Do I need to add supports?

3D printing can help you achieve pretty impressive models. But getting your part printed out as neat as it appears on your design may involve in-between steps. 3D printing supports, for instance, is one of the first things you may have to take into account based on the additive manufacturing technology you use and the complexity of your design. Making adapted 3D printing supports brings about a few doubts, such as when they are needed, how to choose from the different types of supports, how to remove them, and of course, the downsides of using supports. In this article, we will tackle these questions and provide you with a few tips to help you use supports efficiently. 

Credit: Hackaday, When does moving to resin 3D printing make sense?

Printing Supports: When to use them?

To settle that question, you first need to know what 3D printing technology you will use. If you haven’t made up your mind yet, note that the way 3D printers function raises different technical constraints.

FDM printers, for instance, function by extruding filament layers successively. In other words, if your part includes an overhang that isn’t maintained by any surface underneath, your 3D print is going to fail. This type of issue is one of the main reasons why supports are handy for FDM prints. Resin 3D printing technologies can also lead you to use this 3D printing support to create your parts.

If you are using Selective Laser Sintering or Jet Fusion technologies, on the other hand, the powder your part is going to be printed out of will surround the print and act as a support. In other words, you will never have to bother with support if you go for SLS or Jet Fusion technologies. If you are looking into more advanced technologies, the supports that may be used in processes such as metal printing will generally not affect the print quality.

The complexity of your part is the second criterion that will determine whether or not it will need supports. First, if your design contains overhangs, you have to figure out their tilt. If your overhangs don’t tilt more than 45°, most FDM printers will be able to print them correctly. On the other hand, if angles exceed this value, you might need support, or your overhangs will likely sag.

You might also want to consider using 3D printing supports if a part of your design bridges a gap between two elements. If the length of your bridge doesn’t exceed 5mm, you won’t need any support structure to fill the void.


What are the different types of 3D printing supports?

The 3D printing technology you have chosen will orient you towards different support types. For FDM printers, for instance, the lattice and tree types are the most commonly used supports.

The first type can be used to build columns and hold parts steady, which is effective with steep overhangs. These lattice structures are the most widespread thanks to how fast they can be generated and their compatibility with most 3D prints. ​

Credit: Designer Hacks, How to Generate Supports for 3D Printing, YouTube

Tree type supports start with trunks and evolve in thin branches as they reach the model, which appears to be useful if one needs to selectively support parts. You might consider using such types of support if your design contains many overhangs but aren’t too vertical.

Removing your 3D Printing supports

We have just seen that lattice, tree-type, and dissolvable supports have different properties. On top of that, their ease of removal isn’t equal. Keep in mind that the more your model is in contact with supports, the more likely their removal may result in partial marks or breaks. Lattice structures are for instance supposed to support surfaces completely, which makes them hard to remove without impacting the surface quality. 

If used wisely to only support critical areas of your parts, tree-type supports will translate to fewer contacts with your print and make it easier to remove them.

Once the printing process is over, removing the supports is your next step. Using pliers is a good choice if you want to grab, twist, and pull your supports off your part. If the support you want to take off is accessible and big enough, you can gently start with your fingers. Depending on how much the visual aspect of your part is essential to you and how many marks have been left by your supports, you might need to sand the areas in contact with the supports to get a better surface finish.


The downsides of using 3D printing supports

Using supports implies quite a few limitations, and removing them is, as we have seen, definitely part of the list. Another overt drawback of using supports is the increase in lead time.

Depending on the type of support you want to use, size, and complexity, printing supports themselves will add to your total production time. Tree-shape supports can, in that sense, be quite demanding for your printer. Also, the post-processing steps we have mentioned beforehand need to be considered here since removing the supports of your parts and cleaning them can turn tedious. 

The main downside that naturally comes next is the costs of using supports, as the amount of material needed can increase. If steep overhangs account for a big part of your design and you need to use lattice structures to support them, half of your material can fall into the creation of your supports. 

Fortunately, there are multiple ways one can rely on to mitigate the impacts your supports might have on your design and your wallet. 

We have covered all the key points you need to know about when it comes to 3D printing using supports or not. Another way you can get rid of support issues is to switch to a printing technology that doesn’t need any. Selective Laser Sintering 3D printers could, in that way, help you achieve high geometry 3D prints without dealing with the downsides of 3D printing supports. You can try Sculpteo’s online 3D printing service if you want to have access to SLS printers, and you can also contact us if you have any questions about your 3D printing needs.