3D Printing Terms Illuminated – Part 1

3D Printing Terms Illuminated – Part 1

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that 3D printing technology is full of technical details. It involves complicated equipment, has the capacity to create complex things and is still in its infancy.

So, while your foray into the world of 3D printing is inevitably going to be met with unfamiliar terms and technical challenges, fear not. We're here to demystify the language of 3D printing. In this article, we'll clarify some of the most common specifications a 3D printer's product page will show off - Resolution, Extruders and ABS/PLA filaments.



One of the fundamental specifications that’s shown on a printer’s profile is its print ‘resolution’. Like our ever-evolving TVs, resolution relates to the smallest measurement of detail that a device has control over. For TVs, it’s pixels – the higher the resolution, the more pixels, the sharper the image. For a 3D printer, it’s the minimum millimetres the nozzle can move, meaning the level of fine detail it can achieve.

While your fancy new 4K TV boasts a two-number resolution of 3840x2160, 3D printing must (technically) have a third number, to account for that even fancier third dimension. Often though, dimensions XY will be combined, and Z (the height of each layer), will be separate.

Depending on the printer, you’ll see the same information presented in different ways.

Printing precision + layer thickness = XY resolution + Z resolution.

In basic terms:

How much fine detail your prints can achieve. The smaller the number, the finer the detail.

Single or Dual Extruder:

The extruder of a 3D printer is the component that pushes out your filament onto the printing bed. It’s heated so your filament becomes malleable and can be shaped into your design.

A dual extruder printer allows you to print with more than one spool of filament, which means that in a single print you can incorporate two different colours or materials.

Which should you go for?

Having multiple extruders means you’ll have different filaments ready to go when printing, meaning you won’t need to faff around pausing your print, replacing the filament and resuming. And as we’ve mentioned, it means you’re able to print with different colours and material types.

However, extruders will 99% of the time share the same print head, meaning that despite there being more than one of them, they still move only in unison and not independently.

Achieving a multi-coloured print will require a dual extruder, however if you’re planning on painting your prints, this is unnecessary.

Filament types:


The filament is the material you use to 3D print with. There are multiple types available in the industry, and your 3D printer will need to be compatible with whichever you buy.

PLA (Polylactic Acid) is one of the most commonly used material for 3D printing and as such, most printers should be compatible. If you see a printer that isn’t compatible with PLA, eyebrows should be raised. PLA is odourless and has minimum warping, which is good, and it doesn’t require a heated bed (also good, meaning cheaper printers can use it well). PLA’s characteristics are often described as shiny, detailed and eco-friendly.

PLA isn’t the sturdiest material however – you might struggle to make a robust spare machine part out of it – and it can sometimes deform due to heat, so bear that in mind.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is the other most common material for 3D printing. It can withstand greater heats and is more durable than PLA; it’s sturdy and hard enough to be used for spare parts and has a long lifespan. ABS can deform if it’s not being printed on a heated surface, meaning a heated bed is necessary when printing with it. It’s also not as environmentally friendly as PLA (being derived from oil) and is generally seen as slightly more challenging to work with.

There are various other filament types, all with their unique characteristics, howrver PLA and ABS are two of the most common ones.

Don't miss out on part 2 of our illumination series, where we go into different software, file formats and more. 

Posted by tim gray on

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