If you’re looking to get into the wonderful world of at-home 3D printing, you must start by making a significant choice: Printing from a plastic spool of material (Fused Deposition Modeling) or building your models from liquid resin (Stereolithography). FDM, the more common type of 3D printer, relies on spools of material extruded through a nozzle to create 3D shapes layer by layer. FDM printers tend to be cheaper and easier to use, which is why they make up four of our top five best 3D printer picks.
The other type, SLA, relies on creating 3D prints in vats of photopolymer resins that hardens layer by microscopic layer when exposed to UV light, a laser or LCD to form complex shapes… literally pulling the shape from a pool of liquid as you go.
- Great quality prints
- Easy setup
- Includes all you need
- Priced right
- Requires ventilation and extra safety gear
- Software needs work
- No built-in Wi-Fi.
You could write a doctoral thesis comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of these technologies, but SLA printers get a bad rap for their tiny build volumes and noxious chemicals. While airborne microplastics are a concern with FDM printing, when it comes to SLA printers you’re talking about highly volatile fumes from both the resin itself and the large amounts of isopropyl alcohol needed to process the prints.
Anycubic has created a simple workflow to make that process as easy as possible: The new, $299 Anycubic Photon M3 is a high-quality (but still entry-level) model that offers a usable amount of build space and remarkably good prints.
The M3 has a maximum build volume of 18.0×16.3×10.2 centimeters, which means the biggest part you can print would be roughly 7 inches tall, 6 inches wide and 4 inches thick. That’s far from massive, but it is a nice upgrade over the 16.5x13x8-cm build volume of Anycubic’s cheaper Photon Mono. More impressive, though, is the upgrade in resolution. (Higher resolution means more detail can come through in prints.) The Mono has a build resolution of 2,560×1,620 pixels; the Photon M3 nearly doubles that to 4,098×2,560 pixels.
The Photon M3 can certainly deliver, but before you get there you have to get the thing set up, a process that Anycubic has thankfully made remarkably easy. Most of my printing experience is in the FDM world, where it’s not uncommon to spend hours fussing and tweaking before you can start to expect consistent prints.
With the Photon M3, I finished my first test print less than an hour after I took the printer out of the box. Anycubic even includes resin filters, a set of gloves, a scraper to get prints off the bed and masks in the box — though you’ll want to upgrade to a proper respirator if you’re sensitive to fumes like I am.
And that first print? It was crisp and clean and perfect, light-years beyond anything I could ever hope to get from my Prusa MK3S. The test cube was printed on a perfectly spherical base, its embossed text as good as something I’d expect from a laser printer.
It should be no surprise given the resolution of the printer is greater than that of a 4K TV, despite the LCD measuring just over 7 inches diagonally. That is some serious pixel density.
Next, I printed an original NCC-1701 Enterprise barely bigger than my thumb, yet with enough detail to make out individual lines on the hull. I also created some contoured keys for my ergo mechanical keyboard and they came out superb, far smoother than those I printed on my Prusa 3D printer.
But all those prints also required some extensive post-processing, far more than an FDM printer: Resin prints need to be washed thoroughly in a bath of near-pure alcohol to rinse away excess material, then cured under UV light (or sunlight) for final hardening. And then there are the supports. In SLA printing, your 3D objects are effectively suspended beneath a print bed that rises vertically. This usually means a tangled support structure that must be carefully broken away from the print.
Anycubic also offers a Wash and Cure Plus station, a $229 device that helps automate the washing and curing processes. Even so, you’re looking at upward of 30 minutes’ worth of fiddling with prints after they come out of the printer. And it must be careful fiddling: I broke a few smaller, finer prints while trying to pluck away the supports.
That post-processing is a proper pain, as is having to filter and drain that vat of toxic goo back into the bottle if you won’t be using the Photon M3 for a while. But that’s not a fault of this particular printer so much as it is the nature of resin printing.
One thing I will fault this printer for, however, is the software. Anycubic includes a copy of Photon Workshop on a thumb drive with the printer, and it’s a reasonably comprehensive way of loading models and generating supports before prepping them for the printer — which, by the way, exclusively prints via thumb drive.
However, I found Photon Workshop lacking when it came to helping me figure out the a print’s ideal orientation. I had a number of failed prints when the automatic support generation left details of my models unsupported. I tried numerous software options and found the Prusa Slicer app did a much better job of automatically orienting and supporting prints. So I wound up using that to do much of my prep work, then exported models to Photon Workshop for the final slicing. In the scheme of things that’s a minor annoyance and, since Prusa Slicer is free, it’s an easy fix.
Overall, I was really impressed with the Anycubic Photon M3. It’s priced just right at $299, is easy to set up and even remarkably quiet when printing. If you’ve been tempted to dive into resin printing, particularly if you’re looking to raise the stakes at your next tabletop gaming session, this is a great place to start.