Basic knowledge of 3D printers: All important information for getting started

Sinfully expensive or annoying tinkering? That was once the case. Now there are good 3D printers for model builders, beginners and the hobby sector for fair money.

Anyone who thinks 3D printing works like the print function in Word is ahead of the curve. Currently, it is still a complex issue to find the right printer, to search for models or to design them and to prepare them in such a way that a pretty - or at least usable - result emerges.


All home 3D printers build objects in layers. The process always begins with the actual 3D model, the print template. This file, usually in STL format, is either drawn by the user with a CAD program or downloaded from one of the countless online databases.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to simply print out an object. The printers expect you to process the models in advance with slicing software. This involves dividing them into thin, stacked, two-dimensional layers. Depending on the setting, the resolution of the print is better or worse, and the printing speed also depends on this. What should be beautiful takes longer; hidden functional parts go faster. Depending on the material and the requirements, one has to make the appropriate settings. From this, the print job is created in a machine language (GCode), with which the printer can do something. The transfer takes place via WLAN, USB cable, USB stick or memory card.

Printer types

Most inexpensive 3D printers - the first ones, by the way - work according to the FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) process. In this process, plastic filament is melted and layered on top of each other on the printing platform. The desired object is then created from the individual layers. In contrast, DLP or resin printers work with liquid synthetic resin, which hardens layer by layer under UV light. Using an LCD panel or DLP chip, only the area that is suitable for the current layer is exposed. Here, too, nothing works without software: Whether an object is to be printed solid, semi-solid or hollowed out, how it is to be created or how large it is, is set beforehand and then transmitted back to the printer. Here as there, wrong settings can lead to disastrous printing results. So you should know beforehand that you have to get to grips with the subject until you really master it - although some modern and affordable printers now produce quite presentable results even with standard settings.

The time required for both types of process is high. A printing process can easily take several hours. While prints just a few centimeters in size are ready after one to four hours, large objects can take several days to print - which makes it all the more annoying when something goes wrong due to incorrect settings.

In addition to the dimensions, the material used and the print resolution also play a major role in the duration. However, there is one difference to mention here. With resin printers, the print duration depends only on the height of the object. The dimensions on the x- and y-axis are irrelevant. Thus, it does not matter whether, for example, only one chess piece or whether the complete printing plate is filled with identical or different pieces. With FDM printers, all three axes influence the print duration. In practice, this means that four chess pieces also take about four times longer than one.

FDM printers are cheaper overall, more widespread and allow larger print objects. The usual layer thickness with which the prints are built up is 0.1 mm to 0.4 mm - the more, the lower the resolution; you can then see the layers with the naked eye. The build space for most finished models measures between 20 x 20 x 20 and 30 x 30 x 40 cm; however, there are smaller and larger models. If the mechanics of the printers are properly thought out and set up, only periodic calibrations of the printing platform are necessary between print runs. The printed products are fully loadable after cooling down. These printers come ready-built, like the Qidi X-Plus , or as kits. While some of these kits - such as the Tronxy x5SA Pro - consist of a large number of individual parts, other models, such as the Anet ET5 Pro , are delivered to the customer largely pre-assembled.

DLP printers work much more accurately with layer thicknesses between 0.01 and 0.05 mm, but are also more expensive - both in terms of purchase and consumables. The maximum print dimensions for printers like the Elegoo Mars (review) are only 12 x 16 x 7 cm. Even though there are now DLP printers with larger installation space, they are significantly smaller compared to FDM printers. On the other hand, the resin printers all come to the buyer pre-assembled and ready for the first use. An important aspect of printing with liquid resin is the greater overall amount of work involved. For example, the printed products require extensive cleaning and post-curing after the printing process. In addition, gloves and a respiratory mask must be worn, as the chemicals used are not entirely unproblematic. Special washing and UV curing chambers such as the Wash&Cure station from Anycubic make post-processing easier.