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3D Prints Are Like Onions

3D Printer Layer Height – How Much Does It Matter?

Picture of Emmett Grames
by Emmett Grames
May 28, 2018

Layer height is among the most trivial of 3D printer settings, and yet it often plays a huge role in the entire 3D printing process. This little factor has a lot to do not only with print speed, but also detail. Why? Keep reading to find out!

3D Printer Layer Height: What and Why

An illustration on layer height
An illustration on layer height Source: Emmett Grames/All3DP

Layer height is exactly what it sounds like: the exact height of each layer of plastic extruded, cured, or sintered by a 3D printer. This setting is adjusted through a slicer program and has many more effects on the final print than one might think at first. Used properly, this setting will increase your print’s speed, resolution, and smoothness.

3D printer ayer height is typically measured in microns, one micron being equivalent to 0.001 mm.

Something to note while playing with layer height on FDM printers: A shorter vertical layer results in a thicker horizontal line, and a taller vertical layer results in a thinner horizontal line. This can throw off precision in the horizontal plane, especially in small moving parts sometimes used by print-in-place mechanisms.

Different printers have different maximum resolutions for layer height. The standard smallest height is generally between 50 and 100 microns (0.05 and 0.1 mm). Lower cost printers usually do not have as much precision, with printers like the Anet A8 resting at a minimum layer height of 100 microns (0.1 mm). One should therefore consider minimum layer height when buying a 3D printer.

SLA and laser-based printers typically have a much smaller minimum compared to FDM printers, which is what accounts for the insanely detailed prints they typically create.

Optimizing Print Speed

N2O April Fools' Printer from Monoprice
N2O April Fools' Printer from Monoprice Source: All3DP

One of the most common reasons for changing 3D printer layer height settings is to increase print speed. A larger layer height means the printer doesn’t have to print as many layers to achieve the same total height, resulting in a much faster print. 

Generally, increasing layer height will decrease the resolution and quality of your print. This “hack” is therefore better for large prints, where close-up details will either be ignored or touched up during any post-processing. 

Layer height can be optimized for each print in order to attain the fastest print speed while maintaining a certain amount of resolution. However, this is something that should be assessed on an individual printer-by-printer basis, as a lot of fine-tuning is required to print efficiently.

Raising the Resolution

The Fillenium Malcon by aaskedall
The Fillenium Malcon by aaskedall Source: Thingiverse

A little-known fact within the 3D printing community: Most 3D printers have a higher vertical resolution than horizontal. Why? The lead screws, in taking longer to move, also offer the printer a much more accurate vertical position than the timing belts used for the other axes. As such, the printer can create better details on a vertical surface than on the horizontal.

This is one of the reasons that the “Fillenium Malcon” design, by aaskedall, is so popular (among Star Wars enthusiasts) for having such amazing detail across such a wide variety of printers. Other designers have started to realize and take advantage of this fact, and now you can too. 

A lower 3D printer layer height will of course slow your print down, but the printer will be putting down more layers for a given height, allowing for much, much higher detail.

Smoothing the Surface

A 3D printer layer height comparison
A 3D printer layer height comparison Source: All3DP

Another use of the extreme detail availiable with smaller layer heights is to smooth out prints. With a lower layer height, the layers become less obvious and prints become smoother. With larger layer height, the surface of a print becomes rough and the layers clearly visible.

With this knowledge, you can ensure that prints requiring a very smooth finish, i.e. axles or print-in-place mechanisms, are as smooth as possible by reducing 3D printer layer height. This, as you can probably guess, increases detail, but decreases print speed, so be wary of long print times on large parts. 

Professionals have noticed this factor, and Prusa Edtition Slic3r software even added a setting to increase smoothness on a print by varying layer height, as detailed by this article on smooth variable layer height.

For more information on how to smooth prints, check out this easy guide to smoothing PLA.

License: The text of "3D Printer Layer Height – How Much Does It Matter?" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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