Capable of churning out a variety of parts and products directly from computer files, 3D printers are replacing traditional manufacturing techniques like injection molding, casting milling and lathing, allowing the quick creation of everything from prototype engine parts to custom phone cases.
Industrial 3D printers can produce a dazzling array of items. They are used every day to make architectural models, robotics, jewelry and eyewear. These industrial-strength printers – some the size of refrigerators – can create compound curves and sharp edges with precision, in the exact dimensions required.
With a CAD design and a 3D printer, you can make just about anything. The process looks something like this: A designer creates a 3D model with a sophisticated CAD program. The model is then turned into machine instructions for creating the object one ultra-thin layer at a time. The printer creates it and final part emerges, often ready for use.
By moving away from traditional factory processes, 3D printers have the power to not only transform entire industries but the way we think about how we build our world. One thing is certain: 3D printing is here to stay.
The price tags on 3D printers cover a lot of territory, from small desktop extrusion systems that might cost only $1,000, all the way to room-sized behemoths capable of replacing a machine shop that might go for more than a million dollars. In between is a world of mid-sized printers that can create a wide variety of parts and objects.
Getting the printer is just the start: A 3D printer needs the raw materials to transform designs into the final product. Some of the simpler materials, like polylactic acid, are inexpensive and versatile. More exotic materials are more expensive, but much of the unused leftovers can be recycled for the next print run. On the other hand, materials, like titanium or polyvinyl alcohol, can get very pricey.
Industry Solutions: Why Get a 3D Printer?
Using a 3D printer can help a business in several ways. To start, the machine can manufacture parts and products of exceptional accuracy. Basically, if you can see it on the screen, a 3D printer can make it.
3D printing ignores the time-honored techniques of casting, molding, milling and finishing the item using subtractive technologies that get to a final shape by taking material away. By contrast, a 3D printer creates the object directly from a CAD file with additive manufacturing technologies where the piece is built up a layer at a time.
Because it skips the molding or casting process, 3D printing can also create huge shortcuts to producing all manner of industrial prototypes and products today. This allows you to shave valuable months off a product's development cycle, and try out different design iterations on a daily, even hourly, basis, speeding up the evolutionary nature of the design and manufacturing process.
The payoff can be speed, efficiency and the power to change the way things are made. Automaker BMW found this out when it started making the assembly line tools used to fit bumpers onto its cars with an extrusion printer, rather than machine aluminum. The part went from taking more than two weeks and $420 to make, to 26 hours at $176. That's a 92 percent reduction in time and a 58 percent drop in price.
This 3D printing technique is used to make things out of plastic, but the technology is quickly moving into new materials, like metals and composites based on wood and carbon fiber. If you think of 3D printing as the equivalent of a laser printer for real-world items – not just paper documents – you get an idea of its potential.
3D printing has the power to change the entire industrial landscape because you don't need to make or buy special molds or tools. That way, you can still make a profit from production runs as small as a single unit. A 3D printer-based factory floor can customize products to the customer's needs – like a lock for a non-standard door thickness – all without having to get new machinery or tooling.
State of the Industry
The 3D printer market is a vibrant one that grew by 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, the latest period that figures are available for. Total machine sales were more than $1.5 billion for the first time, according to a survey done by the London-based market analysis firm Context.
Dig a little deeper and the numbers show that the industry is turning more commercial and industrial. While personal hobby-oriented systems (defined as models costing $2,500 or less) grew by only 10 percent over 2016, industrial-level devices (costing $100,000 or more) grew by 39 percent.
The “Big Five” of the commercial 3D printer market are Stratasys, EOS, GE Additive, 3D Systems and HP (statistics below). Smaller firms like Carbon, SLM Solutions, FormLabs and Rize are potential up-and-comers with a specialty niche or new take on the technology and business.
Top Five 3D Printer Manufacturers
Based on sales figures from the first quarter of 2018, latest available, the “Big Five” 3D printer makers control nearly two-thirds of the market.
- Stratasys: 20 percent
- EOS: 12 percent
- GE Additive: 10 percent
- 3D Systems: 10 percent
- HP: 8 percent
Printer Types and Technologies
Rather than a single technology, there's a range of techniques that different 3D printers use. All are based on the concept of additive manufacturing rather than traditional subtractive technology in that the item is built up a layer at a time. As a result, additive manufacturing (and 3D printing) can be quicker, more flexible and more efficient than old-school manufacturing.
The most popular 3D printer technologies boil down to five main techniques:
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is the simplest technique, and is used by extrusion machines. They work by softening a plastic filament and extrude it while precisely moving the extruder back and forth to build the item layer by layer. Polylactic acid (PLA) and Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) are the most popular FDM materials, but some contours and curves can be roughly formed, and the final product can lack the internal strength required. The process is for rapid prototyping of all sorts of parts and things like customized phone cases.
- Binder Jetting starts out with a powdered base material that is precisely sprayed with a curing agent that selectively hardens it into its final shape. Binder Jetting can create not only metallic objects – like stainless steel and bronze – but silica as well, for making sand casting molds. It can create jewelry, bearings and small engine parts.
- Vat Polymerization uses stereolithography to solidify a liquid polymer resin by curing it with a beam of ultraviolet light. The light source, often a laser, is precisely aimed with steerable mirrors to where the liquid needs to be hardened into its final shape. The output is smooth with good details, making it a good technique for airplane parts and models for complex surgery.
- Powder Bed Fusion starts with a powdered raw material that is selectively fused into a solid from a laser's heat. The beam moves back and forth selectively hardening areas that need to be built up. It can be used with nylons and metals, like titanium, steel and copper for complicated items like pump housings, gears and even footwear.
- Directed Energy Deposition focuses a high-energy laser or plasma arc to fuse metals together, building the object by solidifying the metallic raw material a layer at a time. The output is solid, strong and durable, but is expensive and restricted to metal items, such as jet engine parts.
What to Look for in a 3D Printer
When getting a 3D printer for your company, you need to consider numerous factors, from its materials, size and consumables to its speed, software and how quickly it can churn out parts. After all, it can be a big investment for a single purpose machine. Here are the criteria that lead to making a best pick for your small business.
Industrial 3D Printer Features
Look for a range of features that can help maximize the printer's time being used and speed set up of new print runs. Remember, the more the 3D printer is used, the less it costs per item to make.
- Connections: While it's convenient to directly link the printer to a workstation via a USB cable or transfer the files via a flash drive, using the company's wired or Wi-Fi network is more efficient.
- Raw material control: Some printers make you pour the material into a hopper, while others package it in a cartridge for quick, clean changes.
- Color: The raw materials for some 3D printers are available in a variety of colors, including neon shades and some that glow in the dark.
- Touch-screen control: Look for printers that have a touch screen for setup, configuration and for customizing the building process.
- Stands: The smaller 3D printers can sit on a table or shelf, but they often have cabinets or stands available that can store maintenance products and the raw materials you'll need.
- Build plate: Everything a 3D printer builds happens on a secure and level stage. It's a good idea to buy several so as soon as the build is done, it can be pulled out and the next job started with an alternate tray.
- Camera: The newest 3D printers have web cams built-in to remotely watch its progress from the other side of the factory or globe.
- Extruders: This is the actual printing nozzle. You'll want more than one if you plan to print in different colors and/or use multiple materials.
Letting the material fit the use is the best way to pick the one you'll be using. After all, you wouldn't want a brittle plastic used for a race car's engine cam, nor would you spend a fortune to make a titanium gear for a food mixer.
By far, plastics – nylon, polyactic acid (PLA) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) – are the most popular materials for 3D printing and are generally inexpensive. Many 3D printer makers have enhanced these basic materials to be stronger. In fact, there are PLA materials that are as strong as ABS.
Many of the newer printers can work with ceramics and metals, including steel, bronze and gold. Some can even use formerly exotic materials, like carbon fiber and Kevlar.
After you've chosen the technology and the material, you'll need to select a size. Be careful, because as the 3D printing machinery grows, it can get exponentially more expensive. For instance, a small and simple extrusion machine capable of making things that are at most five inches long might cost about $1,000. If you want to double that to 10 inches, the cost would jump to between $7,000 and $20,000. How about items that are up to five feet long? It'll cost you roughly $250,000.
At the truly high-end of the industry are multi-million-dollar machines that use concrete as a starting material and can build structural walls for a variety of buildings. These are mostly experimental, but one in Russia can build an entire house in a day (although it probably takes at least that much time to set it up).
You'll also want to keep printer assembly in mind. Some can have an Ikea-like, build-it-yourself quality, so you'll want to be sure you have the manpower and know-how to set up a bigger machine.
While 3D printers vary, each device is capable of a specified resolution. This roughly corresponds with the smallest feature that can reliably be made by the material and machine. A simple extrusion printer might have a resolution of about 100 to 150 microns, which is fine for most uses: A micron is one-millionth of a meter, 0.001mm or about 0.00004-inch.
Need more exacting designs? The resolution can rise to 75 or 50 microns, or roughly the thickness of a human hair. Some stereo-lithography-based printers can build details as small as 16 microns – slightly larger than a grain of pollen.
Finally, there's a new generation of 3D printers that can create items that go as low as a micron or 1/2,000th of the width of a human hair. Today, these are specialty machines that might be used for precise impeller blades or micro-optics, but they may soon be used to make prosthetic devices and microscopic machinery.
Whether it's a prototype light switch or a jet part, every 3D model starts at the screen of a Computer Aided Design (CAD) workstation. Once it's ready, you'll need to use the printer's software to digitally slice it into the layers that the machine will build.
Generally, the final pre-build step is a preview with all the parameters listed. If all looks good, the program adds supports, renders large solid regions as honeycomb structures that are lighter and use less material. With the machine's build file ready, all you do is press the Start button.
Although you can use the included software to prep the file, there are alternatives. In addition to cloud-based apps that work via a web browser, there are several generic 3D printer preparation apps programs, such as Materialise, Slicr and Octoprint. A single program can work with several 3D printers.
Performance and Speed
When it comes to 3D printing, speed is important but not crucial. A faster printer will obviously let you move on to another item if it's done quickly. On the other hand, a slow but large printer lets you create several items on a single stage at once.
While an industrial stereo-lithographic system might push 15 mm of building per second, an extruder might be closer to 100 or 150 mm/sec. This translates into it taking an hour with the former, or a few minutes with the latter. The typical three-inch wide gear might be producible in about 10 minutes, while a complex model of a patient's heart prior to surgery might require a full day or more.
Resources, Contracts and Customer Service
Because 3D printers are expensive and potentially finnicky machines, there is an art to getting them to do your bidding. The bigger manufacturers have a slew of online resources that go beyond simple manuals and set up instructions. The best companies have training videos and white papers on how to best utilize the machinery and troubleshooting help.
On the downside, even market leaders don't provide 24/7 support. Most limit it to business hours in the U.S., which can be bad for companies that need to run at night or those in far-away time zones.
They typically include a one-year warranty and support, although some limit this to a scant six months. This starts with assistance setting it up and using the printer but extends to documentation and firmware updates.
It's a good idea to extend coverage with a service contract that covers repairs and support. It just might keep a major failure from shutting your company down.
Refurbished vs. Leasing vs. Third-Party Services: Alternatives to Buying a New 3D Printer
If all this sounds good for your company, but it can't afford the capital outlay required, there are alternatives that can reduce the upfront money required. Each involves a compromise, however.
There are companies that refurbish older 3D printers. Like getting a used car, it might cut the purchase price in half, but you need to be careful. It's always a good idea to try it out and have an expert look the system over and make a few models before buying a used printer.
Leased Printing Systems
Many companies, as well as third-party finance companies, will lease you a 3D printing system you might not otherwise have been able to afford. There's a big "gotcha," though: The initial cash outlay is much lower, but you'll actually be paying for the entire printer over three to four years – and you don't get to keep it. This approach is more for the company that needs a printer for a limited time or wants to experiment with 3D printer on the cheap. On the upside, you can avoid technological obsolesce by going this route.
If you want to lease a 3D printing system, look for a full package that includes more than just the machine. You'll need startup materials, support materials and cleaning agents.
Third-Party Printing Services
You may be able to get the benefits of 3D printing without the expense and hassles of owning or leasing one at all. There are hundreds of 3D services that will create your part or product from scratch and ship it to you.
After designing the part and specifying what type of material or printer should be used, the file is uploaded to the service bureau's servers. They take it and create the needed production file for their specific hardware and create your item. They then overnight it to you.
Like a traditional print shop, service bureaus, such as Sculpteo, Shapeways, Materialise and Protolabs, typically have the newest machines and can be more efficient than in-house 3D printing. On the other hand, they need to make a profit, and the extra day or two required goes against the grain of a rapid prototyping and production scheme.
Deciding whether to do it yourself or farm it out involves a complex calculus. The variables, many of which are only a guess, include the cost of the machinery and raw materials, labor costs, complexity of the items and how quickly you need them.
Any way you use these exciting new technologies, one thing is certain: 3D printing is shifting and improving the landscape of manufacturing in the 21st century. The only question that remains is which 3D printer is best for your company's needs.
Common Industrial 3D Printer Questions & Answers
The professional print companies I have used, when working for a design team for a corporation, have always been local. It's very important to be able to visit the facility, deal with the employees face to face, and of course their equipment. Being able to physically show your printer what you want as a finished product is key. I spent a lot of time creating comps on our Xerox machines and then driving to the shop to show the printers what I want. As a designer, it's really important to be able...
Hi Alice, Printing labels is trivial in many programming languages, including Java and C which would run on a Mac. There are however a number of variables to be taken into consideration, pertaining to the layout, data source and interface to the printer's driver. I see that Etsy has an option, that you may already be aware of, for printing USPS labels purchased from them at : https://www.etsy.com/help/article/3148 By the way, I checked out your store there, cool jewels.
I like to highlight this: 1. Clarify startup business ideas - to sell 3D printers or to use 3D printers to provide services or to rent 3D printers or to run other business but using 3D printers to enhance the results. 2. I suppose you wanted to use 3D printers to provide services - this is the most capital intensive model. Different targeted customers required different types of 3D printers and material investment will be onerous if the mixture of customers are not correct. 3. 3D business...