3D printing has changed the way we create or you can say the way we print objects, from large architectural models to small complex designs. But when it comes to printing on a smaller scale, how small can a 3D printer actually print? In this article, we’ll get into the capabilities as well as the limitations of various 3D printing technologies like FDM, SLA, DLP, and SLS to understand which technology can print how small.
How Small Can a 3D Printer Print?
The world record for the tiniest 3D print is held by a boat that’s only 30 micrometers long. To give you an idea, that’s about one-third the width of a human hair strand. When it comes to different types of 3D printing technologies, FDM can print as small as 0.1mm layer height while on the other Resin-based SLA and DLP printers print as fine as 0.025mm, while SLS technology can print as small as 0.08mm.
3D Printing Technologies: How Small Can They Go
When it comes to the question of “How small can a 3D printer can print?”The answer mainly depends on the type of 3D printing technology you’re using. Let’s get into the most popular 3D printing technology in the Market from easily accessible FDM Technology to Industrial grade SLS 3D printing technology.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM is a widely and commonly used 3D printing technology out there. Anybody who is getting into 3D printing always FDM as their first to get as it’s super to learn and get started with.
- Starting Material: It all begins with a roll of 1.7mm to 3mm diameter thermoplastic which is called filament that’s fed into the hotend via extruder.
- Melting Process: The hotend heats up the filament until it melts.
- Layer Deposition: A nozzle then moves along specific cordinates, laying down the melted plastic layer by layer onto a build plate.
- Vertical Movement: After each layer is complete, the build plate moves down a bit (along the Z-axis) or X axis moves up to extrude next layer on top of the previous layer
- Completion: This process continues until the object is fully formed.
In FDM 3d printing technology you can typically print a minimum layer height of around 0.1mm. The nozzle’s diameter also plays an important role in how small the object can be.The standard nozzle size in FDM 3D printing is 0.4mm.
So, if you’re thinking of printing a tiny car model, keep in mind that FDM might not capture super-fine details like wheel spokes if they’re smaller than 0.4mm.
Stereolithography (SLA) is another 3D printing technology that’s quite fascinating. It uses UV light to turn liquid resin into solid objects, layer by layer. SLA can quite messy as after the Printing the object, it needs a lot of cleaning in isopropyl alcohol then additional curing so you might need to get a cleaning and curing station along with SLA 3D Printer
- Starting Point: The process starts with a build platform submerged in liquid resin.
- UV Light: A UV projector outlines the first layer of the object, making the resin to harden.
- Layer Building: The platform rises, making the space for the next layer just like FDM 3d printing to be outlined by the UV projector.
- High-Resolution Displays: One of the standout features of SLA is the use of high-resolution displays like 2K,4K or 8K displays. These displays allow the printer to achieve extremely fine layer heights.
In terms of precision, SLA printers can print layer heights as small as 0.025mm but there’s a limit to how small the details can be, which is affected by the laser spot size, which is usually around 0.14mm.
So, If you’re into 3D printing complex jewelry designs or dental molds, SLA 3D printing is best for you. It can get you the details that are literally impossible in FDM 3D printing technolgy.
Digital Light Processing (DLP)
Digital Light Processing (DLP) is another interesting 3D printing technology that uses a digital light projector screen to cure liquid resin but it might sounds as same as a SLA 3D printing technology but here’s how it differs from SLA and what it stands out at:
- Whole Layer Exposure: When compared to SLA, which cures one point at a time, DLP 3D printers expose the entire layer in one go.
- Layer Progression: After each layer is cured, the build plate moves up like SLA and FDM 3D printing technology then the vat is re-coated with fresh resin for the next layer.
- Fine Details: DLP can get you incredibly small layer heights as small as 0.025mm but the pixel size of the projector is usually around 0.05mm that sets a limit and beyond that you cannot go.
DLP is majorly useful in fields that need high precision 3d printing like – dental applications and the creation of microfluidic devices. DLP can print the complex details of tooth structures or tiny fluid channels in a device.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is another advanced 3D printing technology that has mainly been used by big Companies and corporations, especially in the aerospace and automotive industries.
- Laser Sintering: SLS uses a laser to sinter powdered material, mainly nylon or polyamide, layer by layer. The laser fuses the powder based on the digital design.
- Build Platform: After each layer is sintered, the build platform lowers then a roller adds a new layer of powdered material and the process keeps on until print is done.
- No Need for Support: One unique feature of SLS is that it doesn’t require any support structures. The surrounding powder acts as a support, making the process more efficient.
- Layer Heights: SLS can print layer heights as thin as 0.08mm, which is as thin as human hair.
SLS 3D printing technology is mainly used in the aerospace and automotive industry and now also used to make rocket parts that need to be both lightweight, heat resistant and durable.SLS printing is great at printing small, complex shapes that are hard to achieve with other 3D printing technology.
Additional Factor that also impact how small you can 3D print
When it comes to 3D printing, the material you choose is just as important as the 3D printing technology you’re using. Every 3D printing material have it unique properties that can limit or increase the capabilities of your 3D printer
PLA (Polylactic Acid)
If you’re just starting your 3D printing journey, PLA is a great material to begin with as it’s made from renewable materials like sugarcane and cornstarch, with PLA you are able to print layers as thin as 0.1mm. It’s about as thin as a sheet of paper. PLA is perfect for 3D printing household or decorative items.
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
If you’re looking for a material which is stronger than PLA then ABS is your go-to material. If you ever played with LEGO bricks? They’re made of ABS. Like PLA, ABS also allows for a minimum layer height of around 0.1mm, making it a good choice for 3d printing durable items like phone cases but ABS comes with its own set of challenges. It tends to warp as it cools, making the printing process way more hard when compared to PLA.
PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol-Modified)
You should consider PETG as the Swiss Army knife in the world of 3D printing. PETG offers a great mix of strength and flexibility, it allows you to print with layer heights that range from 0.1mm to 0.2mm. While PETG may not offer the extreme precision like some specialized materials, it is a very reliable choice for 3d printing small, functional parts.
When it comes to 3D printing a very detailed object, Nylon which is also known as Polyamide, is the material you’ll want to print with. It can achieve a minimum layer height as low as 0.05mm to 0.1mm, making it the best choice for 3d printing small & complex objects. Nylon has its unique mixture of strength and flexibility which makes it perfect for 3d printing complex geometries and small mechanical parts that need to be both durable and detailed.
Resin is a very different kind of material in comparison to materials given above, unlike solid material given above, Resin is liquid material that solidifies under UV light which is used in SLA and DLP 3D printing. With resin, you can p[rint incredible detail, print layer heights as small as 0.025mm.
Nylon Powder in SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)
When it comes to SLS technology, Nylon powder is a game-changer. It allows you to 3D print a layer height that can go down to a staggering 0.05mm, sometimes even lower. Unlike traditional FDM and SLA 3D printing, SLS doesn’t require support structures by which it enables you to create complex objects and geometrical shapes without the need for post-processing. The strength and flexibility of Nylon powder make it best printing complex, high-performance parts that need to withstand stress or impact.
PA 12 in SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)
PA 12 is also known as Polyamide 12, is another best material for SLS printing. PA12 is well known for its excellent mechanical properties. You print a minimum layer height of around 0.08mm, PA 12 is a solid material for printing functional prototypes and end-use parts. PA 12’s high melting point and low moisture absorption make it a best material for various industrial applications.
TPU in SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)
You might have heard about TPU in FDM 3d printing for its elastic properties but when it comes to SLS printing, Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) stands out for its elasticity as well as resistance to wear and tear. With TPU you can print a minimum layer height of about 0.1mm, TPU is the best choice for printing parts that require flexibility, such as gaskets or cushioning items.
Photopolymer Resin in DLP (Digital Light Processing)
In DLP printing technology, Photopolymer Resin is the go-to material. You can print incredibly fine details with the printing layer heights as low as 0.025mm. This makes Photopolymer Resin an excellent choice for printing objects that require extreme precision and detailing, like dental molds or complex jewelries designs. But like in SLA, in DLP also Photopolymer Resin can be brittle.
Tough Resin in DLP (Digital Light Processing)
In DLP printing, Tough Resin is the material that is used to print higher mechanical strength objects, While with Tough Resin you may not print ultra-fine details which is possible with standard Photopolymer Resins but it can still print layer height as low as 0.05mm. This makes it the best material for printing functional prototypes and mechanical parts that need to withstand stress or impact.
How small a 3D printer print is mainly depends on the technology and material you’re using. In FDM printers it can print the layer height of 0.1mm, while SLA and DLP technologies can print finer details with layer heights as small as 0.025mm while on the other hand SLS technology can print layer heights of around 0.08mm. Material choices like PLA, ABS, and Nylon also play an important role in determining how small you can 3D print.