most frames are made of metals and acrylic (transparent thermoplastic homopolymer). They can be further categorized based on construction methods:
- Joint and Member Construction: Structural members (aluminum or smooth metal rods) are connected by joints in a way similar to trusses. This is a simple, inexpensive, and easy-to-construct design.
- Laser and CNC Cut Frames: Materials like acrylic or plywood are cut into panels via laser or CNC machining. These panels are then bolted together to create the final frame structure.
- Injection molding: This technique is used to manufacture metal frames in large quantities. It is best suited for high-end customers and the commercial sector.
Overall, if you want to buy a 3D printer frame, you need to consider the cost, strength, ease of assembly, total build volume, and durability.
7. Power Supply Unit
eTopxizu 12v 30a Universal Regulated Switching PSU
Example: BMOUO 12V 30A DC Universal Regulated Switching Power Supply
Power supply units are clunky metal boxes with a set of wires at one end, a fan on the side, and a row of screw terminals. It is either mounted on the frame or available separately. The former occupies less space and gives a compact look.
PSUs contain a rectifier circuit that converts Alternating Current (AC) into Direct Current (DC), and a series of transformers that steps down 240 volts to 12-24 volts, as per the 3D printer’s needs.
If your planning to buy a PSU for your 3D printer, pay more attention to rated voltage, output voltage, output current, and total wattage. A standard 3D printer (with 180 x 180 mm print volume) usually requires 240 (12 volts @ 20 amps).
Direct TFT70 V3.0
Example: Viki 2 Graphic LCD; BigTreeTech Direct TFT70 V3.0
While most 3D printers come with a ready-to-use interface, some have just the USB port to have your computer communicate with the printer.
Today’s printers are equipped with different types of screens (mostly LCD touch panels). The firmware of the printer determines how exactly things are be displayed, how navigation functions are shown, and what options are provided.
It displays the temperature of the nozzle and the bed, printing speed, the time elapsed since the print started, and the percentage of task completion or progress bar. Overall, it’s not an essential part, but it allows you to monitor and control everything throughout the printing process.
Example: QIDI TECH X-max has a WiFi function and a 5-inch touchscreen
Depending on the model of the 3D printer, you get multiple connectivity options. Starting from the lowest end, in terms of price, you get the option to connect the device to a computer via a USB cable and control it from the 3D printing software.
The mid-range 3D printers are equipped with either a flash card reader or a USB port for USB drives. This allows users to operate the machine independently, without connecting it to a computer. Print models stored in a flash card can be directly loaded to the 3D printer.
Some higher-end devices come with WiFi or cable LAN option for better connectivity. Their interface allows you to easily connect the device with a laptop or smartphone. This option can be useful if you are getting a 3D printer for multiple users, like in an office.
10. Post Processing Tools
Acetone makes the surface (of certain filaments) smooth and shiny | Image credit: Sinkhacks
Example: Acetone enhances the appearance of 3D prints
Almost all 3D prints require some kind of post-processing after they are printed. It improves their aesthetics, strength, and other characteristics. Generally, post-processing techniques involve
- Cleaning (removal of support material)
- Curing or hardening
- Surface finishing
In most cases, sandpapers with different grits are used to smooth out any rough surfaces or edges. Good quality sandpapers, ranging from coarse (120 grit) to fine (over 1000 grit), do not wear out easily and last longer, saving you money in the long run.
Most 3D prints also undergo a surface finishing process, which enhances appearance and durability. Depending on the printing material, one can select acetone or XTC-3D high-performance 3D print coating.
Polishing, priming, and painting are also done (in a well-ventilated area) to enhance the look as well as the feel of a part. It works on all FDM materials.
11. 3D Printing Software
MatterControl, all-in-one software to design, slice, and manage 3D prints
Example: SolidWorks; Fusion 360; CATIA
3D printing software transforms a basic 3D computer object into something that the printer can interpret and print accurately. It splits a 3D model into sections, allowing a 3D printer to build the object slice by slice. Therefore, it is also referred to as slicer software.
While there are many different types of 3D printing software, they all work in a similar manner. They take a 3D object and convert the surface into smaller sections that come together to make the object. The number of sections determines the preciseness and detail in the printed object.
Users are asked to input certain parameters, such as desired layer height, orientation, and some material settings. Once all configuration options are filled, the software converts the object file into G-code, the most popular computer numerical control (CNC) programming language. G-code instructions are fed to the controller that tells the motor where to move, how fast to move, and what path to follow to accurately create the object.
12. 3D Scanning Services
Example: Javelin-tech services
Many small and mid-range companies offer 3D scanning services, where physical objects are accurately converted into a digital model using state-of-the-art 3D scanners. They use a combination of 3D scanning and 3D designing to recreate complex and critical details of your object with extreme accuracy.
This is useful if you want a complete digital representation of an object that could be used for reverse engineering. This type of service is used in a wide range of industries including automotive, quality control, heritage preservation, education, forensics, reverse engineering, and architecture.