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FDM vs Resin 3D Printing: Which is Right for You?

3D printing opens up exciting opportunities for rapid prototyping, model making, product design and all kinds of creativity. As a newcomer, you’re faced with an important decision – do you choose filament-based FDM or light-activated resin printing to bring your creations to life?

Both technologies have unique advantages and considerations when it comes to factors like print quality, printing speed, safety and ease of use. This guide breaks down how FDM and resin printing stack up across key criteria to help you determine the best type of 3D printer for your needs and experience level.

How They Work: FDM vs Resin Printing

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers work by melting and extruding thermoplastic filament material. The print head moves horizontally while depositing the melted filament onto the print bed to build an object up layer-by-the layer based on instructions from 3D modeling software.

In contrast, resin 3D printers utilize liquid photosensitive resin and a process called stereolithography (SLA). An ultraviolet light source, such as a laser or LCD screen, cures each layer of resin in the pattern defined by the 3D model. The model is slowly lifted out of the vat of resin as layers accrue below.

Print Resolution and Surface Quality

One of the starkest differences between FDM and resin lies in print quality, with resin capable of significantly finer detail and smoothness. Resin printers boast X-Y resolutions reaching 25 microns or below, while affordable FDM printers typically deliver 100+ micron layer resolution.

Resin’s superior resolution also means less visible layer lines on gently sloping curves and surfaces. Resin can achieve optically clear transparency as well versus the slight cloudiness from FDM. The downside is that resin prints are more fragile than sturdier FDM thermoplastics.

"Resin printing really excels at highly detailed miniatures, jewelry, and other small decorative items where surface finish and precision are paramount,” says Simon McCalmont, founder of Calgary-based 3D printing service Rapid Prototypes.

Speed: Resin Wins

Thanks to the layer-by-layer curing process, resin printers also significantly outpace FDM’s speed, especially on small objects.

“Average resin print speeds sit around 35-45mm per hour, while a desktop FDM device might achieve 10-20mm per hour with good quality,” McCalmont explains. DLP and SLA resin technologies can print up to 10 times faster than material extrusion.

For larger parts, the speed difference closes somewhat, but resin remains faster for any model size. This makes resin the top choice for rapid prototyping needs.

Build Volume: Advantage FDM

While resin excels at quality and speed, FDM pulls ahead when it comes to build envelope and part durability. Desktop FDM devices range from 120mm cubes up to 300 x 300 x 300mm (and larger for commercial systems). This suits them well to functional prototypes, tools, mechanical parts, and other applications needing bigger build volumes.

Thermoplastics also tend to be tougher than resin prints in terms of impact resistance, tensile strength, bending and heat/chemical resistance.

“Anything with precision fittings or parts that needs to actually snap together is often better served by FDM,” says McCalmont.

Filament vs Resin: Convenience and Safety

Ease of use is another practical consideration for newcomers. Desktop FDM printers boast incredible convenience — just preheat, load a filament spool and hit print.

Resins require much more hands-on attention. The uncured resin is toxic and sensitizing until washed and cured under UV light. Careful handling techniques using nitrile gloves, good ventilation and skin protection are vital. Users also must periodically filter and replace used resin.

Most consider FDM’s solid filaments safer and more beginner-friendly overall. PLA and PETG filaments emit mildly irritating fumes when melted but generally pose low risks for casual users.

Cost Comparison: Pros and Cons

In terms of upfront investment, basic FDM printers now sell for under $200 USD while resin devices start around $250. High performance FDM devices range up to $4,000+ for systems with exotic filament capabilities or large build sizes. Professional, production-capable resin printers sell in the $3,000 to $7,000+ range.

Operating costs reveal a different story. Resin provides extremely economical high detail printing with material costs around $50 to $100 per liter. FDM filament sells for $15 to $50 per kilogram, often making larger parts more affordable.

Other considerations are wash and cure stations for resin running $200 to $500 and higher electricity consumption for heated FDM print beds and extruder heads.

Choosing Between FDM and Resin Printing

With an understanding of their comparative strengths, here are some guidelines for selecting the best technology for your 3D printing needs:

FDM 3D Printers

  • Best suited for beginners due to lower costs and easier workflow
  • Larger build volumes available for bigger parts
  • Great for prototypes, tools, mechanical parts, and robust objects
  • Huge material selection from PLA, ABS, nylon, composites and more

Resin 3D Printers

  • Produce extremely detailed prints perfect for miniatures and jewelry
  • Blazingly fast printing well-suited to rapid prototyping
  • Higher system costs but very affordable per-print economics
  • Advanced safety handling of resins increases complexity

Ultimately, FDM and resin printing both remain excellent choices, with certain tradeoffs depending on the applications you aim to create with your 3D printer. Assessing your goals around build size, detail needs, convenience and budget will clarify the ideal system type to bring your visions to life.