Is 3D Printing Expensive or Affordable? A Budget Guide

3D printing has gained a lot of popularity in recent times, but people wonder just how expensive or affordable 3D printing is.

It costs around $250 for the average 3D printer and $20 for a 1KG roll of filament which lasts at least a month of regular printing, or several months with occasional 3D printing. There are other consumables involved such as nozzles, belts, and PTFE tubing, but they are pretty cheap.

I’ll get into more details to help answer this question properly so keep on reading for some key information.

Is 3D Printing Really Expensive?

3D printing is no longer an expensive or niche hobby. Due to new advances in additive manufacturing technology, the cost of 3D printing has dropped sharply in the last decade. You can even get a cheap budget 3D printers for around 200 dollars.

Once you have your 3D printer, the main factors influencing the price of 3D printing are the size, complexity, and the intended purpose of the model. These factors often determine the sort of printer, printing technology, and materials to be used.

Although for larger 3D prints, a large 3D printer is ideal, you can actually separate models, arrange them on the build plate, then glue them together afterwards.

This is a pretty common practice among 3D printer hobbyists, especially for character models and figurines.

Cheap printing technologies like the FDM and resin SLA printers occupy the budget end of the spectrum. These printers are popular with beginners due to their relative cheapness and simplicity. Models made with these are usually for visual and aesthetic purposes rather than functional purposes.

Pretty good print quality can be produced from these budget models. Organizations like NASA have even taken to using these printers for astronauts to create functional models in spaceships. There is however a ceiling to the quality that can be provided.

To get better quality, you most likely have to upgrade to better printers.

For industrial and more functional applications, better materials and high precision  are desired. At this level, high-level printers like the SLS printers are used. These printers print with higher quality materials producing prints with great accuracy and precision.

Their price range is usually out of the reach of the verage consumer.

FDM printing definitely has it’s uses in the right industrial applications, even going up to laying down concrete to build houses from the ground up.

Finally, adding to the cost of 3D models are the consumables. These represent recurrent costs like printing materials, small upgrades, replacements, electricity, and finishing costs such as coating sprays or sandpaper.

Like the printers, the consumables for high-level printing technologies cost more than those for their budget equivalents.

For hobbyist printing models at home, a budget desktop 3D printer will probably be enough to satisfy all your needs.

These models come at very low costs, their printing materials are cheap, they only require minimal consumables like electricity, and they are easy to use.

The best thing you can do to keep the prices low, is ironically to get a high quality 3D printer which can cost a little extra compared to those very budget options.

Saying that, there is one staple 3D printer that is very loved, and the most popular 3D printer, the Ender 3 V2.

You can pick one of these up from Amazon or Banggood for under $300, and it’s sure to provide great quality prints and easy operation for several years to come.

How Much Does 3D Printing Cost?

We have mentioned some of the factors that affect the cost of 3D printing in the section above. Now, we want to see how those prices stack up and contribute to the cost of the final 3D model.

Here is a breakdown of how all these factors contribute to the cost of the 3D printing process:

How Much Does a 3D Printer Cost?

This is the major cost of 3D printing. It represents the upfront cost or investment in acquiring the 3D printer.

Like we mentioned earlier in this article, the quality of the 3D model gotten depends on the type of printing technology used. Higher quality models often require additional upfront costs.

Let’s run through the costs of some of the popular printing technology at the various price points.

FDM 3D Printers

FDM printers are some of the most popular on the market due to their low cost. Budget offerings like the Ender 3 V2 start at $270. This relatively low price point makes it popular with amateurs, students, and even professionals to 3D printing.

Budget FDM printers produce good print quality for the price, but for more professional prints, you’ll be looking to upgrade to a more expensive desktop printer. The Prusa MK3S is one of these.

Priced at $1,000, it straddles the range between cost and performance offering a higher print volume and great, professional print quality at a decent price.

Large volume industrial grade FDM printers like the BigRep ONE V3 from Studio G2 are available, but the $63,000 price tag is sure to put it out of the range of most consumers.

It has a build volume of 1005 x 1005 x 1005mm, weighing about 460kg. This isn’t the usual 3D printer of course, compared to the standard build volume of 220 x 220 x 250mm.

SLA & DLP 3D Printers

Resin-based printers like the SLA and DLP are used by people who want slightly better print quality and speed than what the FDM printers offer.

Cheap SLA printers like the Anycubic Photon Zero or the Phrozen Sonic Mini 4K are available in the $150-$200 range. These printers are simple machines geared at beginners.

For professionals, benchtop units like the Peopoly Phenom are available for the whopping price of $2,000.

Another respectable SLA 3D printer is the Anycubic Photon Mono X, with a build volume of 192 x 112 x 245mm, at a price tag well under $1,000.

Printers like this are used for creating fine detailed large-sized prints that budget models cannot handle.

SLS 3D Printers

SLS printers are the most expensive on this list. They cost more than your average 3D printer with entry-level units like the Formlabs fuse going for $5,000. These expensive units might not even be able to keep up with the rigors of industrial printing.

Large scale models like the Sintratec S2 are ideal for this with a price range of about $30,000.

How Much Do 3D Printing Materials Cost?

This is a major recurring cost in 3D printing. The quality of the printing material to a large extent determines how well the 3D model will turn out. Let’s run through some of the popular printing materials and their costs.

Cost of FDM Printing Materials

FDM printers use thermoplastic filaments. The type of filaments used in printing depends on the strength, flexibility, and conditions required by the model. These filaments come in reels with the quality of the filament determining the price.

PLA, ABS, and PETG filaments are some of the most popular options. They are used by most FDM hobbyists due to their cheap price (around $20-$25 per spool). They come in several different color options.

These filaments are relatively easy to print with, PLA being the easiest, but they can have the drawback of being too brittle or weak for some applications.

There are fixes for strengthening parts through settings like infill density, number of perimeter walls, or even increasing the printing temperature. If this doesn’t provide enough strength, we can move onto stronger materials.

Special purpose filaments like wood, glow in the dark, Amphora, flexible filaments (TPU, TCU), etc. are also available. These are exotic filaments used for special projects that require these types of special materials so their prices are above the average price range.

Finally, we have high-quality filaments like the metal-infused, fiber, and PEEK filaments. These are expensive filaments used in situations where material quality and strength is of great importance. They are available in the $30 – $400/kg range.

Cost of SLA Printing Materials

SLA printers use photopolymer resin as the printing material. Resin is a liquid polymer that reacts to UV light and hardens as a result.

There are many types of resins ranging from the standard entry-level resins to high-performance resins or even dentistry resins used by professionals.

Standard resins like the Anycubic Eco Resin and the Elegoo Water Washable Resin are some of the most popular on the market. These resins allow for quick curing of the material which speeds up printing.

They also come in a variety of colors for the buyer. They cost in the range of $30-$50 per liter.

Resins for special applications like dental 3D printing and ceramics are also available. These resins are used to print anything from dental crowns to metal-infused 3D parts. These types of resins can cost anywhere from $100 to $400 per liter.

Cost of SLS Printing Materials

SLS printers use a powdered medium as their material. The standard printing powder for an SLS printer which is PA 12 nylon costs anywhere from $100 to $200 per kg.

For metal SLS printers, the cost of the powder can be as high as $700 per kg depending on the type of metal.

How Much Do 3D Printing Consumables Cost?

These factors like electricity, maintenance cost, etc. also contribute to the price of the final 3D model. These costs are dependent on the size, printing frequency, and the average time of operation of the 3D printer.

Let’s take a look at some of the consumables for these printers.

Cost of FDM Consumable Parts

FDM printers contain a lot of moving parts so, a lot of parts need to be changed and serviced regularly for the proper running of the machines. One of these parts is the print bed.

The print bed is where the model is assembled. To ensure the model sticks well to the print bed during printing, the bed is covered with an adhesive. This adhesive can be printer’s tape or a special type of tape known as Kapton tape.

The average cost for the printer’s tape is $10. Many people use glue sticks for good bed adhesion.

Instead, you can choose a Flexible Magnetic Surface which has great adhesion without requiring any extra substances. When I first got mine, I was surprised how effective it was compared to the stock bed.

Another part that needs periodic maintenance is the nozzle. Due to the extreme heat it undergoes, the nozzle has to be changed every 3 to 6 months to avoid bad print quality and misprints.

A good replacement is the LUTER 24-Piece Brass Nozzle Set which costs $10. Depending on the materials you print with, some of which are abrasive, your nozzle can last a few prints, or many months of prints.

You can opt-in to get a Hardened Steel Nozzle, which has amazing durability for any types of filament.

Another part is the timing belt. This is an important part that drives the print head, so it is necessary to upgrade and change it to avoid loss of accuracy. The average price of a new belt is $10, though it doesn’t require change often.

Cost of SLA Consumable Parts

For SLA printers, maintenance often involves cleaning the light sources with an alcohol solution to avoid dirt buildups that can reduce the light quality. But still, some of the parts need to be checked or changed periodically.

FEP film is one of them. The FEP film is a non-stick film that provides a way for the UV light to cure the liquid resin without it sticking to the tank. The FEP film needs to be replaced when it is bent or deformed. The price for a pack of FEP films is $20.

The LCD screen of the printer also needs to be replaced because the intense level of heat and UV rays it faces damages it after some time. The advisable time for changing the screen is every 200 working hours.

The price of the LCD varies from $30 to $200 for the pricier 3D printers like the Photon Mono X, which I did an in-depth review of.

With new releases and developments of 3D printers, there is the new monochrome LCD which can actually last for around 2,000 hours without needing replacement. That’s why it’s a good idea to go above budget 3D printers in some cases.

Cost of SLS Consumable Parts

SLS printers are very complex, expensive machines with high power parts like lasers. Maintenance of these machines is best handled by qualified professionals which can be very costly.

Above all, to keep all printers in tip-top shape, periodic preventive maintenance like cleaning, lubrication, and recalibration has to be carried out regularly. All these can add to labor costs in terms of time used.

Even troubleshooting can be very time-consuming if something goes wrong, or you upgrade something without closely following a tutorial, something I’ve experienced myself.

How Much Does Finishing a 3D Print Cost?

After the model is printed, sometimes there are still some treatments that need to be performed on it before it is ready to be used. These finishing methods vary between printing technologies. Let’s have a look at some of them:

After printing with an FDM printer, the print supports are removed, and the surface of the model is machined to give it a smooth finish. These activities add to the labor costs required.

Resin-based 3D printers often require the models to be washed in a chemical solution and then cured post-printing. The price of these activities varies with each model, but they are relatively cheap.

Some people opt-in for an all-in-one solution like the Anycubic Wash & Cure which can increase your costs, but budget options are always available.

I currently just use a plastic container with isopropyl alcohol and a separate UV lamp with a solar turntable, it works really well.

Treatment of SLS printed parts can be as simple as wiping off the excess powder on the printed parts. For some metal parts, also undergo sandblasting and oven heat treatments. This can also add to labor costs.

Is 3D Printing Cheaper Than Buying 3D Models?

Seeing all the costs and numbers up there by now, you might be wondering if getting a 3D printer might be worth the hassle.

I mean, you could easily send your models to an online printing service and have them do all the work for you right? Let’s examine the cost-effectiveness of that idea.

Looking at some of the offerings from popular 3D printing services on the CraftCloud website, I checked out the price for printing out a simple spice rack from Thingiverse.

You simply download or create your STL file and drag/upload the file on this page.

Next up we come to select the material, with varied pricing depending on which one you choose.

You can choose whether you want your model sanded or left as normal, though it was a very significant increase listed.

Now you get to choose your desired color. They really have a large selection, especially if you’re choosing PLA. Some exclusive colors have large increases in price so you probably want to stick to the basic colors.

At this stage you have your model and it’s specifications all done, so now we move onto the delivery and price offers. The cool thing is that you have many companies who can take your order, some cheaper than others.

The price ran into $27 including shipping for printing with the cheapest filament (PLA), and a lead time of 10-13 days.

This costs even more than a whole 1kg spool of PLA, plus the shipping time was well over a week.

After inputting the model into Cura, and having to scale the model to fit the Ender 3 build plate dimensions, it gave a printing time of 10 hours, and a material usage of 62 grams of filament.

I did have to scale the model to 84% to fit it in my 3D printer, so to convert it back, adding around 20% would be 12 hours and 75 grams of filament.

Compared to the $27 3D printing service price, 75 grams of filament with a $20 1kg roll of PLA translates to just $1.50, and a much quicker lead time.

3D printing services are great for large, specialized models that might not be able to be handled in house.

Due to their superior economy of scale, these services can provide multiple specialized printing equipment and expertise that might not be accessible to the average consumer.

To my knowledge, small businesses tend to use these services for one-off prototypes, or for large-scale orders at a discount.

As we’ve shown above, using a 3D printing service for simple small-scale designs that can be handled in-house can be extremely expensive.

Not to mention the long delivery times that take away the advantages touted by rapid prototyping over traditional manufacturing.

If you frequently print a lot of models, it’s best to pay the initial costs and invest in a desktop printer. Although it might take a lot of learning hours and several failed 3D models, at the end of the day, printing your models is worth it.

The future returns when you have fine-tuned your printing process are far greater than constantly hiring 3D printing services.

Is 3D Printing Cost-Effective for Making Things?

Yes, 3D printing is cost-effective for making objects. With a 3D printer, common models or objects can be easily manufactured and customized with ease. This helps reduce the cost of these objects and also helps streamline the supply chain. They are especially cost-effective if you combine CAD skills to create your own models.

But it has to be said, 3D printing does not scale well. Due to the current limitations of technology, 3D printing is only cost-effective over traditional methods when manufacturing small objects in small batches.

As the size and quantity of the models begin to increase, 3D printing loses its cost-effectiveness.

A very interesting fact about 3D printing and it’s effect in industries is how it took over the hearing aids market.

3D printing is perfect for specialized, unique objects that can be personalized for each individual. After 3D printing was adopted into the hearing aid industry, over 90% of hearing aids manufactured today are from 3D printers.

Another industry that has made huge strides is the prosthetics industry, especially for children and animals.

In the right industry, 3D printing can be very cost-effective and rapid in the manufacturing of many objects. The main drawback is actually creating the designs, but that it becoming a lot easier with technological advancements in 3D scanning and software.

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