Anatomy of a 3D printer

Understanding the basic parts of a 3D printer.

Learning the basic ins and outs of your home 3D printer will not only help you when troubleshooting any problems you may encounter, but also help you when choosing which printer is best suited for your budget and your needs.

While learning about 3D printers can seem a little challenging at first, its basic principals are really not as complicated as they may initially appear.  The following information is not intended as a ‘complete guide to..’ but as a beginner’s look at the key components of most home 3D printers.

While there are multiple different methods for 3D printing, this guide is intended for Fused Deposition Modeling 3D printers that are most commonly used in home 3D printing. This method can be thought of as the ‘glue gun’ method, where a filament is heated until it begins to ‘melt’ and then placed in very thin layers, one on top of each other.

If you would like to learn more about the various methods of 3D printers, check out our guide to 3D printing techniques. Also, make sure to check out our detailed getting started guide on how to build a 3D printer from scratch!

1. Print Bed

This is the surface area where your 3D models are layered during printing. Depending on the filament options for your printer, you print bed may be ambient or heated. A non- heated bed can be covered in painters tape or even used straight onto the print bed.

Heated print beds keep the printed section of the print warm during the layering process and helps to prevent warping. A heated bed will maintain temperatures between 104°F (40°C) to 230°F (110°C) throughout the printing process. Since 3D printers can get very hot, special attention should be paid when small hands are around.

2. Extruder

The extruder is often mistaken as the place where the plastic comes out, when in fact the extruder is the part that pulls and feeds the plastic filament into the ‘hot-end’. Extruders  are typically integrated into the hot-end, but they may also be remote, pushing the filament through a tube, called a Bowden cable, into the hot-end.

When using a dual extruder, you can have the ability to print two different materials or colors simultaneously. This versatility comes at a price, as it requires an extra extruder, hot- end, and all the bits in between.

Some (but not all) printers can be upgraded from single to multiple extruders. If you are interested in extruders, check out the list of the best 3D printer extruders here.

3. Hot-end

Often confused with the extruder, the hot-end is comprised of a heater, a temperature sensor, and an extrusion tip where plastic filament is fed though to deposit molten material. Hot-ends (as their name suggests) get incredibly hot during printing and must never be handled directly. The hole in the nozzle may range in size, typically between 0.2mm and 0.8mm. The smaller the nozzle, the more detailed the print, but the longer it takes for the thinner layers to stack up.

4. Plastic Filament

The filament is the consumable element of the printer. Like an inkjet squirts ink, a 3D printer emits melted filament.

While there are other speciality filaments, like PVA (Polyvinyl alcohol) for things like support material, there are two main types of filament for FDM home 3D printers – ABS and PLA. For more information on filaments and choosing the right one for your printer, take a look at Choosing a filament, ABS vs PLA.

We’ll be going into each of these aspects in greater detail in the coming weeks, so keep checking back to see what’s new. To get the latest updates and articles sent directly to your inbox, enter your email in the subscribe box on the top right of this page.