The importance of 3D printer resolution.
Simply put, the resolution of a 3D printer relates to how thinly your extruder can print. The thinner the extruder can layer your model (measured in microns), the higher the printer resolution. To properly understand why this is important, you must understand the method in which most home 3D printers work – fused deposition modeling.
This method involves molten plastic being drawn from a very hot nozzle, called an extruder. The extruder layers the molten plastic on top of one another, building the model up layer by layer. For more information on 3D printing methods, check out our guide to 3D printing techniques.
So how does the resolution of a 3D printer affect your prints?
Having even a basic understanding of how 3D printers work, it's easy to understand how the resolution of a 3D printer can impact the quality of your prints. Thinner prints provide a greater level of detail which, when given the current relatively small scale capacity of home 3D printers, may be more important now than in the future. As the size capacity of home printers grows, the desire to print bigger and bigger may make resolution a lesser concern, as larger prints would hide printer resolution with their lack of detail. However, where it will always be important is in the building of small or detailed objects, and where interlocking or connecting parts must be accurately printed, these are when high resolution printers are crucial.
If your printer has a low resolution (prints thicker), then whenever you need to print a curve shape, the edges will have a rougher, stepped edge to them. Since each layer is thicker, the steps between layers becomes larger. A thinner layer would produce a larger number of smaller steps, smoothing out the edge of the curve. You can compare it to a low resolution image of a circle. The lower the resolution of the image, the bigger the pixels and the more “pixelated” or jagged the edges of the circle appear.
Whenever possible, curves should be printed from above. For example, if you were printing a coin, laying the coin flat on the print bed would produce a nice smooth curve, whereas if the coin was stood on its edge, the printer resolution would show in the stepped edge of the curve. Printed laying flat, the edge of the coin would still show signs of the printer resolution, however it would be on a small vertical edge of the coin and the layers would feel similar to the grooves on a record.
The same stepped issue with curves is also true when printing very acute angles horizontally. Let's say you needed to print a slope that only raised up about 2mm over a 10cm distance. At 200 microns there would be only 10 layers to get to the desired 2mm height and therefore a 1cm ‘step' between each layer horizontally over our 10cm span. Alternatively at 100 microns there would be 20 layers to reach the 2mm height, therefore a 0.5cm step between layers and a smoother surface as a result.
Thinking about how you place your model on the print bed can help navigate some of these issues. For example, printing long acute angles vertically is much smoother as it requires dramatically more layers to reach a 10cm height with a 2mm slope, than a 2mm height with a 10cm slope.
Be aware that changing the position of the model on the print bed may cause you issues in other areas, so think carefully about how your printer will layer your object when choosing how to place it.
What is a ‘good' resolution for home 3D printing?
Sadly there really isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It really depends on what you intend to use your 3D printer for. If you're looking for your first printer to begin to learn about and tinker with, then perhaps a high resolution printer isn't necessary since it's more important for you to learn about and explore 3D printing than it is to create the highest quality prints.
However, if you intend to use your 3D printer commercially – such as selling your prints through Etsy, a personal website or in a physical store – a high resolution printer will be much higher up on your list of priorities. The magic of how a 3D printer builds models will soon fade for consumers if the quality of the final print isn't high enough.
3D printers are undoubtably cool and capture people's attention, but if the end product isn't at least as good as buying it from a store, then why bother? If you're planning on selling what you print out, a high resolution printer is a must.
*Now that you know what 3D printer resolution is all about, you can use our handy charts to compare 3D printers in order to get a better idea of what each printer can do and which is best for your needs.