Printing small parts is one of the main advantages of 3D printing technology. The smaller the piece, the more intricate the design can be. However, there can be limitations, so what is the smallest a 3D printer can print?
The smallest a 3D printer can print is 25 microns (0.025 mm). FDM printers can print as small as 150 microns. However, resin-based 3D printers such as DLP and SLA models can print even smaller parts which can be only 25 microns.
The minimum size of a part you can print will depend on the type of 3D printer. The rest of this article will explain the different types of 3D printers and the most miniature objects that each one can print.
What Is the Smallest an FDM Printer Can Print?
The smallest an FDM printer can print is around 150 microns. Most FDM 3D printers have a 0.4 mm (400 microns) nozzle. Therefore, they can print at resolutions up to 0.15 mm (150 microns). However, you can print smaller than this, but the quality won’t be as good.
FDM printers are the most common type that most people imagine when they think of 3D printing. FDM printers create models from thermoplastics.
These printers heat and melt filaments, then extrude the pliable plastic through a nozzle. This filament is deposited layer by layer, creating a three-dimensional object.
Although FDM printers can achieve incredible detail and print relatively small things, their nozzle sizes prohibit them from printing tiny parts.
Another feature that makes it challenging to print minuscule objects with FDM is the filament. The molten plastic filament used in FDM printers must be deposited in layers, and each layer needs to cool before you can add the next one. The cooling process causes warping and shrinking when the layers are not of the correct proportions, distorting small details.
The smaller the nozzle, the smaller the minimum print size. However, with a smaller nozzle, the time it takes to print increases because the extruder has to move more slowly to maintain a consistent filament flow.
What Is the Smallest an SLA 3D Printer Can Print?
The smallest that an SLA 3D printer can print will depend on the laser’s spot size, generally between 25 and 300 microns. An SLA printer with a smaller laser spot size can print smaller intricate models than one with more prominent spot sizes.
SLA 3D printers use a laser to cure a photosensitive resin. The laser traces the cross-section of the model on the build platform and hardens the resin. Then, the build platform lowers by one layer thickness, and the process repeats until the model is complete.
SLA 3D printers are more accurate than FDM printers and can print more refined details. That is because the laser beam can focus to a tiny spot size, which allows for greater precision. The laser also offers a high degree of control over the curing process, which results in smoother surface finishes.
The size of the model you can print is also affected by the layer thickness of the printer. An SLA printer with thin layers can print smaller models than those with thicker layers. There are three dimensions to consider regarding the smallest an SLA 3D printer can print. These are the X, Y, and Z dimensions.
The Z resolution represents the layer height, the smallest increment the platform can move in the Z direction. The layer thickness is generally between 25 to 300 microns when printing with an SLA printer.
So, to print something tiny, you must consider the X, Y, and Z dimensions. Calibrating your printer to get the best results in all three axes is key to success.
What Is the Smallest a DLP 3D Printer Can Print?
The smallest a DLP 3D printer can print will depend on the projector’s resolution. A higher resolution projector can focus the light onto a tiny spot, resulting in a smaller minimum feature size. The layer height of DLP 3D printers is approximately 25 to 300 microns.
Digital light processing (DLP) is a type of 3D printing technology that uses a projector to cure photopolymer resin with ultraviolet (UV) light.
The projected image is created by passing light through a Digital Micromirror Device (DMD). A DMD consists of tiny mirrors that reflect the light onto the build platform, where it cures the resin and creates the 3D object.
DLP 3D printers are typically faster than stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers, as they can cure multiple resin layers simultaneously. However, they generally have a lower resolution than SLA 3D printers.
While the XY resolution in SLA 3D printers is determined by the laser spot size, in DLP 3D printers, it will depend on the pixel size of the projector.
The Z resolution in DLP 3D printers is similar to SLA 3D printers and represents the minimum increment the platform can move in the Z direction.
Will 3D Printers Be Able to Print Smaller Objects in the Future?
3D Printers will be able to print smaller objects in the future. Researchers are currently developing nano 3D printing technologies, allowing people to print objects smaller than 1 micrometer on the XY and Z axis.
It seems like nano 3D printing will be the next innovation in 3D printing. Pioneering companies such as Nanoscribe have created 3D printers that can create objects as small as 500 nanometers (0.5 microns).
These printers aren’t currently affordable for the general public, but they are on their way. So, prepare for the possibilities of microscopic 3D prints.
Overall, the smallest a 3D printer can print is determined by the technology used. SLA and DLP 3D printers can print the most miniature models with the highest accuracy and detail. These technologies use light to harden the resin, allowing precise control over the curing process.
On the other hand, FDM 3D printers are not as precise, but they can still print small models. The trade-off is that the models will not be as detailed as those printed with SLA or DLP.