3D Printering: Will A Resin Printer Retire Your Filament-based One?

Adding a resin printer to one’s workbench has never looked so attractive, nor been so affordable. Complex shapes with effortlessly great detail and surface finish? Yes, please! Well, photos make the results look effortless, anyway. Since filament-based printers using fused deposition modeling (FDM) get solid “could be better” ratings when it comes to surface finish and small detail resolution, will a trusty FDM printer end up retired if one buys a resin printer?

The short answer is this: for users who already use FDM, a resin-based stereolithography (SLA) printer is not likely to take over. What is more likely to happen is that the filament printer continues to do the same jobs it is good at, while the resin printer opens some wonderful new doors. This is partly because those great SLA prints will come at a cost that may not always justify the extra work.

Let’s go through what makes SLA good, what it needs in return, and how it does and doesn’t fit in with FDM.

When SLA Is Good, It’s REALLY Good

Objects with organic curves and no real “up” or “down” are much better suited to SLA than FDM.

The sweet spot for resin printing is this: small objects with smooth finishes, organic curves, and surface details. With SLA, these objects print more reliably and at a consistently higher quality than with FDM — as long as the operator does a good job with layout and support placement, anyway.

A big reason for this is that SLA does not produce layer lines the way FDM does. FDM prints are notorious for visible layer lines, and those lines are at their worst when spread across curved surfaces. SLA still creates objects one layer at a time, but the process doesn’t leave obvious lines.

There is also more freedom in part orientation when printing in resin. Unlike FDM, resin prints are isotropic. In the context of 3D printing, this means that the printed object’s physical properties do not change with respect to physical orientation. As long as a part is supported enough to print properly, a resin printer doesn’t much care in which orientation or at what angle it builds an object; the result will come out the same. This gives SLA printers more flexibility when it comes to part orientation, which helps when trying to keep presentation surfaces and details free from supports.

Niche Applications for SLA’s Strengths

One example of a niche for what resin printing is good at is gaming miniatures and figures. Tabletop enthusiasts are buying printers and resin, and designers of gaming-related models are finding success as well. The more successful ones thrive on sites like Patreon, with thousands of monthly supporters.

Engineering applications can have a place with SLA, so long as the objects are small enough. The build volume of most SLA printers is revoltingly tiny compared to FDM, but they make up for it with the ability to handle shapes and details that FDM would have problems with.

Beware SLA’s Added Costs

SLA printing brings some annoying buddies everywhere it goes in the form of added costs. These aren’t costs for the machines themselves; hobbyist SLA printers are very affordable. These ongoing costs are for consumables, increased time for upkeep and part processing, and storage space.

SLA requires more setup and cleanup than FDM. Printed parts need to be washed (usually in an alcohol bath) after printing, and possibly post-cured with additional UV exposure. Since resin is messy, disposable gloves and a spill-resistant work area are required. Another thing to consider is that resin isn’t meant to be left sitting in a printer for long periods, so when printing is done for the forseeable future, it’s time to empty the printer and clean the parts.

All of this takes time, but it also takes up valuable space in a work area. Bottles of resin, containers of alcohol, wash bins, gloves, a drip-proof work space, all of it takes up storage and table space. SLA printing as a whole will take up far more room than just the printer itself.

The other thing to consider is the need for manual post-processing. Resin prints tend to require a lot of supports, and those supports need to be removed by hand. These leave behind small marks that may need to be sanded away. With FDM, supports are a last resort that are used only if needed, but with SLA they are the rule rather than the exception.

Things FDM Is Still Good At

A well-maintained FDM printer is a fantastic tool for prototyping, iterating on designs, and creating functional parts. FDM also has other advantages that really stand out when contrasted with resin printing.

FDM is perfectly happy to wait patiently until needed, at which point a print can be started with a minimum of fuss. The consumables are few and reasonably priced. Filament is best stored in a dry environment, but besides that, it doesn’t ask for much. Swapping filament types or colors is simple, clean, and easy. Even a failed print doesn’t usually involve much more than sweeping away a mess of plastic and trying again.

The biggest disadvantages are related to layer line visibility, the resolution of surface detail, and working with curved organic shapes. None of these can be waved away, but they can be mitigated to some extent. Variable Layer Height tries to address layer line visibility, and it is a feature that has worked its way into most slicer software. The ability to render very small details and features can be improved, to some extent, by swapping a printer’s standard 0.4 mm nozzle for a smaller one.

FDM printers are most challenged by being asked to print curved objects that have no flat areas and no real “up” or “down”. One option is splitting these objects into smaller and more easily-printed ones, but that’s not always practical. Printing a tricky model will require supports, and supports with FDM always result in degraded surface quality. Water-soluble support structures can help mitigate this, but doing so requires multi-material printing. SLA, on the other hand, is far more suited to such objects.

Is There Room for Both?

Resin prints look fantastic and it may be tempting to think of SLA as superior to FDM, but that is not the whole story. They are different tools, and good at different things. Unless your needs are very specific, you’ll probably benefit from access to both.

If you need to print small objects with good surface finish and detail resolution, and you can deal with the added hassles of working with resin, then SLA is definitely for you. But even if you only print small objects, a working FDM printer can easily earn its place on your workbench with the ability to create functional parts without any significant setup and cleanup. If you’re considering an SLA printer, don’t plan to ditch FDM just yet.

I regularly use both but personally, I always choose a filament-based printer if possible; even if a final model will eventually be printed in resin, it’s simply cheaper and faster and easier to prototype and iterate with FDM.

If you have access to both, has this also been your experience? Do you know of a niche for resin printing that hits the spot in a way nothing else does, the way SLA has done with tabletop enthusiasts? We want to hear all about it, so let us know in the comments.

The Real Lessons About 3D Printed Face Shields: Effective Engineering Response In Times Of Crisis

3D printed face shields and other health equipment is big news right now. Not long ago, Prusa Research rapidly designed and manufactured 3D printed face shields and donated them to the Czech Ministry of Health. Their effort is ongoing, and 3D printers cranking out health equipment like the NIH approved design has been peppering headlines ever since.

The Important Part Isn’t 3D Printers

The implied takeaway from all the coverage is that 3D printers are a solution to critical equipment shortages, but the fact that 3D printers are involved isn’t really the important part. We all know printers can make plastic parts, so what should be the real takeaway? The biggest lessons we can learn about Prusa’s ongoing effort are related to how they’ve gone about it.

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3D Printering: When Resin Printing Gets Smelly

Nowadays, resin printers are highly accessible and can do some great stuff. But between isopropyl alcohol for part rinsing and the fact that some resins have a definite smell to them, ventilation can get important fast. The manufacturers don’t talk much about this part of the resin printing experience, but it’s there nevertheless. So what can be done when smells become a problem?

I recently had to deal with this when I printed several liters of resin worth of parts. That’s a lot of resin, and a lot of alcohol for part washing. Smells — which had never been much of a problem in my work area — suddenly became an issue.

Where Odors Come From

Smells come from two sources: the resin itself, and the isopropyl alcohol used for cleanup and part washing. Continue reading “3D Printering: When Resin Printing Gets Smelly”

3D Printering: Getting Started Is (Still) Harder Than It Needs To Be

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You are interested in 3D printing but lacked a clear idea of what was involved. Every time you looked into it, it returned to the back burner because after spending your limited free time researching, it still looked like a part time job just to get up to speed on the basics. If this is you, then you’re exactly the reason I say the following: despite 3D printing being more accessible than ever, getting started remains harder than it needs to be. It’s a shame, because there are smart, but busy, people just waiting for that to change.

A highly technical friend and colleague of mine had, off and on, been interested in 3D printing for some time. He had questions, but also didn’t have a very good understanding of the basics because it’s clumsy and time-consuming to research something when one doesn’t even know the right terms.

I told him to video call me. Using my phone I showed him the everyday process, from downloading a model to watching the first layer get put down by the printer. He had researched getting started before, but our call was honestly the first time he had ever seen a 3D printer’s actual workflow, showing hands-on what was involved from beginning to end. It took less than twenty minutes to give him a context into which he could fit everything else, and from where he felt comfortable seeking more information. I found out later, when I politely inquired whether he had found our talk useful, that he had ordered a Prusa MK3S printer later that same day.

It got me thinking. What from our call was important and useful, but not available elsewhere? And why not?

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3D Printering: Blender Tips For Printable Objects

3D models drawn in Blender work great in a computer animated virtual world but don’t always when brought into a slicer for 3D printing. Slicers require something which makes sense in the real world. And the real world is far less forgiving, as I’ve found out with my own projects which use 3D printed parts.

Our [Brian Benchoff] already talked about making parts in Blender with his two-part series (here and here) so consider this the next step. These are the techniques I’ve come up with for preparing parts for 3D printing before handing them off to a slicer program. Note that the same may apply to other mesh-type modeling programs too, but as Blender is the only one I’ve used, please share your experiences with other programs in the comments below.

I’ll be using the latest version of Blender at this time, version 2.79b. My printer is the Crealty CR-10 and my slicer is Cura 3.1.0. Some of these steps may vary depending on your slicer or if you’re using a printing service. For example, Shapeways has instructions for people creating STLs from Blender for uploading to them.

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3D Printering: Print Smoothing Tests With UV Resin

Smoothing the layer lines out of filament-based 3D prints is a common desire, and there are various methods for doing it. Besides good old sanding, another method is to apply a liquid coating of some kind that fills in irregularities and creates a smooth surface. There’s even a product specifically for this purpose: XTC-3D by Smooth-on. However, I happened to have access to the syrup-thick UV resin from an SLA printer and it occurred to me to see whether I could smooth a 3D print by brushing the resin on, then curing it. I didn’t see any reason it shouldn’t work, and it might even bring its own advantages. Filament printers and resin-based printers don’t normally have anything to do with one another, but since I had access to both I decided to cross the streams a little.

The UV-curable resin I tested is Clear Standard resin from a Formlabs printer. Other UV resins should work similarly from what I understand, but I haven’t tested them.

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That Time I Spent $20 For 25 .STL Files

Last weekend I ran out of filament for my 3D printer midway through a print. Yes, it’s evidence of poor planning, but I’ve done this a few times and I can always run over to Lowe’s or Home Depot or Staples and grab an overpriced spool of crappy filament to tide me over until the good, cheap filament arrives via UPS.

The Staples in my neck of the woods was one of the few stores in the country to host a, ‘premium, in-store experience’ featuring MakerBot printers. Until a few months ago, this was a great place to pick up a spool of filament that could get you through the next few hours of printing. The filament cost about three times what I would usually pay, but it was still good quality filament and they usually had the color I needed.

This partnership between MakerBot and Staples fell through a few months ago, the inventory was apparently shipped back to Brooklyn, and now Robo3D has taken MakerBot’s space at the endcap in Staples. Last weekend, I picked up a 1kg spool of red PLA for $40. What I found next to this filament left me shocked, confused, and insatiably curious. I walked out of that store with a spool of filament and a USB thumb drive loaded up with twenty-five STL files. This, apparently, is the future of 3D printing.

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