October 19, 2020
types of 3d printer guide

The 10 Main Types of 3D Printer Explained

Though most entry level 3D printer users will be accustomed to just LCD and FDM 3D printers, there are in fact many more types of 3D printer on offer — for both prosumer and industrial 3D printing applications. Some start at $200, some start at $500,000.

This article will familiarize you with the 10 main types of 3D printer, split into plastic 3D printers and metal 3D printers, and compare each based on their price, speed, how complex they are, and the accuracy and surface finish of printed parts.

For readers aiming to find out about each industrial 3D printer type, we have included in-depth comparisons of each technology and the advantages of each, and for consumer 3D printers we include our best 3D printer recommendations.

This article is editorially independent. To remain independent, we include affiliate links for 3D printers we recommend that we earn a small commission on.

Types of 3D printer Part 1: Plastic

Resin 3D printers: SLA, DLP and LCD via Vat Polymerization

  • Type of 3D printer price: Ranging from low (LCD and DLP) to medium (SLA)
  • 3D printing speed: Medium
  • Type of 3D printing complexity: Medium
  • Precision: High

SLA

Stereolithography, or SLA, was the first 3D printing technology invented, with 3D Systems’ SLA-1 becoming the first variety of 3D printer ever to launch back in the late 1980s.

SLA involves using a light source to cure UV-sensitive resin via a process called photo-polymerization. SLA 3D printers contain liquid resin in resin vats, and use mirrors called galvanometers to direct and aim the laser light source to selectively cure and harden certain areas to create the solid part.

As with FDM and SLS 3D printer types, SLA printers trace each area across one layer. Once the layer is finished, the build area descends by one layer height and the resin curing process continues, until the final part is finished. Once printed, SLA 3D printer type parts require curing by a UV light to strengthen them before they are ready for use.

formlabs form 3
Formlabs’ Form 3 is considered one of the best within the SLA 3D printing category.

SLA resin printers are capable of far better precision than FDM printers and SLS printers. Printers such as Formlabs’ Form 3D printers are capable of such accuracy that layer lines are almost invisible, and resin 3D printed parts have a smoothness and surface finish that FDM printers cannot achieve.

However, resin parts are more delicate than many other types of 3D printing, and must be kept away from sunlight or they will begin to deteriorate and degrade. There are also fewer different materials available for SLA than many other types of 3D printing technologies, and a narrower range of color options. Resins are also more significantly expensive than filament, and can be wasted if the resin is not used during printing.

Some highly-rated resin 3D printers include:

NameBuild Volume (mm)PriceBest price available at:
Formlabs Form 3145 x 145 x 185$3,499Dynamism Store here
Zortrax Inkspire74 x 132 x 175$2,650Amazon here
Peopoly Phenom276 x 155 x 400$1,999Matterhackers here
Flashforge Hunter120 x 68 x 150$3,499Amazon here

DLP

Digital Light Processing, or DLP, is a newer form of SLA developed using the same projection technology used in movie cinema projectors.

Whereas SLA uses a UV laser, DLP cures resin using a projector – and can cure an entire layer of resin at once through one digital image projection. This makes DLP 3D printers faster than SLA types of 3D printer in most cases.

DLP printers are typically cheaper than SLA printers, with some printers built for prosumer and industrial use, while some are built instead as low-cost 3D printers for makers and consumers at home to enjoy.

LCD

Far more recently, LCD 3D printers have become very popular due to their extremely low cost and small size. LCD 3D printers are very similar to DLP 3D printer types, but use LCD panels featuring numerous LED lights that cure entire layers at once. The LED lights all shine, but the LCD panel selectively blocks light from certain LEDs from reaching the resin, meaning only certain parts of the resin are cured to create the solid part.

This simple and cheap process has brought down the barriers to entry in resin 3D printing, with very cheap resin 3D printers such as the Anycubic Photon Zero and Elegoo Mars starting at just $200 – finally reaching the prices associated with FDM types of 3D printer.

These 3D printers offer better precision and surface finish on parts than similar-priced FDM printers, and are very well suited to 3D printing miniatures and other models. However, the resins are still more expensive than filament, can be more harmful if adequate care isn’t taken, and can be messier.

Some great low-cost LCD and DLP printers include:

NameBuild Volume (mm)PriceBest price available at:Alternative purchase option
Anycubic Photon Zero97 x 54 x 150around $200Gearbest hereAmazon here
Elegoo Mars115 x 65 x 150$259Gearbest hereAmazon here
Anycubic Photon S115 x 65 x 165$400+Amazon here3DJake UK & Europe here
Longer Orange 30120 x 65 x 170$280-320Amazon hereGearbest here
Qidi Tech Shadow 5.5 S115 x 65 x 150$260-300Amazon hereGearbest here

FDM 3D Printers (Fused Deposition Modeling): Material Extrusion — Most accessible type of 3D printer

  • Type of 3D printer price: Low
  • 3D printing speed: Medium
  • Complexity: Low
  • Precision: Medium

The most widely used, accessible and cheapest 3D printers, FDM 3D printers inhabit the homes of over a million makers worldwide. Entry-level FDM printers start at around just $200, and require the least technical skills to operate out of any type of 3D printer.

FDM 3D printers print using plastic materials called filaments, which come in the form of spools. These spools of filament are fed into the FDM 3D printer’s extruder, guided through to the hot end, and then melted. Once melted, these filaments are extruded out of the 3D printer’s nozzle based on the dimensions specified by the STL file.

fdm 3d printer type printing filament during the fdm process
FDM printers use an extruder, hot end and nozzle (shown above) to melt and deposit filament to create a 3D part.

Within FDM there are four main types: Cartesian, Delta, Polar and Scara. Cartesian 3D printers are by far the most common, though delta 3D printers are increasingly used.

A simple example which illustrates how this type of 3D printer works is by thinking about how you would ice a cake using a piping bag. 3D shapes are created by piping icing sugar through a nozzle, usually in circular movements, and repeated layer-on-layer to create the finished cake design. FDM printers work in the same way, depositing melted plastic filament across one layer, before rising up by one layer height (which could be 0.05-0.4mm usually depending on the settings used) and then depositing the next layer. This is repeated until the finished product is created.

The main advantage of this type of 3D printer is that they are very accessible, are simple to learn and use, and as so many makers already own FDM printers, if you have any problems there are communities of owners out there who have probably experienced your issue and willing to help you out. FDM is also one of the least dangerous technologies, with no harmful resins or any other materials used – you only have to be careful to not touch the heated bed or hot extruder during printing.

FDM 3D printers print using filaments, pictured above.

There are also a huge range of materials you can print with. Though beginners should stick with PLA filament – a cheap, biodegradable filament that prints easily and at a low temperature – you can also print with ABS, PETG, Nylon, flexible filaments such as TPU, and even more industrial materials like carbon fiber-filled filaments, Polycarbonate, or even PEEK.

They will however never be able to compete with more accurate forms of 3D printers, such as resin 3D printers or PolyJet. FDM 3D printed parts usually have fairly clear layer lines, and can string or leave marks from where supports were removed.

Overall, FDM 3D printers are perfect for beginners who want the least complexity and a relaxing printing environment. They’re cheap, easy to set up, and can print adequate quality models without too much hassle.

Some great lower-cost FDM printer options include:

NameBuild Volume (mm)PriceBest price available at:Alternative purchase option
Anet A8220 x 220 x 240$180-220Gearbest hereAmazon here
Monoprice Select Mini V2120 x 120 x 120$220Amazon here
Creality Ender 5 Pro220 x 220 x 300$379-$429Gearbest hereAmazon here
Creality CR-10 V2300 x 300 x 400$499Amazon here3DJake UK & Europe here
Qidi Tech X-Pro230 x 150 x 150 $639Gearbest hereAmazon here

SLS 3D Printers (Selective Laser Sintering): Powder Bed Fusion

  • Type of 3D printer price: Medium/High
  • 3D printing process speed: Medium
  • Complexity: Medium
  • Precision: Medium/High

Selective Laser Sintering is a type of 3D printing process wherein polymer powders are sintered by a laser to form a solid part. DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) is a similar type of 3D printer process instead involving metal powders, and both are considered powder bed fusion 3D printer types.

SLS 3D printers use a high-powered laser that heats up and fuses plastic powders to create a solid and precise part. Once each layer has been traced by the laser, the recoating blade deposits another layer of powder on to the build area, and the process is repeated.

The Sinterit Lisa was one of the first affordable SLS 3D printers.

SLS is a more industrial process than types of 3D printing such as FDM, though recently more affordable printers have released, starting at around $5,000.

A major advantage of SLS is that as parts are encased in powder, no supports are required. Types of 3D printers like SLA and FDM consume extra material 3D printing supports, and can leave imperfections on the part where the supports were removed, as well as take longer to print these extra areas. Therefore, SLS saves valuable material, time, and benefits from better part surface finish.

SLS powders are expensive, and the 3D printing technology cannot be considered a consumer technology as LCD and FDM printers are. However, SLS offers great precision – better than FDM – and can be used to print many parts simultaneously.

We also have an in-depth SLS 3D printer buyer’s guide:

PolyJet (Material Jetting) — Most accurate type of 3D printer

  • Type of 3D printer price: High
  • 3D printing process speed: High
  • Complexity: Medium/High
  • Precision: Very High

An extraordinary and very expensive 3D printer type, PolyJet printers are some of the most precise of any additive manufacturing process, at up to 16 microns. PolyJet printers are full-color 3D printers – they can create beautiful multi-colored parts, and can even print multiple materials at the same time within the same part. These incredible customization options make PolyJet a great option for 3D printed medical models and 3D printed shoes.

The PolyJet / Material Jetting 3D printing process is considered similar to 2D inkjet printing. However, instead of ink droplets being jetted onto paper, droplets of photopolymers are dropped on top of a build tray to be cured by a UV light – similar to SLA. This process then repeats layer-by-layer to create accurate 3D models.

PolyJet printers can create multi-color models, such as the one above, with great precision. Source: stratasysdirect.com

Parts created by PolyJet 3D printers require supports, but a main advantage of multi-material 3D printing is that these can be printed in materials dissolvable in water, preventing any surface area imperfections on the part.

PolyJet printers are considered an industrial 3D printing technology, with professional PolyJet machines costing tens of thousands of dollars. The materials used are also very expensive. Therefore, PolyJet types of 3D printers, though remarkably high quality, fast and extremely versatile, are hindered by cost.

A Stratasys PolyJet 3D printer with multi-color models.

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) — Very scalable form of 3D printers

  • Price: Very High
  • 3D printing process speed: High
  • Complexity: Very High
  • Precision: High

Another industrial plastic 3D printing technology, Multi Jet Fusion is pioneered by American tech giant HP as they expand from 2D to 3D printing. MJF features not only a type of 3D printer, but also a build unit that attached to the printer for printing, and a processing station that cools parts after the printing process.

Somewhat similar to both SLS and PolyJet, MJF 3D printing involves layers of powder being deposited over the build area before a fusing agent is applied over only the areas to be solidified. This is also similar to the way Binder Jetting uses a fusing agent to help solidify these certain areas.

Parts created using MJF 3D printing. Source: protolabs.co.uk.

As this occurs, a detailing agent is also applied around the edges of the parts, preventing the surrounding powder from being solidified and creating more crisp surface areas and better detailed edges. The printing area is then heated so that the treated areas solidify while the surrounding areas remain as powder, which is then repeated layer-by-layer until the part is finished.

MJF is both extremely fast, and remarkably accurate. Unlike SLS, MJF printer types can fuse entire layers at once (like DLP vs SLA) rather than tracing each area of the part, printing far quicker. However, they retain the powder bed-based 3D printer type benefits as MJF parts do not require supports, saving material costs and retaining superb part quality finish.

However, the 3D printers are very expensive, and require skilled operators to use due to their complexity and multiple parts of the 3D printer.

For a full explanation of the MJF 3D printing process type:

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) / Selective Deposition Lamination (SDL)

  • Price: Medium
  • 3D printing process speed: High
  • Complexity: Medium
  • Precision: High

Though rarely seen in the 3D printing industry, CleanGreen3D (formerly MCor) are trying to bring Laminated Object Manufacturing / Selective Deposition Lamination back into contention as a viable type of 3D printing process.

LOM involves sheets of either paper or plastic being placed across the build platform before being coated with an adhesive. Then, a heated roller passes over the paper or plastic sheet, melting the adhesive to the platform. A blade or laser then cuts the unwanted areas away, leaving the solid part. The process is repeated with additional sheets placed on the existing model, bonded with the melted adhesive, creating 3D parts made from paper or plastic sheets.

Parts created via LOM can be created in full color as each layer is sprayed with the desired color during printing. Additionally, LOM parts require no supports, have the unused paper parts cut away so that parts are easily removable, and printed parts are tough, with a wood-like consistency.

laminated object manufacturing 3d printer type selective deposition laminating cleangreen3d

Types of 3D Printer Part 2: Metal

DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) — Most widely used types of 3D printers for metal

  • Price: Very High
  • 3D printing speed: Medium
  • Complexity: High
  • Precision: High

The most widely used genre of metal 3D printers, DMLS is similar to SLS in that they both use powder bed fusion and a powerful laser to solidify powder, but DMLS works with metal powders rather than polymers.

DMLS 3D printer types use heated chambers that heat the printer’s build area until the stored metal powder is just below its melting point. Once this temperature has been achieved, the printer’s powerful laser traces the part, sintering and solidifying the metal together. Once one layer has finished, a new metal powder layer is spread over the build chamber be the roller, and the process repeats until the part has finished.

dmls 3d printing process the most common metal 3d printing type

Metals such as aluminium, Inconel, titanium, stainless steel and more can be 3D printed on different types of DMLS 3D printers, though each brand’s printer has different material capabilities. DMLS 3D printing is used in the aerospace and automotive industries as they can create strong metal parts that are significantly lighter than those made by other processes, which can save huge amounts of money such as in rockets and Formula 1 cars.

However, as with other metal 3D printer types DMLS printers are very expensive, and the metal powders are also costly to purchase.

Electron Beam Melting (EBM)

  • Price: Very High
  • 3D printing speed: Medium/High
  • Complexity: High
  • Precision: High

EBM 3D printer types are very similar in process to DMLS printers, both utilizing powder bed fusion to 3D print metal powders into solid parts. Whereas DMLS 3D printers are manufactured by dozens of different metal 3D printer manufacturers, EBM printers are currently only sold by Arcam.

Electron Beam Melting differs from DMLS as instead of using a laser to sinter the metal powder, instead a powerful electron beam is used, controlled by specialized electromagnetic coils which improve precision and speed.

The advantages of this type of 3D printing are similar to DMLS: good part precision, fairly fast speeds and strong parts. However, parts are expensive to produce, the 3D printers themselves can cost several hundred thousand dollars, and are therefore only suitable for high value-added industrial applications.

Binder Jetting

  • Price: Medium/High
  • 3D printing speed: Medium/High
  • Complexity: High
  • Precision: Medium

A very interesting type of 3D printing technology, though we list Binder Jetting as a metal 3D printing process, these printers are also capable of sandstone 3D printing.

The Binder Jetting 3D printing process involves powder contained in a powder bed, which has a binding agent deposited onto the areas that are to be solidified. Once one layer is finished, the next layer of powder is spread, and the binding agent deposited again. Some consider it a hybrid mixture between SLS’s powdered material solidifying and PolyJet’s binding agent process.

The binder jetting 3D printing process as the binding agent is deposited. Source: exone.com.

For sand 3D printing, Binder Jetting 3D printers are capable of full color models. This is a huge advantage for those who seek multi-color parts but do not have the expertise or time to paint and post-process these models themselves.

Binder Jetting is considered cheaper than many existing 3D printer types, such as DMLS. However, technologies such as PolyJet are considerably more accurate, making it a more attractive option for full-color 3D printing, and technologies such as EBM and DMLS can create stronger metal parts. Though, for a lower-cost type of 3D printer for either sand or metal 3D printing, Binder Jetting remains a great option.

Direct Energy Deposition (DED)

  • Price: Very High printer cost, Medium part cost
  • 3D printing speed: Very High
  • Complexity: Very High
  • Precision: Medium

Direct Energy Deposition, sometimes known as cladding or 3D laser cladding, comprises several metal 3D printing techniques that melt and fuse metals as they are deposited, and is frequently used in industrial applications including aerospace, maritime and in defense manufacturing.

These processes within DED include WAAM (Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing), Sciaky’s EBAM (Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing), and LENS 3D printing offers by Optomec (Laser Engineered Net Shaping).

ded 3d printing optomec
Optomec DED 3D printer working on a metal part.

During DED 3D printing, a metal wire material or powder – the feedstock – is deposited from the printer’s nozzle and melted by the laser, electron beam or other heat source as it is directed onto the build platform. Robotic arms are used to deposit and melt the metal, and the process is commonly used to repair metal parts that have been damaged, as well as to build large metal structures.

No metal 3D printer type can create larger parts – Sciaky’s EBAM systems can create metal parts multiple meters in size. Additionally, the metal powders used in DED 3D printers are typically of lower cost than in DMLS, print extremely quickly, and possess good mechanical properties and strength.

However, DED metal parts are considered worse quality and less precise than those created using DMLS or EBM, with less crisp surface finishes and requiring further post-processing.

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