Should I Get a Laser Cutter or a 3D Printer?

Many maker spaces and classrooms are equipped with both 3D printers and laser cutters, and creative people may have one or both devices in their homes and workshops. Together, these two tools can be used to teach new skills and inspire creativity. Projects created with either a 3D printer or a laser cutter may be artistic, functional, or both.

These machines are cutting-edge technology that can inspire us to think outside the box. They can be used together, but you might wonder whether you should get a laser cutter or a 3D printer, instead. To answer that, you need to understand how each device works.

Both machines rely on software to design your final project, and some devices have internal software and screens directly on them so users can operate them without needing a separate computer (although, some models can also connect to computers). The designing process might seem similar between 3D printers and laser cutters. However, there are some key differences.

All About 3D Printers

A 3D printer is an additive process. Essentially, you are adding material to create something. When you design for a 3D printer, you can create something from scratch. Even if you're creating an accessory for something else, the piece is "printed" separately from nothing, and you must attach it later. 3D printers have created prosthetic bones, jewelry, coasters, and even parts of houses!

How is this possible? 3D printers rely on a thin cord known as filament. Filaments come in different materials and colors including translucent. Manufacturers offer filament from PLA (the most popular filament material), PETG, nylon, and Eco-ABS. They're all plastic-like materials with some being stronger or more flexible than others. However, you may be able to buy filament mixed with wood fibers or metal dust for a different appearance. You can even use biodegradable, magnetic, ceramic, color changing, and conductive materials with some 3D printers. To ensure your filament is compatible, it must be wound onto a spool that fits your machine and the right size. Filaments are often 1.75mm or 3mm thick.

Think of a 3D printer like a pen except the ink is replaced with the filament, which is heated by the printer to deposit some of the material in place according to your design. You can understand this easier by watching videos of 3D printers. The printer deposits more filament material, typically starting from the bottom and moving up until the object is complete.

To create a complex object, users may have to 3D print multiple objects and assemble them at later points. It may be necessary to switch filaments when they run out or to incorporate different colors. Finally, objects created with 3D printers can appear rough and require sanding or other finishing touches to remove the traces of the printing process.

All About Laser Cutters

On the other hand, laser cutters rely on subtracting. As the name suggests, users make cutouts with lasers to achieve their desired shape. A home laser cutter can be used to create jewelry, decor, and art or to engrave various objects. Laser cutters can be compatible with a variety of materials: wood, acrylic, cardboard, glass, leather, metal, and stone, among others. Depending on how powerful the laser cutter is (and how thick the material), it may only be able to etch a specific material and not cut all the way through.

Laser cutters are safe when the laser is encased. Although, you have to consider the fumes, which can be dangerous. Airflow is definitely necessary when using a laser cutter.

3D Printers Vs. Laser Cutters

Pieces made with a laser cutter tend to be flat and even making them ideal for creating angular projects or those that require flat layers, unlike 3D printers that can create irregular and completely 3D objects from scratch. After materials have been printed, they can be affixed together or to other materials to create the final object.

The two machines may be useful during different parts of the creation process. For example, a 3D printer is a great way to make an inexpensive prototype before moving on to full production at size with other materials. On the other hand, some people do create final projects with 3D printed materials.

Laser cutters may cost more than 3D printers, which are available at a variety of price points. However, some people consider cutters more reliable as 3D printers can jam.

Laser cutters can also create objects and prototypes faster. Imagine printing a small shape out of a piece of wood. It may take just a few cuts. In comparison, a 3D printer has to create the shape out of the filament, which can take longer and cost more for the materials. Starting with a piece of material and cutting away what is unnecessary can make laser cutting the more affordable option, especially when the end object is larger. With both 3D printers and laser cutters, the project is confined to the size of the unit or platform. This may require users to break the project down into smaller components if possible.

3D-printed objects are always made of filament used, which may not always create the ideal functional or aesthetic output. However, the filament may be further treated to change the object's appearance. A laser cutter's compatibility with a wider variety of materials is appealing to people who like to experiment. While you need to purchase compatible materials with your laser cutter, you may have unlimited options and possibilities due to the adaptability of the laser cutter. A 3d printing filament may be compatible if you purchase it from another source, but you may have to wind it onto a compatible spool to ensure it fits in your machine.

Ultimately, 3D printers and laser cutters can be used to create, but neither machine is perfect for every situation. These devices can complement one another and even create objects that can be attached to create something new altogether.

If you're unsure which device is best for your needs, check out the products and materials on the Digilab website to get an idea of what's available and how you can use it.