Resolution is a much-misunderstood aspect of accurate 3D printing, and there are many important factors which affect print quality beyond just layer height. This article will explain the factors making up a high resolution 3D printer, as well as the benefits and drawbacks.
Typically within 3D printing resolutions, the Z-axis resolution, or Z-resolution, is most discussed. This is the vertical resolution and means the minimum layer height or thickness possible for a 3D printer.
Small layers mean better resolution, and better surface quality parts with smoother surfaces and crisper edges.
Therefore, having a high-quality 3D printer that can print with small layer heights can be a great advantage. However, this is not the only factor that affects print quality, with a host of others affecting whether a high-resolution 3D printer actually prints accurate, smooth parts.
Accurate 3D printers we recommend
|Name||Max build volume (mm)||Min layer height||Price||Where to buy|
|Ender 3||220 x 220 x 250||0.1 mm||$210||Amazon here|
|Elegoo Mars 2 Pro||129 x 80 x 160||0.01 mm||$280||Amazon here|
|Prusa i3 MK3S||250 x 210 x 200||0.05 mm||$749 / $999||Prusa Store here|
|Formlabs Form 3||145 x 145 x 185||25 microns||$3,499||Formlabs Form 3|
|Ultimaker S3||230 x 190 x 200||20 microns||$3,850||Dynamism Store here|
Resolution in 3D printing: X, Y and Z resolution
Z-resolution corresponds to the layer height of a printed part. However, the X and Y-planes are also very important in a high resolution 3D printer.
The X and Y axes control the 2D parts of the print: those within each 2D layer. The Z then adds multiple layers, responsible for height – the third dimension. Though they are all axes, the XY and Z axes are controlled by two separate systems, with some FDM printers having far more accurate Z-resolutions than XY.
The X and Y resolutions are the smallest movements the printer’s print head (the projector, extruder or laser, depending on technology) can make within a layer – horizontally.
Different 3D printing technologies are capable of better resolutions than others. For example, SLA 3D printers are more accurate than FDM 3D printers, even though their Z-resolutions can look similar on paper. This is mostly down to the better XY resolutions resin 3D printers can print with, leading to smoother surface areas, with the best resin printers able to print parts with barely noticeable layer lines.
However, other factors can also significantly affect print quality.
Other factors that affect print quality
- Nozzle size: smaller nozzles on FDM 3D printer extruders can print more intricate and precise details. Standard nozzles are typically 0.4mm, though you can get far smaller 0.1 or 0.2mm nozzles for small and accurate details. They also work better for printing supports and overhangs.
- Stability of frame & vibrations: a sturdy, heavy metal frame that anchors the printer and print bed to the ground is less affected by vibrations and other extraneous factors that can affect print quality.
- Material: different materials are more accurate and precise than others, or are easier to print successfully than others.
- Technology: for example, SLA printers are more accurate than FDM, and PolyJet offers some of the best precision in 3D printing.
- Slicer and printer settings: your 3D slicer settings will make all the difference in print quality, and even the most high resolution 3D printers will print poor quality models if not optimized.
When do high quality 3D printers make the most difference?
If you plan on 3D printing a very basic structure like a cube, whether you use a high quality 3D printer, or use large or small layers, will make no difference. In fact, using small layer heights will just make the exact same print take far longer.
For these very basic models with few intricate parts or details, a standard cheap 3D printer will work almost as well as an industrial, high resolution 3D printer that costs 20x the price.
However, high quality precise 3D printers make a significant difference in more complex parts that have diagonal or arched lines or sides, or have embossing and engravings. Especially in curved or diagonal parts, the lower the layer height and more accurate the printer, the less stepped these features will appear, and the smoother they will look, even up close.
Moreover, if you are printing a small part, for example 3D printing a miniature or tabletop model, using an accurate printer with very small layer heights can be worth it, as even if it takes several times as long this still won’t take more than an hour.
Advantages of a High Resolution 3D Printer
- Better quality: high resolution makes for smoother surface finishes, with great details and aesthetics on parts.
- The only way to get fine details: models that have arches and sharp diagonal details can look very jagged in higher layer heights, with low resolution 3D printers unable to adequately print these details.
Disadvantages of an accurate 3D printer
- Perfect settings required: increased precision requires perfect calibration, the perfect temperature settings to avoid imperfections in the filament or resin, and the right heated bed temperature and adhesion on the print bed. Any errors here can create imperfections in the print.
- Much slower: printing with 25-micron layer heights takes four times as long as 100-micron layer heights, as four 25-micron layers equal the height of one 100-micron layer. For large and complex models, prints can take days.
- More chance of print failure: the more layers a model has, the more opportunities there are for errors to occur – which could render the part useless.
The best high-resolution 3D printers
Now we have illustrated the components that make up a high-quality 3D printer, here are some recommendations.
High resolution and quality here are relative, meaning that we have chosen those in each price range that excel – a $200 3D printer cannot compete with an industrial 3D printer costing $20,000, but it may be the best in its price range.
Ender 3 – accurate 3D printer for $200
- Price: $210 – Available on Amazon here / 3DJake UK & Europe here
- Build volume: 220 x 220 x 250 mm
- Type of 3D printer: FDM 3D printer & DIY 3D printer
- Minimum layer height: 0.1mm
The world’s most popular 3D printer and a hit among hobbyists and makers worldwide, the Ender 3 costs just over $200, can be put together and started up in just an hour or two, and offers fantastic print quality for the price.
- You can view the Ender 3’s specs in more details in our Ender 3 review.
You do have to build your own 3D printer, and some less technical makers will find that off-putting, but even novices will be able to assemble it without too much trouble. Once built, the Ender 3 is reliable and can print 100-micron accurate models in a variety of materials.
In this price range, you can’t expect flawless quality, but the Ender 3 shines in the low price printer range. With FDM prints the layers will show and there can be slight imperfections (though these can mostly be accounted for in slicer settings), but for an FDM printer for $200, the Ender 3 is a high quality and accurate 3D printer.
Elegoo Mars 2 Pro
- Price: $280 – Available on Amazon here / 3DJake UK & Europe here
- Build volume: 129 x 80 x 160
- Type of 3D printer: LCD 3D printer
- Z-axis accuracy: 0.00125 mm, XY Resolution: 0.05 mm
The Elegoo Mars and Anycubic Photon range have both revolutionized low-cost, high resolution 3D printing for hobbyists and businesses worldwide. The Elegoo Mars 2 is capable of such accurate resin models that it is increasingly used for casting 3D printed jewelry molds before having them made into gold or other metal rings, bracelets, and chains.
As an MSLA printer, the Elegoo Mars prints resin models that outperform its FDM counterparts, with high resolution 3D prints that barely show their layers. The 6-inch 2K LCD screen makes for fast 3D printing, able to cure a layer every 2 seconds.
Additionally, the Mars 2 Pro’s CNC machined aluminium structure improves stability, eliminating outside vibrations that could affect a precise 3D printed model’s detailed features. Moreover, the new and improved build plate is designed for better adhesion and better quality outcomes.
The printer is accessible in 12 languages, so non-English speakers needn’t worry, and if you do have any problems with your Elegoo Mars 2 Pro, the company will replace it with its 1-year warranty. Overall, it’s a great, high quality 3D printer for cheap and precise resin part production.
Prusa i3 MK3S
- Price: $749 kit / $999 assembled – Available on Prusa Store here
- Build volume: 250 x 210 x 200 mm
- Type of 3D printer: FDM 3D printer & DIY 3D printer
- Minimum layer height: 50 microns
Balancing high resolution and workhorse-like reliability, the Prusa i3 MK3S is known for being one of the best 3D printers around. Available as a 3D printer kit or pre-assembled for a few hundred dollars extra, this FDM printer can print precise 50-micron layers, and do so time and time again without fail.
For better XY resolutions and part quality, resin printers like the Elegoo Mars are still better, but the Prusa balances still excellent quality, with a wider material compatibility – from ABS to PLA to Polycarbonate to Nylon! – and can even be adapted into a color 3D printer that can print 5 colors simultaneously if you purchase the Multi Material Upgrade Kit.
- You can purchase the Multi Material Upgrade Kit from Prusa here.
It’s fast, always improving, and balances excellent resolution with dogged grit and reliability.
Formlabs Form 3
- Price: $3,499 – Available on Dynamism Store here
- Build volume: 145 x 145 x 185 mm
- Type of 3D printer: SLA 3D printer
- XY Resolution: 25 microns
The Form 3 is capable of incredible accurate and smooth prints, with XY resolutions of 25 microns making intricate details look crisp. The improved Low Force Stereolithography (LFS) technology and added Light Processing Unit helps improve resin part finish, with other improvements across the resin vat filling system.
Overall, for precise 3D printing, the Form 3 is one of the highest resolution and quality 3D printers out there.
- Price: $3,850 – Available on Dynamism Store here
- Build volume: 230 x 190 x 200 mm
- Type of 3D printer: FDM 3D printer & dual extruder 3D printer
- Minimum layer height: 20 microns
Smaller, but every part as technically brilliant as the S5, the Ultimaker S3 is capable of incredible 20-micron layer heights that are so small you’ll struggle to see them. Though this slows down print time by increasing the number of layers in a part, the resulting model will have unmatched quality compared to almost any other FDM printer.
As well as the fantastic precision, the Ultimaker S3 is also a dual extruder 3D printer, allowing for the production of precise, multi-colored or multi-material 3D prints, and as a result is used heavily in creating architectural building model prototypes before building work begins.
- For those interested in architectural model production, view our ranking of the best architecture software.
The printer is easy to use, easy to print with – Ultimaker also own Cura, the most popular 3D slicer – and offers fantastic 20-micron precision with a wide variety of materials compatible, including carbon fiber. Overall, the printer speaks for itself, and proves itself as one of the best high resolution 3D printers in FDM.
Credits: featured image source: flashforge-eu.com.