3D printer resolution guide

What Does Resolution Mean in 3D Printing?

Looking for a high resolution 3D printer? “Resolution” is an often discussed but seldom understood value in the world of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. How does XY and Z resolution influence on the quality of your 3D prints? What's minimum feature size and what layer thickness should you choose?

In this comprehensive guide, you'll learn how 3D printer resolution affects your 3D prints and how it differs between SLA, FDM, and DLP 3D printers.

Technology has been in a resolution war for decades. Televisions recently quadrupled pixel counts from HD to 4K and are poised to do it again soon to 8K. Cell phones, tablets, and anything with a screen will have its resolution as the lead on the spec sheet, provided that it’s something to boast about. But this is nothing new. Resolution wars have been waged since digital technology became popular, and the printing industry was one of the first battlegrounds.

If you were around in the 80’s and 90’s, you remember Canon, Brother, HP, Epson, and Lexmark (among others) battling it out for print speed and resolution. What started at 100x100 dots per inch (DPI) quickly escalated to 300x300, then 600x600, and finally the current industry standard of 1200x1200 DPI. Back then, the meaning of these values was clearly understandable; even the units made perfect sense. Unfortunately, things get more complicated when you add another dimension to printing.

A print’s level of detail is impacted by the 3D printer's resolution in all three dimensions.

In 3D printing and additive manufacturing, there are three dimensions to consider: the two planar 2D dimensions (X and Y) and the Z dimension that makes it 3D printing. Since the planar and Z dimensions are generally controlled via very different mechanisms, their resolutions are going to be different and need to be treated separately. As a result, there is a lot of confusion about what the term “3D printing resolution” means and what level of print quality to expect.

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Formlabs' high resolution SLA 3D printers have high Z-axis resolution and a low minimum feature size on the XY plane, allowing them to produce fine details

What makes a 3D printer high resolution? There’s not a one-number answer. Since 3D printers produce parts in 3 dimensions, you will have to consider at least two numbers: the minimum feature size of the XY plane and the Z-axis resolution (layer thickness or layer height). The Z-axis resolution is easily determined and therefore widely reported even though it is less related to print quality and surface finish. The more important XY resolution (minimum feature size) is measured via microscopic imaging and is therefore not always found in spec sheets.

Practically, it means that you should pick a 3D printer that performs well in both categories (in all 3 dimensions).

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Looking for a 3D printer to realize your 3D models in high resolution? Download our white paper to learn how SLA printing works and why it's the most popular 3D printing process for creating models wth increadible details.

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Download this report for an internal test that Formlabs created to determine the dimensional accuracy of the Form 3 and Form 3B.

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A lot has changed since the first desktop 3D printers became available to the public. Now stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers, like the Form 3+, are competing for the same desktop spots as fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers. One of the main advantages that resin-based SLA 3D printers hold over their plastic-melting cousins is print quality: SLA 3D printers produce significantly smoother and more detailed prints. While SLA printers can usually also achieve significantly smaller layer thicknesses, the reason for the improved print quality lies in their much higher XY-resolution.

SLA 3D printers (right) offer higher resolution and can produce significantly smoother and more detailed prints than FDM 3D printer (left).

Unlike on FDM 3D printers, minimum feature size in the XY plane on SLA 3D printers is not limited by molten plastic flow dynamics but rather optics and radical polymerization kinetics. While the math is complicated (and outside the scope of this post), it shakes out to this: features on SLA prints can be approximately as small as the diameter of their laser spots. And laser spots can be really small, especially compared to the nozzle size of FDM printers' extruders.

Read our in-depth guide about FDM vs. SLA 3D printers to learn how they compare in terms of print quality, materials, applications, workflow, speed, costs, and more.

Resin 3D printers like SLA, LFS and DLP technologies offer the highest resolutions of all 3D printing processes available on the desktop. The basic units of the these processes are different shapes, making it difficult to compare the different machines by numerical specifications alone.

DLP 3D printers have a fixed matrix of pixels relative to the build area, while laser-based SLA and LFS 3D printers can focus the laser beam on any XY coordinate. This means that laser-based machines, given high-quality optics, can more accurately reproduce the surface of a part even if the laser spot size is larger than the DLP pixel size.

Whichever resin 3D printing process you choose, however, professional resin 3D printers should be able to capture the finest details of your creations, from photorealistic models to intricate jewelry.

In SLA and LFS 3D printing (left), layer lines are close to invisible. As a result, surface roughness is reduced, which ultimately leads to smooth surfaces, and for clear materials, more translucent parts. DLP 3D printers render images using rectangular voxels, which causes an effect of vertical voxel lines (right).

Learn more about the differences between SLA and DLP 3D printers and see how they compare in terms of resolution, accuracy, precision, build volume, surface finish, speed, and workflow.

In the world of 3D printing, no factor influences print quality more than XY resolution. Often discussed but seldom understood, the definition of XY resolution (also called horizontal resolution) varies by 3D printing technology:

  • SLA and LFS 3D printers: a combination of the laser’s spot size and the increments by which the laser beam can be controlled
  • DLP 3D printers: the pixel size, the smallest feature the projector can reproduce within a single layer
  • FDM 3D printers: the smallest movement the extruder can make within a single layer

As a rule of thumb, the lower the number, the better the details. Yet this number is not always included in spec sheets, and when it is, the published value is not always accurate. To truly know a printer’s XY resolution, it’s important to understand the science behind the number.

Practically, how does XY resolution affect your 3D prints? In order to find out, we decided to test the Form 2 SLA 3D printer. The Form 2 has a laser spot size of 140 microns (FWHM), which should allow it to print fine details on the XY plane. We put it to the test to see if this ideal resolution holds true.

To test the Form 2’s minimum feature size on the XY plane, we designed a model (left) with lines ranging from 10 to 200 microns and printed it in Clear Resin (right).

First, we designed and printed a model to test the minimum feature size on the XY plane. The model is a rectangular block with lines of varying widths in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal directions to avoid directional bias. The line widths range from 10 to 200 microns in 10 micron steps and are 200 microns tall, which equates to two layers when printed at 100-micron Z resolution. The model was printed in Clear Resin, washed twice in an IPA bath, and post-cured for 30 minutes.

The model was photographed and tinted green to improve visibility. On the right side of the window, the vertical yellow line with black points measures the width of a photographed line.

After post-curing, we put the model under a microscope and took high-resolution photos for analysis. Using ImageJ, the NIH’s free image analysis software, we first scaled the pixels of the images and then measured the actual widths of the lines printed. We collected over 50 data points per line width to eliminate measuring errors and variability. In total, we printed and analyzed three models on two different printers.

The results indicate that the Form 2 has the same ideal and actual XY resolution for features that are 150 microns and larger.

As the print’s line width decreases from 200 to 150 microns, the ideal values are within the 95% confidence interval of the measured value. As the intended line widths get smaller than 150 microns, the measured interval starts to deviate significantly from the ideal. This means that the printer can reliably produce XY features as small as 150 microns, about the size of a human hair.

The Form 2’s minimum feature size on the XY plane is about 150 microns—only 10 microns larger than its 140-micron laser. The minimum feature size can never be smaller than the laser spot size, and there are many factors that affect this value: laser refraction, microscopic contaminants, resin chemistry, and much more. Considering the printer’s entire ecosystem, a 10-micron difference is nominal. Not every 3D printer’s published resolution holds true, so it’s a good idea to do plenty of research before choosing the one that's right for your project.

If your work calls for prints with intricate details, look for a printer with an XY resolution that’s backed by measurable data, not just a number.

When you read 3D printer spec sheets, you’ll see one value show up more than any else: Z resolution. Also known as layer thickness or layer height, the vertical resolution was the first major numerical differentiation between early 3D printers. Early machines struggled to break the 1 mm barrier, but now layer thicknesses on FDM 3D printers can be sub-0.1 mm thin, while LFS and SLA 3D printers are even more precise.

Formlabs 3D printers support layer thicknesses between 25 to 300 microns, depending on the material. This selection of layer heights gives you the ideal balance of speed and resolution. The main question is: what is the best layer thickness for your print?

High resolution 3D printing comes with a tradeoff. Thinner layers mean more repetitions, which in turn means longer times: printing at 25 microns vs. 100 usually increases the print time four-fold. More repetitions also mean more opportunities for something to go wrong. For example, even at a 99.99% success rate per layer, quadrupling the resolution lowers the chance of print success from 90% to 67% if one assumes that a failed layer causes total print failure.

Lower layer thickness equals more time, artifacts, and errors.

Does higher resolution (thinner layers) result in better prints? Not always—it depends on the model to be printed and the 3D printer’s XY resolution. In general, thinner layers equals more time, artifacts, and errors. In some cases, printing models at lower resolutions (i.e. thicker layers) can actually result in higher-quality prints.

Thinner layers are typically associated with smoother transitions on diagonals, which leads many users to generalize and push Z resolution to the limits. But what if the model consists mostly of vertical and horizontal edges, with 90-degree angles and few diagonals? In those cases, additional layers don’t improve the quality of the model.

The issue is compounded if the XY resolution of the printer in question is not perfect and “colors outside the lines” when drawing the outside edges. More layers means more mismatched ridges on the surface. While the Z resolution is higher, the model will look like it is significantly lower quality in this case.

That being said, there are times when you want higher resolution. Given a printer with good XY resolution and a model with intricate features and many diagonal edges, dialing down the thickness of the layers will yield a much better model. In addition, if that model is short (200 or fewer layers) upping the Z-axis resolution can really improve the quality.

Certain designs benefit from a higher Z resolution: organic forms, rounded arches, small embossings, and intricate engravings.

Intricate models with elaborate details call for a higher Z resolution. SLA 3D printed parts have sharp edges, sleek surfaces, and minimal visible layer lines. This example part was printed on the Formlabs Form 3 desktop SLA 3D printer.

As a general guideline, err on the side of thicker layers and only bump up the Z resolution when completely necessary. With the right printer and a certain type of model, higher Z resolution will capture the intricate details of your design.

Draft Resin, the fastest 3D printing resin available for a Formlabs SLA printers, prints at 200 microns and 100 microns, while retaining the a smooth surface finish.

In PreForm, Formlabs provides users with the choice of different layer thicknesses. Depending on the material and the requirements of the application, parts can be printed in the following layer heights: 200, 160, 100, 50, and 25 microns.

The desktop Form 3+ and the large format Form 3L SLA printers are ideal for high resolution 3D printing.

After learning about 3D printing resolution and sorting out the differences in technology and outcomes, we hope it’s much easier to select 3D printer that best matches your workflow and output needs.

To explore the next generation of SLA 3D printing, learn more about the Form 3 and Form 3L LFS 3D printers. 

Curious to see the what high resolution 3D printing looks like firsthand? Order a sample part shipped to your office.

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3D printer resolution - what does it really mean?


In the world of 3D printing we often speak of the 3D printer resolution of the machines. Because 3D printing is such an accurate procedure, the accuracy of 3D printers is in the size of microns. A micron is one thousandth of a millimeter, so it is extremely small. By displaying the 3D printer resolution, the buyer has a general idea of what the printer is capable of. There is more to the story, however.

A 3D printer resolution example:

If the 3D printer resolution is set to 200 microns and we want to print 2mm height over a distance of 10 cm, it would mean we need 10 layers in order to achieve the desired height .

However, if printed at 100 microns, it would mean that there would be 20 layers used to create the height of 2mm and that would mean 0.1mm step between each layer and a smoother surface delivering a better-looking acute angle.

3 types of deviation

While the 3D printer resolution is very important, you also need to use the best material for your design. Even when you have the most accurate 3D printer on the market, it’s possible that there’s a slight deviation. It might be too small to spot with the human eye, but it might make the difference between a functional print and one you can’t use. Therefore it’s important to know that there are three types of possible deviations when we speak of the 3D printer resolution: machine-, material- and end result deviation.

Machine deviation

Manufacturers of 3D printers can only promise that their machine resolution is what they claim it is. Therefore they advertise with this factor, as do we. The accuracy of our 3D printers is 10 microns, which we’re very proud of. However, it is normal that there is a possible deviation on the Z axis, as gravity pulls the material down. Therefore, we differentiate the resolutions of the X and Y axes (2D) and the Z axis which makes it 3D.

While the 3D printer resolution of the X and Y axes is easy to pinpoint, the Z axis falls victim to gravity. When printing in height, gravity can cause more material to come out of the printer than is intended. Therefore the 3D printer resolution is often a bit lower than is said on a manufacturer’s website. As stated, the accuracy ofTractus3D printers is 10 microns on the X and Y axes. On the Z axis we recommend not printing below 50 microns to make sure your prints are as you desire.

Material deviation

The material can play a significant role in the resolution and outcome of a print. Every material is different and will shrink in its own way and this occurs when it turns from a fluid to a solid – also known as warping. The contraction process takes place when a synthetic material starts to cool down and this can cause the print to bend from the build plate. Of course, as mentioned, each material is different and some will shrink more than others such as PC, which shrinks more than PLA. Therefore, to avoid this, you should ensure that a heated build plate is used, which ensures that the object does not solidify quickly. At Tractus3D, our printers also come with a heated build plate and closed chamber which ensures prevents temperatures from fluctuating, as the warmth is not released.

End result deviation

Last, but certainly not least, is the end result deviation. Everyone purchases a 3D printer to get the most accurate print possible. Even the tiniest deviation can cause a print to not be implemented at all. The end result deviation weighs the machine- and material deviation against each other. This factor can thus be partially influenced by the manufacturer of the machine. Tractus3D printers know which materials have a certain deviation and automatically adapt the machine deviation so the end result is as desired.

How can you test the 3D printer resolution?

3DBenchy as the model for testing and benchmarking the 3D printer resolution

It is important to test the resolution of the 3D printer, so that you can determine the geometrical features that play a part in the outcome. 3DBenchy is used as a way of testing and benchmarking 3D printers. The 3DBenchy is a little boat that has been designed to print at a scale of 1:1 without support material. This makes it possible to look at the different surfaces of the model in order to determine any issues associated with the finish of the surface, warping and accuracy.

3DBenchy on a Tractus3D printer

In the video above a Tractus3D printer is subjected to the test. The 3DBenchy (from bow to stern measures 60 mm) was printed on our smallest 3D printer, the T650. During printing we did not experience warping or bridging difficulties or any other of the aforementioned possible problems. It took less than 2 hours to complete the 3D print and pass the test!

How the 3D printer resolution can affect the outcome

Just like any other type of printing, the type that you use can affect the final outcome of the print job. This is particularly true for 3D printing and so, you can see just why it is important to consider the 3D printer resolution as part of the decision making process.


When it comes to industrial 3D printers, as they evolve, the desire to printer larger objects will grow, and with this will come an increase in the need for the quality. For large objects, there might not always be a need for that level of resolution but in the case of small or detailed objects such as those that have interlocking or connecting parts, accuracy is vital and so, high resolution is an absolute must.


For those printers that have a lower 3D printer resolution, they will print thicker and so, in those particular objects that have a curve, they edges will be rougher and will have a stepped appearance to it. As the thickness of each layer increases, the step between them increases. Thinner layers would give a larger number of smaller steps, making the curve appear smoother.

Horizontal angles

In the same way as those objects that have curves, when 3D printing objects that have angles horizontally, the number of steps in the printed object will be determined by the 3D printer resolution. If the 3D printer resolution is set to 200 microns and we want to print 2mm height over a distance of 10 cm, it would mean we need 10 layers in order to achieve the desired height and there will be a layer thickness of 1 cm. However, if printed at 100 microns, it would mean that there would be 20 layers used to create the height of 2mm and that would mean 0.5mm step between each layer and a far smoother surface delivering a better-looking acute angle.

How high resolution is achieved

Filament choice

The first thing about ensuring that high resolution is achieved is down to the ability to take care of the filaments in the correct way. The whole printing process is influenced by the filament and so, it is important that great care is taken over it. The filament has to be correctly wound onto the spool and it is crucial that the temperature is set correct for a heated platform to prevent the objects from sticking to it. An example of this would be ABS which requires a temperature of 100 degree Celsius while PLA only requires a temperature of 60 degrees Celsius.

Temperature regulation

As touched upon already, the quality in 3D printed objects as well as the resolution will often come down to the temperature of the extruder or the heated platform. Of course, every material will come with a desired extrusion temperature such as ABS which has the most successful melting point at around 240 degrees Celsius. This can vary depending on the manufacturer so it worth taking that into consideration.


Where complex and highly detailed objects are being printed with a high 3D printer resolution, it is crucial that rafts and support structures are used. The key to getting this right is to ensure that the correct thickness is set for the raft, the right distance between the object and the support and the density. However, the denser the support is, the more difficult it can be to remove once the print job has been completed.


The software that is used can also play a part on the final outcome and quality of the 3D print. Different programs can cause better or less adjoining structures and that can have a significant impact on the overall quality of the final print.


The layer height is extremely influential on the quality of 3D prints. Often, standard 3D printing heights are set between 0.1 and 0.3 mm but with the correct nozzle and the right filament, it is possible to increase the height range to 0.05 to 0.35mm. It is worth remembering that the layer height should not be more than the diameter of the nozzle and less than that of half the path width. The lower the layer, the easier it is to create a 3D print that is detailed and accurate with fewer visible layers.

In contrast to this, the path width does depend on the size of the nozzle as most nozzles are around 0.3 and 0.4mm. The minimum width can equate to that of the diameter of the nozzle but it can be increase by around 0.1 to 0.2mm. Commonly, the path width should equate to twice that of the layer height and so, a safe path width can be considered to be between 0. 3mm and 0.6mm.

3D printing speed

The speed of the 3D printer and print job can have a significant impact on the quality and resolution of the final object in FDM printing. When the print job is carried out in more time it means better finishes on corners or edges. Most filaments will also adhere better and have more time to cool down.

Whether you are opting to print with one or two material extruders, retraction is a crucial part of the process. This is down to the fact that it is responsible for retracting the filament when it is not in use. If the speed and distance of retraction is increased then this can prevent the filament from blobbing on the object as well as prevent any unintentional mixing. It will also mean that filament does not hang from the nozzle. In this case when the extruder moves over the object, it does not leave behind thin hairs of plastic on the printed object.

When resolution is not important

Obviously, design engineers want to achieve the very best printing results and that means that they should consider everything to achieve this. However, not every situation requires a high resolution finish. This is down to the part geometries, the parts that are being produced and how they will be used. In some cases, a high resolution is great but where there are time constraints and less of a requirement to print in high resolution then less care or concern can be taken to the final product. Of course, cost can also play a part in this, particularly where costs need to be kept to a minimum as this can mean that low quality resolution objects can be created without any concerns.

The 3D printer resolution of Tractus3D industrial printers

When designing exquisite models for FDM 3D printing, you want them to be as detailed as possible so that you can truly see the expertise put into it. With a 3D printer resolution of 0,01 millimeter (10 microns) on the XY-axis and a resolution 0,05 millimeter (50 microns) on the Z-axis, the Tractus3D DESK printers can print even the finest details. When your objects do not require such detail, you can print at a lower resolution up to 1000 micron.

In the end, Tractus3D systems are capable of the 3D printer resolution we say they can. It is up to the user to make sure they choose the right material for the endproduct. We choose to not set you free into the wild when you buy our industrial 3D printers. We will advise you on what is and is not possible before you purchase our product, so you can get the most out of your printer. This is why our industrial 3D printers have profiles of all the materials, so you know which settings are right for each material. With the help of these profiles, the printer automatically chooses the right temperature and accounts for things such as shrinkage. As a wise man once said: with a great 3D printer, comes great responsibility.

The Complete Guide to 3D Printing [Part 2]

3D printing is used in a variety of industries, both for rapid prototyping and short-term production.

A key application of 3D printing in various industries is the rapid prototyping of new parts during R&D. No other technology has the capability to instantly produce plastic or metal parts - even in non-factory conditions.

3D printers can be used in-house by companies, while some businesses prefer to order 3D printed prototypes through service bureaus.


3D printing can be used to make medical components such as titanium implants and surgical guides (SLM), 3D printed prostheses (SLS, FDM) and even 3D bioprinted human tissues. Components for medical equipment and technology - X-ray machines, MRI, etc. - can also be made by 3D printing.

SLA and SLS technologies are also widely used in the dental industry for model making, prostheses and restorations.

Aerospace industry

The aerospace industry has become a major consumer of 3D printing technology because it can produce very light parts with an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Examples include things as simple as cab bulkheads (SLS) and down to revolutionary engine components (SLM) such as the 3D printed fuel injector tip designed and manufactured by GE.


Automotive companies regularly use 3D printers to make one-off parts and repairs, as well as rapid prototypes. Common 3D printed automotive parts include brackets, dashboard components, and antennas (FDM).

More extreme examples include vehicles with large 3D printed metal structural components, such as early models from automotive startup Divergent.

Jewelry and art

3D printing technologies such as SLA are widely used (as an indirect fabrication process) in the production and repair of jewelry, while almost all types of 3D printers can be used to create art and sculpture.


Advances in additive manufacturing with high quality workmanship have expanded the scope of applications in construction and architecture. Concrete 3D printing, which is a bit like FDM but with very wide nozzle extruders, plays an important role in this industry, but more common 3D printing technologies such as SLM can be used for products such as bridge structures.

3D printing file formats:

3D printing parts can be designed with standard CAD software, but 3D printers can only read certain file formats. There are four main file formats for 3D printing.

STL: The most common file format for 3D printers, STL contains part geometry information in the form of tessellated triangles. It does not contain information such as color, material, or texture. The file size is proportional to the detail, which can be a problem.

OBJ: Less common than STL, the OBJ file format encodes the geometry of a 3D model and can include curves and free-form surfaces in addition to tessellation. It can also contain color, material, and texture information, making it useful for full color processes.

3MF: Invented by Microsoft, 3MF is an XML-based format with small file sizes and a good level of error prevention. It has not yet been widely adopted, but is supported by companies such as Stratasys, 3D Systems, Siemens, HP, and GE.

AMF: The successor to the STL format, AMF is much more compact and allows you to tessellate both curved and flat triangles, making it much easier to encode parts of various shapes. Since its inception, the format has been slowly adopted.

3D printing settings and specifications:

3D printing uses specific terminology that may not be clear to beginners. These terms refer to printer settings and/or specifications that can affect how 3D printed parts turn out.


When making 3D printed parts, it may be necessary to specify an infill percentage, which refers to the internal density of the part. A low infill percentage will result in a mostly hollow part with minimal material holding the mold together; a high infill percentage will result in a stronger, denser, and heavier part.

Layer Height

Layer height, sometimes referred to as z-resolution, is the distance between one 2D part layer and the next. A smaller layer height means finer resolution (and higher possible level of detail) along the z-axis, i.e. top down. A low layer height is an indication of a high quality printer, but users can set a higher layer height for faster, more economical printing.

Print speed

The printer's print speed, measured in millimeters per second, indicates the speed at which the machine can process the source material. Like the layer height, this value can either be a measure of the printer's maximum speed or be user-defined: slower print speeds usually result in more accurate prints.

Print temperature

When applied to processes such as FDM, print temperature usually refers to the temperature of the hot end, the part of the print head that heats the thermoplastic filament. Some FDM printers are also equipped with a heated print bed, the temperature of which is specified by the manufacturer. In both cases, the temperature is usually controlled by the user.


In 3D printing, resolution almost always refers to the smallest possible movement along the X and Y axes (width and depth) of either the laser beam (SLA, SLM, etc.) or the print head (FDM). This value is more difficult to measure than the height of the layer, and it is not always proportional to it.


Like wall thickness in injection molding, shell (or shell thickness) refers to the outer wall thickness of the 3D printed part. When 3D printing, users usually have to choose the number of shells: one shell = outer walls as thick as a 3D printer nozzle; 2 shells = twice the thickness, etc.

Color 3D printing:

Since 3D printing is primarily used as a prototyping tool, single color prints are sufficient for most applications. However, there are several options for color 3D printing, including high-end material inkjet printers, multi-extruder FDM printers, and post-processing options.

Inkjet Printing Technologies

Major 3D printing companies such as Stratasys, 3D Systems and Mimaki have developed 3D inkjet printers for printing materials and binders that can print 3D models in full color as well as 2D inkjet printers. However, these machines are expensive and the parts do not always have excellent mechanical properties.


Several FDM 3D printers are equipped with two (or more) printheads, allowing you to simultaneously print on two spools of filament - different colors or even different materials - within the same print job. It's simple and affordable, but usually limited to two colors.

Filament replacement

Single extruder FDM 3D printer can produce multi-color prints. To do this, you need to pause printing at certain points and replace the spool of thread with a thread of a different color. This is a very slow method of applying color and does not allow precise control over where each color goes.

Adding color after printing

Many 3D printed parts can be dyed, tinted or painted after printing. While this adds another step to the process, it often strikes the best balance between quality and economy.

Post-Processing 3D Printed Parts:

Many 3D printed parts require at least some level of post-processing after leaving the print bed. This may include important processes such as the removal of supports, or additional cosmetic processes such as painting. Some processes apply to all or most 3D printing technologies, and some are specific to a particular technology.

Support Removal

3D printing technologies such as FDM and SLA require the installation of support structures (vertical struts between the printed layer and the part itself) to keep the printed object from breaking during the manufacturing process.

These supports must be removed when the part is finished. Some printers, such as dual-extrusion FDM machines, can print dissolvable support structures, allowing the support structures to be easily detached from the part using liquid chemicals. Insoluble supports must be manually cut from the part, leaving a mark that may need to be sanded down.

Washing and removing the powder

Some 3D printing technologies (such as SLA) leave sticky marks on parts, while others (SLM, SLS) may leave powder marks. In these cases, the parts must be washed - manually or with a special machine - or the powder removed with compressed air.

Heat treatment

Many of the key 3D printing technologies print parts from materials that are not yet in their final chemical state after leaving the printing mold. Such details are sometimes called "green".

Many 3D printed metal parts require heat treatment after printing to increase layer fusing and remove contaminants. And bonded inkjet 3D printers, for example, produce parts that need to be stripped and sintered after printing to remove resin bond layers from inside metal parts.

Some 3D printed resin parts require post-curing after printing to increase their hardness and make them usable.

Surface Treatment

3D printed parts can be subjected to a wide range of surface treatments, from textural treatments such as sanding and smoothing, to visual treatments such as painting and toning. Some technologies, such as FDM, can create a rather rough surface that requires sanding, while others, such as SLA, produce a much smoother surface.

Combination of 3D printing with other technologies:

3D printing does not have to be used as a separate process. Rather than being seen as a competitor to CNC machining and injection molding, it can actually complement these and other manufacturing processes.

Combination examples include:

  • 3D print the main body of the part and then CNC mill the thin parts to tighter tolerances;
  • 3D printable master pattern for investment casting or vacuum casting;
  • 3D print the part and then injection mold it using injection molding.

There are hybrid manufacturing systems that combine 3D printing with other technologies. For example, Mazak's INTEGREX i-400 AM and DMG MORI's Lasertec DED can perform both 3D printing and CNC milling.

Will 3D printing replace other manufacturing processes?

Analysts have long speculated about whether 3D printing could replace other manufacturing processes, including:

  • Processing;
  • Molding;
  • Casting.

However, despite the desire of AM equipment manufacturers to position 3D printing as an end-to-end manufacturing technology, in practice, 3D printing is still limited to some specific manufacturing operations, especially low-volume production of specific materials.

In some areas, 3D printing has certainly overtaken other processes. For example, rapid prototyping with inexpensive plastics like ABS now dominates 3D printing, as ABS is cheaper to print than machined. 3D printing also seems to have established itself as the ideal tool for making objects such as patient-specific titanium medical implants: the speed and geometric flexibility of 3D printing is hard to beat in these specific situations.

In addition, 3D printing is an ideal tool for making objects such as patient-specific titanium medical implants.

Despite this, processes such as CNC machining currently remain the best for producing high quality parts and prototypes from engineering materials such as POM, PEI, PPS and PEEK, with surface finishes far superior to 3D printing. . In addition, processes such as injection molding are still infinitely faster for mass production of simple plastic parts.

In addition, although additive manufacturing is one of the most significant technological advances in manufacturing, which allows it to take a stronger position in manufacturing in general, more established processes such as CNC and injection molding are also being improved to produce higher quality parts. .

3D printing will continue to take an increasing share of manufacturing jobs, but it will not completely replace other technologies.

What did 3D printing look like 10 years ago?

A decade ago, the nascent 3D printing industry was gearing up for what it believed would be a 3D printing revolution: a 3D printer in every home, allowing families to print new items they might need, such as a spare part for a refrigerator, a new toy for kids, or even components to build a second 3D printer.

In 2012-2014, FDM 3D printer manufacturers such as MakerBot actively promoted their 3D printers in the consumer market, trying to convince ordinary people that a 3D printer can improve their home life and work. However, it was clear that these companies were trying to exploit the novelty factor of 3D printing and that their products had no practical application; a 2012 MakerBot press release seems to prove it: Make an entire chess set at the touch of a button. Friends, classmates, colleagues and family members will see what you are doing and say "Wow!".

Just a few years later, this so-called 3D printing revolution clearly failed, and many 3D printer manufacturers began to rethink their goals, moving from consumer to professional and industrial markets, where there were more concrete (and profitable) applications of additive technology.

In addition, those who were already working in the professional and industrial fields - companies such as 3D Systems and Stratasys - began to try to destroy the idea of ​​​​3D printing as a prototyping technology, positioning it as a viable mass production tool (which, obviously, , could be more profitable for the 3D printing industry, as manufacturers would have to fill entire factories with 3D printers, buy 3D printer management software, and hire 3D printing consultants).

What will 3D printing look like in 10 years?

3D printing companies have abandoned the prospect of putting a 3D printer in every home. However, in 10 years, they can expect some form of additive manufacturing to appear in more factories.

Although there is less talk about 3D printing today than in 2012, the technology continues to gain momentum in the professional and industrial world.

According to a recent report, market research firm 3DPBM Research expects the value of additive metal manufacturing to rise from $1.6 billion in 2020 to $30 billion by 2030, and this is largely due to the repositioning of AM as a manufacturing tool and the development of more high-performance engineering materials. (That said, 3D printing will remain a valuable prototyping tool in many industries, and prototyping applications will benefit just as much from technological advances.)

However, not only metal AM is being developed. Technologies such as HP's Multi Jet Fusion have opened up new possibilities for plastic printing, and innovators such as Carbon have developed new high-speed processes in the photopolymerization category. Niche areas such as 3D bioprinting and micro 3D printing are also regularly opening up new opportunities, and composite 3D printing (such as continuous carbon fiber 3D printing) is also on the rise: IDTechEX predicts that by 2030, the market size of composite 3D printing will be $1.7 billion

In short, 3D printing will gradually become a serious competitor to other manufacturing processes in many disciplines.

How to outsource 3D printing services?

Investments in 3D printing hardware and software are not suitable for all businesses, so many successful companies outsource their 3D printing needs to third parties, such as online 3D printing service bureaus (for one-time projects) or prototyping partners and production, such as 3ERP (for one-time projects or repeat orders).

When outsourcing 3D printing services, it is important to consider whether your business needs design and manufacturing services or just manufacturing services. (Keep in mind that a poorly executed 3D model may fail for 3D printing).

In general, though, ordering 3D printed parts from a third party is easier than ever. Many manufacturers can start 3D printing with just a digital 3D model, although more important projects may require a technical drawing to communicate additional information such as materials, colors, and tolerances. Some 3D printing service providers (including 3ERP) will offer advice on suitable 3D printing technologies and materials for your project.

Explore our full range of 3D printing services, including available technologies and materials, or request a quote for your 3D printing project.

The Complete Guide to Stereolithographic (SLA) 3D Printing

Stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printing is gaining immense popularity due to its ability to produce highly accurate, isotropic and waterproof prototypes and models with fine details and smooth surfaces from a variety of modern materials.

This comprehensive guide explains how SLA printing technologies work, why thousands of professionals use them today, and how this 3D printing technology can be useful in your work.

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The development of 3D printing technology continues to influence how companies approach prototyping and manufacturing. This technology is becoming more accessible, and equipment and materials are developing in accordance with the possibilities and requirements of the market. That's why today designers, engineers and others are integrating 3D printing into workflows at all stages of development.

3D printing is helping professionals across industries reduce recruitment costs, accelerate iteration, streamline manufacturing processes, and even discover entirely new business models.

Stereolithographic 3D printing technology has evolved significantly. In the past, resin 3D printers were monolithic and costly, requiring skilled technicians and costly service contracts to operate. Today's small desktop printers are highly flexible and produce industrial-quality products at a much lower cost.

Stereolithography is a type of additive manufacturing. It is also known as photopolymerization in the bath or 3D printing using polymer resin. Devices that use this technology have a common principle of operation: under the influence of a light source (laser or projector), a liquid polymer turns into a solid plastic. The main differences are in the location of the main components such as the light source, work platform and resin tank.

See how stereolithography 3D printing is done.

Stereolithographic 3D printers use light-sensitive curable materials called "polymers". When stereolithographic polymers are exposed to specific wavelengths of light, short molecular chains join together causing the monomers and oligomers to polymerize into either rigid or flexible patterns.

Graphical representation of the main mechanisms of stereolithographic 3D printing.

Models printed on SLA printers have the highest resolution and accuracy, the finest detail, and the smoothest surface of any 3D printing technology, but the main advantage of this method is its versatility.

Materials manufacturers have developed innovative formulas for stereolithographic polymers with a wide range of optical, mechanical and thermal properties similar to standard, engineering and industrial thermoplastic resins.

Comparison of 3D stereolithography with two other common plastic modeling technologies: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).


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Learn how to go from design to 3D printing with a Form 3 3D printer. Watch this 5-minute video to learn the fundamentals of using a Form 3 printer, from software and materials to processes printing and post-processing.

Use any CAD software or 3D scan data to design the model and export it to a 3D print file format (STL or OBJ). All printers based on SLA technology work with software that allows you to set print parameters and separate the digital model into layers. After the settings are complete, the model preparation software sends instructions to the printer via a wireless or cable connection.

More advanced users can design directly for SLA technology or, for example, print models with voids to save materials.

After a quick check of the settings, the printing process begins. The printer may run unattended until printing is complete. In printers with a cartridge system, material is replenished automatically.

Formlabs' online Dashboard allows you to remotely manage printers, resins, and employee access.

After printing is complete, models should be rinsed with isopropyl alcohol to remove resin residue from their surface. After the washed models have dried, some materials require final polymerization, a process that ensures the best possible strength and stability of the parts. Finally, remove the support structures from the models and sand down the remaining traces of the supports for a clean finish. Models produced with SLA technology can be machined, primed, painted or assembled depending on the intended use.

The final polymerization is particularly important for functional polymer resins used in engineering, dentistry and jewellery.

Engineers, designers, fabricators and others choose stereolithography 3D printing because it provides excellent detail, smooth surfaces, superior model fidelity, and features such as isotropy and water resistance. In addition, it allows you to work with various materials.

Because 3D printing builds models layer by layer, the strength of finished parts can vary depending on the orientation of the part relative to the printing process: the X, Y, and Z axes will have different properties.

Extrusion-based 3D printing processes such as deposition filament modeling (FDM) are anisotropic due to a special approach to creating different layers during the manufacturing process. This anisotropy limits the application of FDM technology or requires additional changes in the design of the model to compensate for it.

Check out our detailed guide comparing FDM vs. SLA 3D printers to see how they differ in terms of print quality, materials, application, workflow, speed, cost, and more.

Stereolithographic 3D printers, on the other hand, allow the production of highly isotropic models. Achieving detail isotropy relies on a number of factors that can be tightly controlled by integrating the chemical composition of materials with the printing process. During printing, the components of the polymers form covalent bonds, but when creating subsequent layers, the model remains in an "immature" state of partial reaction.

When immature, the resin retains polymerizable groups that can form bonds between layers, giving the model isotropic and waterproof properties after final curing. At the molecular level, there are no differences between the X, Y, and Z planes. This results in models with predictable mechanical characteristics critical for applications such as jigs and fixtures and finished parts, as well as functional prototyping.

SLA printed parts are highly isotropic compared to FDM parts.

Due to its isotropic nature, stereolithographic printed models, such as this jig for Pankl Racing Systems, can withstand directional loads during the manufacturing process.

SLA printed objects are continuous, whether they are solid or have internal channels. Watertightness is important when it is necessary to control and predict the impact of air or liquid flows. Engineers and designers are using the water resistance of stereolithography printers for air and fluid flow applications in the automotive industry, biomedical research, and to test the design of parts in consumer products such as kitchen appliances.

OXO relies on the water resistance of stereolithographic printed models to create durable working prototypes of air and fluid products such as coffee makers.

Stereolithographic 3D printing is used to produce precise, reproducible components in a variety of industries, including dentistry and manufacturing. In order to produce accurate models during the printing process, many factors must be strictly controlled.

The quality of stereolithographic 3D printing is somewhere between standard and precision machined. SLA has the highest tolerance compared to other commercial 3D printing technologies. Learn more about tolerances, accuracy and precision in 3D printing.

The heated resin tank combined with the closed working environment provide virtually the same conditions for every model. The higher accuracy also depends on the lower printing temperature compared to thermoplastic-based technologies in which the raw material is melted. Because stereolithography uses light instead of heat, it prints at close to room temperature and models are not subject to thermal expansion and contraction.

Dental example (comparing a scanned component to an original CAD model) demonstrating the ability to maintain tight tolerances for an entire stereolithographic model.

LFS stereolithography 3D printing involves an optic in a Light Processing Unit (LPU) that moves along the x-axis. parabolic mirrors so that it is always perpendicular to the plane of the platform, so it always moves in a straight line, ensuring maximum precision and accuracy. This allows consistency to be achieved as the size of the equipment increases, for example, when working with a large-sized Formlabs Form 3L stereolithography printer. The LPU also uses a spatial filter, which forms a clear laser spot.

The characteristics of the individual materials also play an important role in ensuring the reliability and reproducibility of print results.

Formlabs Rigid Resin has a high green modulus, or modulus of elasticity, prior to final polymerization, allowing very thin models to be printed with high precision and reliability.

Stereolithography printers are considered the best 3D printers due to the smooth surface of the models produced, the appearance of which is comparable to parts produced by traditional methods such as machining, injection molding and extrusion.

This surface quality is ideal when a flawless finish is required and also helps to reduce post-processing time because these models are easy to sand, polish and paint. For example, large companies like Gillette use stereolithography 3D printing to create finished products such as razor handles in their Razor Maker platform.

Large companies like Gillette use stereolithography 3D printing to create finished products such as razor handles in their Razor Maker platform.

The z-layer height is often used to determine the resolution of a 3D printer. On Formlabs stereolithographic 3D printers, it can be adjusted from 25 microns to 300 microns to trade off speed and print quality.

FDM and SLS printers typically print Z-axis layers between 100 and 300 microns wide. At the same time, a part printed with 100 micron layers on an FDM or SLS printer is very different from a part printed with 100 micron layers on an SLA printer. Models printed on a stereolithographic printer have a smoother surface immediately after printing, because their outer walls are straight, and each new printed layer interacts with the previous one, smoothing out the effect of the stairs. When printed on an FDM printer, layers are often visible in models, and the surface of models printed on an SLS printer has a grainy structure due to sintered powder.

In addition, the stereolithography printer can print fine details: the Form 3 laser spot size is 85 microns, while industrial SLS printers have a laser spot size of 350 microns, and FDM-based devices use nozzles with a diameter of 250– 800 microns.

Models printed on FDM printers often show layer lines and may have inaccuracies around complex features. Models printed on stereolithography printers have sharp edges, a smooth surface, and almost imperceptible layer lines.

The advantage of SLA polymers lies in a wide range of formulations offering a variety of characteristics: they can be soft or hard, contain additives such as glass and ceramics, or have special mechanical properties such as high bending temperature under load or impact resistance. Materials can be designed for a particular industry, such as dentures, or have properties close to those of final materials to create prototypes that can be tested and run under stress.

Ceramic Resin can be 3D printed with a stone-like texture and then fired to create a ceramic product.

In some cases, it is this combination of versatility and functionality that is leading businesses to use polymer-based 3D printing in-house. After solving existing problems through the use of a certain functional polymer, other applications are usually quickly discovered. In this case, the printer becomes a tool for discovering the various properties of various polymers.

For example, hundreds of engineers in the Design and Prototyping group at the Advanced Manufacturing Equipment Research Center (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield have access to 12 stereolithographic 3D printers and various construction materials that they use in numerous research projects for these partner companies. like Boeing, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Airbus. They printed High Temp Resin washers, brackets, and a mounting system for a sensor that must operate in high temperature conditions, and used Durable Resin to create complex spring components for a material handling robot as part of a composite manufacturing automation system.

AMRC engineers have access to 12 stereolithographic 3D printers and various construction materials, allowing them to create custom-designed parts for a variety of research projects, such as brackets for a stacking robot (above) and mounts for an environmental sensor. high temperature (below).

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Stereolithographic 3D printing makes it easier for businesses across industries to innovate. Such industries include engineering, manufacturing, dentistry, healthcare, education, entertainment, jewelry, and audiology.

Rapid prototyping with 3D printing enables engineers and developers to turn ideas into working proofs of concept, transform concepts into high-quality prototypes that look and work like end products, and take products through testing phases to launch into mass production.

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By creating the necessary prototypes and 3D printing special tools, molds and production aids, manufacturing companies can automate production and optimize workflows at a much lower cost and in much faster time than traditional manufacturing. Thus, production costs are reduced and defects are prevented, quality is improved, assembly is accelerated and labor productivity is increased.

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Digital Dentistry reduces the risks and uncertainties associated with human error, enabling consistent quality and precision at every step of the workflow, and improving patient care. 3D printers can produce a range of high quality custom products at low cost, providing exceptional fit and reproducible results.

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3D printers are multifunctional tools for creating immersive learning and research environments. They stimulate creativity and introduce students to professional-level technology, enabling the implementation of the STEAM method in the fields of science, technology, art and design.

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Affordable, professional-grade desktop 3D printers help clinicians produce medical devices that meet individual needs and improve patient outcomes. At the same time, the organization significantly reduces time and money costs: from laboratories to operating rooms.

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High resolution printed physical models are widely used in digital sculpting, 3D character modeling and prop making. 3D-printed models have been featured in animated films, video game characters, theatrical costumes, and even special effects for blockbuster films.

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Professional jewelers use the power of CAD and 3D printing to rapidly prototype, customize jewelry to customer specifications and produce large batches of blanks for casting. Digital tools allow you to create dense, highly detailed models without the tedious, error-prone production of stencils.

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Hearing professionals and labs use digital workflows and 3D printing to simplify the production of high-quality custom and hearing aids, as well as to mass-produce behind-the-ear hearing aids, hearing protectors, custom earmoulds, and headphones .

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Many companies are starting to use 3D printing technology through service bureaus and laboratories. Outsourcing can be a great solution when the need for 3D printing is infrequent or you need to do one-off jobs using materials that have unique properties or produce special models. Service bureaus can also provide advice on various materials and offer additional services such as design or improved finishes.

The main disadvantages of outsourcing are the high cost and duration of production. Often, outsourcing becomes a step on the way to in-house manufacturing as needs grow. One of the main advantages of 3D printing is its speed compared to traditional production methods. But it is noticeably reduced when the delivery of the model produced by the involved organization takes several days or even weeks. As demand and production capacity increase, the costs of outsourcing are rising rapidly.

With the increasing availability of industrial quality 3D printing today, more companies are opting to bring 3D printing into their factory right away, vertically integrating it into existing workshops or labs, or providing printers to engineers, designers and other professionals who benefit from digital transformation. projects into physical models or are engaged in the production of products in small batches.

Compact desktop stereolithography 3D printers are an excellent solution for rapid model production. Depending on the number of parts needed and the volume of prints, the investment in a compact 3D printer can pay for itself in just a few months. In addition, compact appliances allow you to purchase just the amount of equipment you need to run your business and scale your production by adding more units as demand grows. Using multiple 3D printers also allows you to print models from different materials at the same time. And when the need arises for the production of large parts or the use of non-standard materials, service bureaus can come to the rescue.


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High production speed is an important reason to buy a desktop 3D printer. When working with a print bureau, there are delays related to the speed of production, communication and delivery. A desktop 3D printer like the Form 3 delivers models in hours, allowing designers and engineers to print multiple parts a day. This contributes to faster iterations and significant time savings in product development, as well as rapid testing of mechanisms and assemblies, avoiding costly tool changes.

Purchasing a desktop 3D printer saves a lot of money by eliminating bureau services and traditional processing methods, as their cost rises sharply with increasing demand and production volumes.

For example, the production engineer and others at Pankl Racing Systems used stereolithographic 3D printing technology to produce products on a tight schedule. This allowed them to independently manufacture custom-designed jigs and other small-sized components for the production line. While stereolithography was initially viewed with skepticism, this technology proved to be an ideal solution to replace the machining of a number of tools. In one of the cases, it made it possible to reduce the manufacturing time of conductors by $51-137

By 3D printing custom-designed jigs, Pankl Racing Systems has significantly reduced both order preparation time and production costs.

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