Resolution In 3D Printing; What Is It?

One of the biggest criticisms of 3D printing is that it produces poorer quality items compared to subtractive manufacturing methods like injection molding.

Subtractive manufacturing methods produce items with better resolution compared to additive technologies like 3D printing. But what does resolution mean and how does the concept apply in 3D printing? 

What Is Resolution In 2D Printing ?

Resolution in printing measures the maximum number of ink droplets squeezed into an inch of an image. This is given as the dots per inch (DPI). The higher the DPI, the higher the resolution. A high-resolution image produces a sharper image with the finer details being more visible. In contrast, a low-resolution image is a less clear image with fewer details visible. 

When looking to get a clearer, more defined image, you print at a higher resolution. This, however, does not mean blowing up the image as print resolution is not the physical dimensions of the image. 

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It is also important to distinguish between print resolution and digital resolution when discussing image quality. 

  1. Print resolution is a function of the printer and defines how sharp the images the printer can produce. The higher the DPI on the printer, the sharper the images turn out.
  2. Digital resolution, on the other hand, is a measure of the number of pixels in every square inch of an image. This measure is given as the pixels per square inch (PPI) of the image. Source

While DPI affects the sharpness of an image in print, PPI affects the sharpness of an image on a digital screen. This could be a camera, mobile, laptop, or television screen. The higher the pixels per inch, the sharper the image appears on the screen.

Having an image with a high PPI does not mean you will always print a high-quality image. It still depends on the DPI of your printer. You can also print a reasonably high-quality image with a low PPI if the image was shot well.

How does resolution in printing relate to resolution in 3D printing? Are they similar concepts?

What Does Resolution Mean In 3D Printing?

Resolution in 3D printing is a measure of the level of detail in a 3D print. In this sense, it is similar to the resolution in an image. While resolution in image printing is measured in dots per inch (DPI), resolution in 3D printing is measured in microns. In an image, printing resolution is given as a higher DPI value whereas in 3D printing it is given as fewer microns.

What Is Resolution For 3D Printing?

In image printing resolution is simply how many dots of ink are in a square inch of an image. In 3D printing, the concept is a little more complicated. The resolution here is a factor of two things. Firstly it is the horizontal resolution measured on the X and Y axis. Secondly, it is the vertical resolution measured on the Z axis.

The Horizontal Axis

The print head is the central piece in a 3D printer. This is where the layers of plastic in a 3D print are extruded from. The print head can move laterally in a horizontal side-to-side movement. This is the X and Y axis. The horizontal resolution is the smallest possible distance the print head can make along the X and Y axis on a given layer. 

The Vertical Axis

Vertical movement is the up-and-down movement of a print head along the z-axis. This determines the thickness or layer height of each layer. This is the vertical resolution. 

What Is High Resolution In 3D Printing?

High-resolution printing produces a model with more detail to it. This can be achieved by adjusting the vertical and horizontal resolution. The lower the value on each or one of these, the higher the resolution of the print. This creates a more detailed print.

How To Adjust Your Resolution

There are two ways to adjust your vertical and horizontal resolution. The vertical resolution is determined by the nozzle size, specifically the diameter of the nozzle. The smaller the diameter of the nozzle, the lower the value of your vertical resolution. This is your layer thickness.

The smaller your nozzle, the thinner your layers. Thinner layers mean higher resolution and better detail in your prints. 

The horizontal resolution, as we mentioned is the smallest X-to-Y distance on the horizontal plane. Reducing the value will increase the resolution and allow you to achieve a more detailed print. 

Is Higher Print Resolution Better?

Printing with a higher resolution has its pros and cons. The pros to printing in a higher resolution are first, it improves the appearance of a print by adding detail. Secondly, it can improve the strength of the print. The disadvantage is that it increases the time it takes to produce a print.

Prints with more detail come out smoother and have a better appearance when you print in high resolution. Prints can also turn out stronger when you adjust the layer height. Thinner layer heights can improve the bonding between layers due to a higher density of the material. This would improve the strength of a 3D print.

Does this mean you should always print in high resolution? Not necessarily. While printing in high resolution can give you a better surface appearance, this will likely come at the expense of print speed. Thinner layers mean more layers which in turn means you take longer to print. 

A higher resolution for parts that will not be visible for example, would be highly inefficient. 

What Does 200 Resolution Mean In 3D Printing?

3D print resolution can be set by adjusting the layer height. For example, setting the layer height to 200 microns would mean each layer would be 0.2 mm thick. Most 3D prints use a resolution of between 200 to 300 microns which produces more reliable results.

You could print thinner layers of say 100 microns but as most makers would tell you, this would add to your build time. Your print would be much smoother if that was what you were looking for. Some makers recommend printing at 150 as a compromise between better speed and improved print quality.


I am a very well experienced techie civil engineer who's extensively interested in 3D printing technology and even more captivated by the potential of 3D printing livable structures

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