3D printing resolution

Smartphone screens have a resolution. Camera lenses have a resolution. Even the human eye has a resolution (it's 576 megapixels, by the way). 3D printers also have a resolution - and 3D printing resolution is one of the core features which decides whether a printer is cheap, expensive, suitable for industry or destined for mediocrity.

Related: Back to Basics: A 3D Printing Guide

To help you understand 3D printing resolution, we've written a useful guide for you. This article is actually a response to the question "What is resolution in 3D printing?", which we receive a lot. By the end of it, you will hopefully understand what resolution is in 3D printing and how the resolution of a 3D printer affects the models you print.

The Resolution War

First of all, let's have some perspective. For several years, technology has been in a resolution war. It was only a few years ago that a Full HD display on a smartphone (1080p) was considered cutting edge. Now, Full HD screens are considered fodder compared to Quad HD (1440 X 2560) screens. And similarly, it was only a few years ago that a Full HD TV was considered cutting edge. Now, these TV's are an entry point to the market, with UltraHD screens dominating manufacturer flagships. And let's not get into the business of cameras, which are increasingly shipping with 20-megapixel+ resolutions.

The bottom line here? Resolution sells. It's sexy.

However, 3D printing and resolution has a different relationship than most other technologies.

Resolution and 3D Printing

There are three dimensions to consider with 3D printing: X and Y and Z. X and Y are the two planar dimensions while Z is the dimension which prints 3-dimensionally. So when it comes to determining a 3D printer's 'resolution', you have to take into account all three of these axes rather than simply the Z-axis which is the axis marketed by most 3D printer manufacturers.

Wireframe Pencil Holder

Pictured above: Wireframe Pencil Holder printed with the Ultimaker 2 by Phil Nelson

The X and Y axes are actually just as important as the Z axis when it comes to your final prints. XY resolution is the minimum feature size (which is determined by the nozzle diameter - the smaller the nozzle the better) while Z resolution is the layer height (the height of each layer of material cured to create your part - the smaller the layer the better).

Practically speaking, what this means is you ideally want a 3D printer with a high Z-axis resolution and a low XY resolution to be able to print finer details and more complex 3D objects and models.

For example, the Zortrax M200 has positioning precision of 1.5 microns on the X and Y axes and a resolution of 90-microns on the Z-axis. This 3D printer has very good specifications. Another 3D printer with good specifications is the Ultimaker 2+, with a positioning precision of 12.5 microns on the X and Y axes and a resolution of 20 microns on the Z-axis.

Looking Beyond the Spec Sheet

Something to keep in mind when researching specifications and looking for a 3D printer with 'killer' resolution is that just because a 3D printer says it will print at a low resolution, that doesn't mean that it is practically achievable - or in other words, there is a stark difference between claimed resolution and what works in practice.

Some 3D printers for instance will print below 50-microns on the Z-axis but the consistency of prints at this resolution is nowhere near that when printing at 100-microns. Indeed, some 3D printers will print even lower than 50-microns but at this resolution parts will take a long time to print and the environment has a bigger impact on the final model's overall quality.

Our advice to anybody looking to buy a 3D printer with good resolution is to look at examples of prints online - and ideally prints that haven't been created by the company selling the printer. A good place to start your search is on Thingiverse. Visit Thingiverse and simply type into the search box the manufacturer of any 3D printer to see prints created by real people. For instance, a search for 'Ultimaker' brings up over 3,000 results for you to examine.

Alternatively you could also request a free sample from GoPrint3D!

Need Help?

If you can't decide on a 3D printer or you would like to find out more about anything discussed in this article, don't hesitate to give us a call. You can reach us on 01765 540 115 or you can contact us from here.

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