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3D Printing Tolerances

For everyone in the additive manufacturing world, understanding 3D printing tolerances is not just beneficial—it’s essential.

Achieving and managing precise tolerances significantly impacts the final outcome of printed parts.

What exactly are 3D printing tolerances?

At their core, 3d printing tolerances represent the allowable limits of variation in a physical dimension. In the realm of 3D printing, where the digital world meets the tangible, tolerances are the bridge ensuring that your creation adheres to its intended design, size, and functionality.

Understanding Tolerances, Accuracy, and Precision in 3D Printing

Before going deeper, it’s crucial to distinguish between three terms often used interchangeably: accuracy, precision, and tolerance. Though related, they serve different roles in the manufacturing process.

These definitions are not just academic, as they directly impact your practical experiences with additive manufacturing, whether you’re creating intricate prototypes or functional parts.


Accuracy is the measure of how closely a printed part mirrors the intended design. Think of it as aiming for the bullseye in archery; the closer your arrow lands to the center, the more accurate your shot. Translating this to 3D printing, if you design a part with specific dimensions in a CAD program, accuracy reflects how faithfully the printed object matches these dimensions.

However, a printer’s specified XY resolution or layer thickness doesn’t automatically translate to accuracy in the printed part. These specifications describe the printer’s capabilities but don’t guarantee the part will reflect the digital design precisely. Understanding this distinction is crucial for setting realistic expectations about your printer’s performance.


Precision, on the other hand, relates to the printer’s ability to consistently reproduce results across multiple prints. Imagine printing the same part several times; precision measures how identical each print is to the others. In engineering terms, when assessing various materials for 3D printing, precision highlights the material’s capacity to accurately replicate complex shapes and details time after time.


Tolerance in 3D printing defines the permissible variations in dimensions that a part can have and still function as intended. It’s the leeway you allow in the printing process, knowing that no manufacturing method can achieve absolute perfection. For instance, a part designed for a mechanical assembly may require tighter tolerances compared to a non-functional decorative item. This differentiation is vital as it affects both the design process and the selection of the manufacturing technique.

Why Do Tolerances Matter in 3D Printing?

Tolerances are not just numerical values; they have practical implications for the design and functionality of 3D printed parts. Here’s why they are essential:

  • Functional Fit: Tolerances determine how well parts fit together. In assemblies, even minor deviations can lead to significant functional issues.
  • Aesthetics: The visual and tactile quality of a print can be influenced by tolerances, affecting the overall appearance and feel of the part.
  • Mechanical Performance: For parts subjected to mechanical stresses, tolerances are critical for ensuring durability and reliability.

What are Key Factors Influencing 3D Printing Tolerances?

Each element in the printing process, from the technology used to the material selected and post-processing, plays a significant role in determining the final quality and dimensions of the printed parts.

As we explore different factors, remember that the goal is to guide you through optimizing your printing process to achieve tighter tolerances and, ultimately, more precise and functional printed parts.

3D Printing Technology and Its Tolerances

Different 3D printing technologies bring distinct capabilities to the table, especially when it comes to tolerances.

Here’s a closer look at how various technologies stack up and what you can expect from each in terms of dimensional accuracy.

Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP)

SLA and DLP are renowned for their fine detail and precision. With the ability to achieve tolerances as tight as ± 0.2% and a lower limit of ± 0.1 mm, these technologies stand out for applications requiring intricate details. Modern SLA printers can reach dimensional tolerances of ± 100 µm (0.1 mm), making them ideal for prototypes and parts with complex geometries.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)

SLS and MJF offer tolerances of ± 0.3%, with a minimum of ± 0.3 mm. These technologies excel in producing durable parts with a balance of precision and strength. Ideal for functional components and working prototypes, they can accommodate a variety of materials, including polyamide and metals, expanding their applicability across different industries.

Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)

FFF technology offers tolerances of ± 0.5%, with a lower limit of ± 0.5 mm. This technology is highly versatile and cost-effective, making it suitable for educational settings, hobbyists, and initial prototyping where precision is less critical.

Digital Light Processing (DLP) Tolerances

Most DLP systems can achieve overall tolerances of ± 300 µm (0.3 mm). DLP, similar to SLA, is valued for its ability to print parts with smooth surfaces and fine details, making it suitable for dental applications, jewelry, and intricate models.

Material Jetting (MJ) Tolerances

MJ technology supports dimensional tolerances in the range of ± 300 µm (0.3 mm). Offering high-resolution prints with vibrant colors, MJ is ideal for realistic prototypes, consumer goods, and visual models where aesthetic detail is paramount.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

DMLS printers can produce parts ±0.2% (±0.1 – 0.2 mm for 100 mm). The production process involves a lot of heat, therefore shrinkage and warpage.

Projection Micro Stereolithography (PµSL) Tolerances

PµSL stands on the cutting edge of 3D printing technology with tolerances of ± 10 µm (0.01 mm) to ± 25 µm (0.025 mm), depending on the machine. This precision opens new possibilities in microfabrication, electronics, and medical devices, where minute details are crucial.

Material Considerations

The choice of material is paramount in 3D printing, as different materials respond differently under the same printing conditions, impacting the final product’s tolerances.

Materials with a high green modulus, for instance, allow resin 3D printers to produce very thin parts with high precision and reduced risk of failure. These materials exhibit less deformation before curing, enabling the creation of parts with finer details and tighter tolerances.

Conversely, materials extruded at higher temperatures, such as ABS, are more prone to warping compared to materials like PLA.

This warping occurs due to the material’s contraction as it cools down, potentially distorting the part and deviating from the intended dimensions.

Understanding the thermal properties and behavior of materials under different conditions is crucial for predicting and mitigating tolerance issues in 3D printed parts.


Post-processing plays a significant role in defining the final tolerances of 3D printed parts. Techniques such as post-curing and sanding can significantly impact the dimensions and surface quality of the prints.

For example, post-curing resin parts can lead to shrinkage, which needs to be considered during the design phase to compensate for these changes and maintain the desired tolerances.

FFF printed parts often require sanding to improve surface quality, which can also alter the part’s dimensions slightly. This alteration is due to the removal of material to eliminate support marks and layer lines, potentially affecting the part’s fit and function.

Another aspect is the support structures, during which removal can lead to material removal.

The extent of these changes depends on the amount of material removed and the precision of the sanding process. Properly managing these post-processing steps is crucial for ensuring that the final parts meet their design specifications and design tolerances.

Material Shrinkage

Material selection is foundational in 3D printing, with each material bringing its own set of properties that affect printing tolerances. Thermoplastics, resins, and metal powders, for example, exhibit varying degrees of shrinkage when cooled and solidified. This shrinkage is inherent to the 3D printing process, where materials are heated and then cool to form the final part.

The extent of shrinkage directly correlates with material properties, leading to potential warpage and dimensional inaccuracies in the finished product.

For instance, polymers may shrink unevenly when subjected to rapid temperature changes, causing warpage that alters the geometry of the part.

Similarly, parts with larger cross-sections or those with significant variations in wall thickness are more susceptible to deviations due to uneven cooling.

Moreover, the quality of the plastic material used and the precision of printer settings can significantly impact the accuracy of the printed dimensions.

High-quality materials and meticulously calibrated printer settings are imperative for reducing shrinkage-related issues and achieving closer tolerances.

Layer Thickness

Layer thickness, also known as resolution, is another critical factor that impacts the dimensional accuracy of 3D printed parts, particularly in the Z-direction. This effect is pronounced in technologies such as FFF and SLA, where the adherence of the part to the build platform is crucial.

The initial layers of a print are particularly vulnerable to issues related to layer thickness. The extrusion rates for these layers are often increased to ensure better adhesion to the build platform, which can inadvertently lead to a thicker initial layer.

This deviation results in dimensions that may exceed the intended design specifications, especially at the base of the part.

Adjusting the layer thickness settings and carefully planning the layout of the print can mitigate these issues.

By optimizing the printing parameters for each specific material and technology, one can significantly enhance the dimensional accuracy and overall quality of the printed parts.

Minimum Feature Size

The minimum feature size that a 3D printer can achieve is determined by several factors, including the nozzle diameter and layer thickness for FFF printers, and the laser beam diameter or light projection size in technologies like MJF, SLS, DMLS, and SLA.

The nozzle diameter primarily influences the detail level that can be achieved on the horizontal plane, directly affecting the printer’s ability to produce finely detailed features on the top side of the printed object.

Conversely, the layer thickness plays a significant role in defining the level of detail on vertical and slanted surfaces.

A smaller nozzle diameter or laser beam width allows for higher detail in the printed parts, but it also necessitates careful consideration of material properties and printing parameters to avoid inaccuracies due to material behavior or layer adhesion issues.

Materials used in powder-based technologies may exhibit changes in their physical properties upon multiple uses, affecting the predictability of the minimum feature size.

The irregular shape of reused powder can lead to deviations in the dimensions of printed parts, making it a critical factor to consider for achieving tight tolerances.

Build Size

The maximum build size of a printer delineates the largest dimension of a part that can be manufactured. Larger parts are more susceptible to shrinkage and warpage due to the prolonged time required for curing or cooling.

This uneven cooling can significantly impact the part’s accuracy, leading to deviations from the intended dimensions.

Support structures, which are essential for printing complex geometries, can also influence the surface quality and dimensional accuracy of the larger printed parts.

The removal of these supports must be carefully managed to maintain the integrity and tolerances of the final product.

Machine Calibration and Ecosystem

The precision of 3D printed parts is not solely dependent on the printer’s hardware. The entire printing ecosystem, including software for print preparation, the printing technology itself, and the quality and calibration of the printer and its components, plays a vital role.

Regular maintenance and calibration of the printing equipment ensure consistent print quality and accuracy.

The quality of the materials used, along with the application of appropriate post-processing techniques, also contributes to the final tolerances achievable.

An integrated approach, where the printer, materials, and processing methods are considered holistically, tends to yield more reliable and accurate results.

Designing for 3D Printing Tolerances

Designing with tolerances in mind is paramount for the success of the final product. Understanding the limitations and capabilities of 3D printing technology allows for the creation of designs that not only meet aesthetic requirements but also function as intended.

Let’s get into the best practices for designing to accommodate 3D printing tolerances and the application of engineering fits to ensure part compatibility and functionality.

Best Practices in Design to Accommodate Tolerances

When designing for 3D printing, several considerations must be taken into account to ensure that the final product adheres to the desired tolerances:

  • Account for Material Shrinkage: Different materials exhibit varying degrees of shrinkage. Design adjustments should be made to compensate for this shrinkage, especially when working with materials prone to significant dimensional changes.
  • Consider the Printing Orientation: Orientation affects the appearance of layers and can impact the strength and surface finish of the printed part. Strategic orientation can also minimize support usage, reducing post-processing work.
  • Use Adequate Wall Thickness: Ensuring that walls are thick enough to be printed effectively can prevent issues with structural integrity and appearance. However, excessively thick walls may lead to material wastage and increased print times.
  • Incorporate Support Strategies: Designing parts with self-supporting angles where possible reduces the need for additional support structures, which can leave marks and require further post-processing.
  • Allow for Clearance in Assemblies: When designing parts intended to fit together, incorporate sufficient clearance to account for printing inaccuracies. This is crucial for moving parts or assemblies to function smoothly without excessive post-processing.
  • Implement Tolerance Tests: Including small tolerance test features in your design can help you understand how closely the printed parts will match the intended dimensions and where adjustments may be needed.

Understanding and Applying Engineering Fits

Engineering fits are essential for designing parts that interact or fit together, such as gears, enclosures, or assembly components. These fits determine the type of tolerance that will be applied to parts, dictating how tightly they will join together.

Clearance Fit

A clearance fit ensures that there is always a space between the joining parts, allowing for free movement without interference. In 3D printing, designing for clearance fit involves:

  • Calculating Appropriate Clearance: The clearance gap should be sufficiently large to account for the potential inaccuracies inherent in the printing process while small enough to fulfill the part’s functional requirements.
  • Material and Process Consideration: The chosen material and printing technology can influence the minimum achievable clearance. It is vital to understand these factors’ limitations to apply clearance fits effectively.

Transition Fit

A transition fit occurs when two parts can sometimes have a clearance fit and other times have an interference fit.

This type of fit is essential for applications where a precise fit is needed but not to the degree of a fixed interference. It provides a balance, allowing for slight variations in tolerances that account for the inconsistencies inherent in 3D printing processes.

Transition fits are ideal for components that require precise alignment without the need for forceful assembly or loose fits.

Interference Fit

An interference fit, also known as a press fit or force fit, is designed so that the parts are slightly larger than the opening they are meant to fit into.

This requires the application of force to assemble, resulting in a very tight fit. Achieving an interference fit requires high precision in printing tolerances, as even minor deviations can prevent the parts from fitting together as intended.

This fit is used in applications where the parts must not detach under load or stress, such as gears on a shaft.

Press Fit

Closely related to the interference fit, the press fit is a specific type of interference fit where parts are pressed together with a machine or a hammer. This fit is often used for parts that must be assembled without the need for adhesives or fasteners. Achieving a successful press fit in 3D printed parts demands a deep understanding of material properties and shrinkage, as well as precise control over printing parameters to ensure the desired interference levels are met.

Tight Fit

A tight fit is designed to achieve a close assembly with minimal clearance between parts. It’s less restrictive than an interference fit but tighter than a sliding or running fit.

In 3D printing, designing for a tight fit involves careful consideration of the end-use requirements and the printing technology used, as variations in layer height and printing speed can affect the final dimensions and fit of the printed parts.

Normal Fit

The normal fit strikes a balance between clearance and interference, offering a moderate level of precision suitable for a wide range of applications. It allows for easy assembly without significant force and provides sufficient hold for many functional uses.

A normal fit can accommodate slight variations in printing accuracy, making it a versatile choice for parts that require a good fit with some allowance for tolerance differences.

Loose Fit

A loose fit is characterized by significant clearance between parts, allowing for easy assembly and disassembly. This type of fit is useful in applications where parts need to move freely or when alignment is not critical. When designing for a loose fit in 3D printing, it is essential to account for the minimum feature size and the potential for material warpage to ensure the parts function as intended without excessive looseness or unintended detachment.

How to Test and Measure Tolerances in 3D Printed Parts?

Testing and measuring tolerances in 3D printed parts involve a combination of methods and tools designed to evaluate dimensional accuracy, surface finish, and the overall quality of the printed objects.

By adopting a systematic approach to testing, you can significantly improve the reliability and performance of your 3D printing processes.

Testing Tolerances

To effectively test your 3D printer’s tolerances, it’s crucial to start with a well-calibrated printer. Calibration ensures that your printer operates under optimal conditions, laying the foundation for accurate and repeatable prints.

Here are steps and considerations for testing tolerances in 3D printed parts:

  • Print Calibration Models: Calibration cubes or more complex models like the calibration cat are excellent for testing. These models are designed to highlight inaccuracies in dimensions and provide a comprehensive view of your printer’s performance across different axes.
  • Use Precise Measuring Tools: Digital calipers are indispensable for measuring the dimensions of your calibration prints. For each axis (X, Y, and Z), take at least three measurements at identical locations on each of the models to ensure consistency.
  • Record and Analyze Measurements: Document the measurements, noting any variations across different prints. The difference between the largest and smallest measurements in each direction offers insight into the printer’s consistency and the tolerances you can expect.
  • Adjust for Clearances: Based on your findings, adjust the design clearances for your projects. This adjustment is particularly important when designing parts that fit together or require specific tolerances to function properly.
  • Consider Material and Printer State: Be aware that the tolerances you measure are influenced by the material used and the current condition of your printer. Regular maintenance, recalibration, and material selection are critical for maintaining optimal printing tolerances.

Testing Clearances

Clearance testing in 3D printed parts is crucial for ensuring components fit together perfectly, especially in assemblies requiring precise movement or alignment. Here’s how you can approach this:

  • Design Test Pieces: Create models designed to test various clearance gaps between parts. This can range from 0.1mm to 1mm in increments to identify what works best for your specific printer and material.
  • Print and Assemble: Print your test models using the same settings you would for your final project. Attempt to assemble them, noting which clearances allow for a smooth fit without forcing the parts together.
  • Use Standardized Models: Consider using standardized models available in the 3D printing community, which are designed to test clearances and fitment directly.
  • Record and Adjust: Document the results and adjust your designs accordingly. If a 0.2mm clearance provides a perfect fit for a particular assembly, use that as a baseline for similar designs.

What are Software Tips for Improved Accuracy and Better Tolerances?

Software plays a critical role in translating your designs into tangible 3D printed objects with high accuracy. Optimizing software settings is key to minimizing errors and achieving better tolerances.

  • Optimize Print Speed and Acceleration: Slower print speeds and lower acceleration settings can greatly improve print quality. High speeds may cause vibrations and lead to inaccuracies in the printed parts.
  • Refine Layer Height: Smaller layer heights can lead to smoother surfaces and more detailed prints, contributing to better overall tolerance. However, they will increase the print time, so find a balance that suits your project requirements.
  • Implement Active Cooling: For materials that benefit from it, active cooling can reduce warping and shrinkage, leading to more accurate dimensions. Adjust the fan speed to optimize the cooling effect without introducing thermal shock to the parts.
  • Calibrate Your Printer Regularly: Regular calibration of your printer ensures that it operates within its optimal parameters. This includes calibrating the extruder, ensuring the build plate is level, and verifying that all movements are accurate and consistent.
  • Use High-Quality Slicing Software: Choose slicing software that offers advanced features for better control over print settings. Look for options that allow for adjustments to infill, supports, and layer bonding settings to match your accuracy needs.

Advanced Topics in 3D Printing Tolerances

Advanced topics such as microscale accuracy and managing 3D printing tolerances in both large scale and small batch manufacturing present unique challenges and opportunities for innovation within the field of additive manufacturing.

Microscale Accuracy and Precision

Achieving microscale accuracy and precision in 3D printing pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with additive manufacturing technology. This level of detail is critical in industries such as electronics, microfluidics, and medical devices, where even the slightest deviation can have significant implications. Strategies for enhancing microscale precision include:

  • Utilizing High-Resolution Printing Technologies: Techniques like PolyJet, DLP, and two-photon polymerization offer the resolution needed for microscale features.
  • Material Selection: Choosing materials with suitable properties for the desired resolution and post-processing compatibility is crucial.
  • Environmental Control: Maintaining stable environmental conditions to prevent fluctuations that could affect the printing process.

Tolerances in Large Scale and Small Batch Manufacturing

Managing tolerances in large-scale projects and small batch manufacturing involves a comprehensive understanding of how various factors affect the final product. Strategies to ensure consistency and quality across all prints include:

  • Standardizing Material Handling: Consistent material properties are vital. This involves managing material storage, handling, and preparation procedures to maintain quality.
  • Optimizing Printer Calibration: Regular calibration of printing equipment ensures that each part is produced with consistent quality, regardless of the production volume.
  • Batch Testing: Implementing quality control measures, such as batch testing, helps identify and correct tolerance issues early in the manufacturing process.


3D printing tolerances influence everything from the design phase to the final application of printed parts.

Whether achieving microscale precision for intricate components or managing tolerances across large-scale production runs, the strategies employed can significantly impact the quality and functionality of the final products.

By thoroughly understanding these advanced topics, manufacturers and designers can push the limits of 3D printing technology, creating parts that meet or exceed traditional manufacturing methods in precision and efficiency.