There are a lot of moving parts involved in 3D printing. While you have the best 3D printer that’s cool, did you know that specific software is also needed to make a 3D model ready to print? These programs are called slicers and are essential to making your 3D printer, well, 3D print.
What is a 3D Printing Slicer?
A 3D printer slicer is a key part of the printing process. See, a slicer is a piece of software for your PC or Mac that can convert a 3D model file—usually with a .STL, .3MF, or .OBJ file extension—into a file that can be used by your 3D printer. The printer is essentially a complex graphics machine that moves to certain coordinates given to it by the slicer in the programming language’s G-code. This is why slicing software is so important.
The slicer does exactly what it sounds like. It slices a 3D model into small “sliced” layers that are printed individually but stacked on top of each other. The slicer is also responsible for:
- How hot should the printer be
- How fast should the printer run
- Where to place the model supports
- How much padding is needed for the model
- Where the printhead should be at any given second
- How much material to extrude in each layer
- And many other settings that can be changed
Basically, everything that makes your printer useful is communicated to it by the slicer, so it’s the most important piece of software you can own.
Now that we know what a slicer does, we can talk about which ones are the best to use. The best slicers will be determined by what 3d printer do you have and what you use it for. Resin printers often require different slicers than FDM machines, so this article will tell you which is which.
The best slicer for 3D printing
For the ultimate slicing experience for FDM printers, you can’t do better than the PrusaSlicer. Although it is made by a 3D printer manufacturer, it is not owned by Prusa printers and has a huge range of printers to choose from. If your printer is not listed, there is a way to create a custom setting for each 3D printer.
While there are many excellent features of the Prusaslicer, the standout feature is the support system. PrusaSlicer has draw supports that allow you to draw on the model where you want the supports to be and they will only generate at those locations. This gives very fine control over where to support your model so it doesn’t get damaged when printing.
This slicer also supports resin printers, but currently only Prusa’s own machines. However, it does allow you to use its resin model features, then export the edited model (complete with props) to be used in a different slicer if needed.
PrusaSlicer is well-maintained, feature-rich, and always improving in new and interesting ways. This is the best slicer right now and should be in your rotation.
Cura has been the slicer of choice for millions of people for almost a decade now. It is constantly updated and improved not only by UltiMaker, who created it, but also by hundreds of users who actively contribute to the open source base. It is also used by many 3D printing manufacturers as the basis for their branded slicers that often come with their 3D printers.
While the Cura’s support system is a little crunchier than the PrusaSlicer’s, it does have tree supports. These organic looking props are excellent for supporting a model while actively missing as much of the physical object as possible. They are also very thin and use little material even when they wrap around the model. I still prefer being able to paint on PrusaSlicer supports, but tree supports are a close second.
Cura also has an excellent marketplace for community-made add-ons, as well as integrations into some well-known CAD programs such as Autodesk Inventor. It’s really a toss-up between PrusaSlicer and Cura as to which is the best free slicer, so go with your gut.
Chitubox has been my go-to slicer for resin printing while using a resin 3D printer. While there are many similarities between resin and FDM slicers, the biggest difference is the ability to carve your models and the way supports are designed and generated. Resin prints are hung upside down, so the support structures must be placed differently.
Using Chitubox, you can easily adjust the settings of each model as well as the specific resin you are using to account for speed and exposure time. It has a huge range of printers to choose from as Chitu also makes motherboards for several manufacturers.
Although there is both a paid and a free version, the free version is usually sufficient for home users. Also be careful when buying a new resin printer, as sometimes you can get free time with the pro version as part of a sale.
Almost all slicers are software that must be downloaded to your PC or Mac. Kiri:Moto is browser-based, making it platform independent and able to run on something as simple as a Chromebook. This allows you to use lower-end laptops and spend the money saved on more 3D printers.
Kiri:Moto is also one of the few slicers that can handle the Creality CR-30 conveyor belt printer with ease. In fact, in the early days of this printer, the guy who makes Kiri:Moto was an integral part of the team that pushed conveyor belt cutting machines forward.
It’s a simple slicer with a few powerful settings that’s better than others because it’s accessible from anywhere, on almost anything. It even works on my android phone and that’s unique.
Lychee has long been a favorite of resin printing fans for good reason. Not only does it do everything the Chitubox can, but it also has a smart setup that will find the best orientation for your print to reduce the number of supports needed. It’s a versatile resin cutting tool, and its latest update puts it firmly in the big leagues.
Lychee has just expanded its slicer to include FDM printers as well as resin. So now you can use a single slicer for almost any printer imaginable. There are profiles for every name in the 3D printing game, including the AnkerMake M5, a printer so new it’s still only available by pre-order.
Some of Lychee’s more powerful tools are hidden behind a paywall that can cost up to $100 a year, but if you’re using your 3D printer to make money, that expense isn’t unreasonable. One of the new tools in the Pro version allows you to cut your models in specific ways without cutting all the way through, something that really hasn’t been done before. That’s an impressive feat and well worth the annual fee.
In 2013, when Simplify3D was released, it was an amazing leap forward for 3D printing. As a slicer, it surpassed anything available at the time, with an intuitive interface and some of the best support in the business. I started using it in 2017 and while it was still pretty good, it barely got any updates and other slicers started to catch up. It was still good at maintenance and produced great quality prints, but many new machines were not available and maintenance was gone.
That all changed in December 2022 when Simplify3D was finally updated to version 5.0. There are lots of new features and a whole host of new printers are supported, so it might be time for a comeback. The company may have a way to go to win hearts back, but from what I’ve seen, the software looks good.
If you’ve ever owned Simplify3D, you can get version 5.0 for $60, but if you want to buy it new, it’ll cost you $199. That’s a lot to ask for a slicer, but if the chatter about 5.0 is correct, it might be worth it.
3D Printing Slicer FAQ
Can I use any slicer with any 3D printer?
Although many cutting machines work with different machines, not all of them are compatible. It would be incredibly difficult to write a universal slicer for every existing 3D printer. That being said, most slicers will allow you to manually add settings for a custom machine. So as long as the slicer is available for the type of printer you are using (like FDM or resin) you should be able to use it.
Some slicers like the PrusaSlicer and Lychee will work with both resin and FDM printers, so if you’re working with more than one printer in each medium, they may be the best choice.
Why do you focus so much on maintenance?
When I tested all the slicers available, I found that the way they handled the supports had the biggest impact on print quality. Most slicers have much the same abilities, such as fill patterns and speed control, but each has a slightly different way of creating supports.
Props are the bane of any 3D maker’s life, so finding a slicer that can make them effortlessly is key.
Should I use the slicer that came with my 3D printer?
3D printers often come with their own branded slicer and are most often based on the open source Cura platform. If you’ve bought a printer from Elegoo, Creality, Anycubic or Lulzbot, you’ll have seen that the branded slicer is based on Cura with some minor changes.
The problem with using a branded version of a slicer is that they tend to be slow to update. Cura is often updated extremely quickly and most 3D printing companies are not interested in spending money to update along with it.
Although I always use the brand version when testing products, my personal prints are usually done on a PrusaSlicer or Cura. I like cutting edge and that’s what they deliver.