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How To Select a 3D Printer for Business

Due to its huge impact on the manufacturing sector and unique features, 3D printing has opened new and innovative business opportunities.

Many enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who want to venture into the business either by themselves or associate with a 3D printing firm like Xometry usually have a few doubts before they start. The main doubt is regarding the selection of a 3D printer. This article aims at providing an overview of how to choose a 3D printer for business purposes.

The 3D printing categories

Most 3D printers currently used in business fall under four categories. They not only vary in the method of operation but also in the build material they use.  The categories and the 3D printing technologies associated with the respective category are given below.  

1. VAT Photopolymerisation

The printers belonging to this category use polymer resin as build material. The associated technologies are:

Stereolithography (SLA)

Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing utilises light-curable thermoset resins to build parts. It is a powerful 3D printing technology that produces extremely accurate and high-resolution parts that are capable of being used directly in end-use, low-volume production, or rapid prototyping. SLA printers are widely available from different companies.

Build materials

Amongst the most widely used materials for SLA, Xometry offers:

Carbon DLS

Carbon DLS (Digital light synthesis) belongs to the VAT polymerisation category of 3D printing. It uses digital light projection, oxygen-permeable optics, and programmable liquid resins to create products with end-use durability, resolution, and surface finish. 

This technology, along with Carbon’s exclusive CLIP resins (Continuous liquid interface production), paves way for product designs previously impossible and complex, including mass customization and on-demand inventory. The Carbon DLS technology enables companies to bring innovative products to market that were never thought possible. This printer is exclusively produced and manufactured by Carbon 3D.

Build materials

Amongst the most widely used materials for Carbon DLS, Xometry offers:

2. Powder bed fusion

The printers belonging to this category use polymer and metal powders as build materials. The associated technologies are:

Selective laser sintering

Selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing technology utilises a high power laser to sinter small particles of polymer powder into a product based on a 3D CAD model. Its high resolution, high productivity and easy availability of materials make SLS technology ideal for a range of applications like rapid prototyping to end-use parts.  Various companies produce SLS machines.

Build materials

Selective laser sintering is a popular technology among 3D printing processes as it can be used with a wide range of materials. The most currently used materials can be classified into two categories: 

  • Rigid materials: such as Nylon 11 (PA11 Food Grade), Nylon 12 (PA12 Food Grade, PA12 Alumide Grey, PA12 Glass-Filles) and PP Polypropylene
  • Flexible materials: such as Flex Whitish TPU/TPE

Nylon PA12  is one of the most popular 3D printing materials. This plastic material has good mechanical properties such as toughness, tensile strength and impact strength, making it a reference material for SLS technology.

HP Multi jet fusion

HP Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) is one of the most commonly used 3D printing technologies for printing parts that are highly accurate and durable. Compared to its powder bed fusion counterparts like selective laser sintering (SLS), MJF prints are more cost-efficient at scale. Unlike SLS, MJF uses detailing and fusing agents instead of laser to build the part. MJF parts are widely used for prototypes as well as for end users. MJF is HP’s trademark technology and the printers are manufactured exclusively by HP.

Build materials

Materials used for MJF 3D printing can be divided into two categories: 

  • Rigid plastics: Nylon PA11, Nylon PA12, PP
  • Flexible plastics: Estane 3D TPU M95A

Direct metal laser sintering

Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) belongs to the powder bed fusion (PBF) category of 3D printing and is similar to the SLS technology and uses a laser to sinter the metal powders. In DMLS, however, metal powders are used instead of plastic powders to create metal parts that can be used both for functional prototypes and production parts. DMLS sinters heat particles enough so that their surfaces weld together.  DMLS machines are produced by various companies.

Build material

Among the most generally used materials for DMLS, Xometry offers:

  • Aluminium: such as AlSiMG
  • Steel: such as Tool Steel MS1, Stainless Steel 17-4, Stainless Steel 316L
  • Inconel: such as Inconel 718

3. Extrusion based systems

In this category, the solid build material, polymer filament is forced through a heated nozzle and the part is built layer by layer, similar to icing on a cake.

Fused deposition modelling

Fused deposition modelling (FDM) is an extrusion-based 3D printing technology. The build materials used in FDM are thermoplastic polymers and come in a filament form. In FDM, a part is manufactured by selectively depositing melted material layer by layer in a path defined by the CAD model. Due to its high accuracy, low cost and large material selection, FDM is one of the most widely used 3D printing technologies across the world. Many companies manufacture FDM machines.

Build materials

Amongst the most widely rigid plastics used for fused deposition modelling, Xometry offers ABS, ABS ESD7, ABS M30, ASA, Nylon PA12, Nylon PA12 Carbon-Filled, Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polyamide 12, PC-ABS Polycarbonate, PC-ISO Polycarbonate, PC-like Heat Resist Translucent, PC-Polycarbonate, PLA, PETG, PEEK, ULTEM 1010, and ULTEM 9085.

ASA, an amorphous thermoplastic with improved weather resistance, is widely used in prototyping thanks to its excellent mechanical properties. Plus, it is available in a large variety of colours.

4. Material jetting

Material jetting operates similar to a two-dimensional inkjet printer. The build material is jetted onto the build platform and solidified layer by layer.

Polyjet 3D printing

Polyjet is a rigid photopolymer 3D printing technology that works by jetting UV curable resin onto a build tray in a process that is somewhat similar to inkjet printing. Polyjet 3D printing offers one of the most advanced industrial 3D printing solutions available, producing parts with incredible precision and speed. Polyjet is known for its speed and excellent surface finish. It is also capable of printing in multiple materials at once. Polyjet machines are manufactured by different companies.

Build material

Amongst the most frequently used materials for Polyjet, Xometry offers a Rigid Photopolymer in three colours (black, grey, white).

Properties of the printer

Since each technology and printer is unique, the properties of each technology are also mentioned so that the buyers will have an overview of the printers and what one considers one’s priority.

PropertiesSLACarbon DLSSLSMJFDMLSFDMPolyjet
Surface finishSmoothSmoothPorousPorousPorous and roughStep-likeSmooth
Resolution⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫
Mechanical propertiesLowHighHighMediumHighLowHigh
Colour partsNoNoNoYesNoYesYes
BiocompatibilityYesYesYes*Yes*NoYes*No
WastageLessLessMoreLessMoreMediumLess
Support structuresYesYesNoNoYesYesYes
*food compliant projects needs detailed assessment and confirmation

Many of the technologies only print in either grey, white or black whereas, MJF prints in full colour, thanks to its Voxel technology. FDM also prints in colour but it is mostly monochromatic. It prints in the same colour as its filament. The parts without colour can be dyed or coloured in the post-processing. The surface finish can be improved with post-processing too. 

Choosing the right printer and technology

Based on the above properties, it is up to the buyers’ discretion on which technology they should opt for. The technologies Carbon DLS and MJF are trademarks of respective companies and their printers and material are not made and sold by other manufacturers. The rest of the printers are manufactured by various manufacturers for varying costs. FDM is the cheapest of the lot which means, the cost of printers is cheaper compared to other printers and the build filaments are also much cheaper and easily available.

The cost of a printer varies mostly with respect to the build volume and the quality it produces. Both SLA and FDM have desktop versions of their printers. These are cheap and don’t match the quality and standard of an industrial printer and hence can be ignored while making a purchase decision for the business. 

SpecificationsSLACarbon DLSSLSMJFDMLSFDMPolyjet
Build volumeup to 736 x 635 x 533 mmup to 119 x 189 x 300 mm. Recommended size: Within 100 x 100 x 150 mmup to 340 x 340 x 605 mm, but usually, we recommend the maximum size of 320 x 320 x 580 mmup to 380 x 284 x 380 mm, while we normally recommend the maximum size of 356 x 280 x 356 mm250 x 250 x 325 mmup to 914 x 610 x 914 mmup to 490 mm x 391 mm x 200 mm
CostStarting at 2,000€Starting at 20,000€ per yearStarting at 14,000€Starting at 48,000€Starting at 85,000€Starting at 2,000€Starting at 17,000€

Conclusion

While buying a printer, one should be clear about which type of technology to opt for. Depending on the properties each technology offers, the decision has to be made. A wrong decision costs a fortune. Surface finish, quality and colour can be improved with post-processing. They are cheaper than buying an expensive printer exclusively for colour or smooth surface. If the buyer aims for a particular colour or very smooth finish that cannot be done through post-processing, that’s when to go for a costly colour printer like MJF. FDM printers are the cheapest and the simplest.

The cost of the printer is directly proportional to the build volume and the build material. The cost of the printer is also reflected in the cost per unit of the part manufactured with the respective technology. With a network of more than 2,000 partners all over Europe, Xometry takes much pride and happiness in welcoming more partners. For comprehensive information on 3D printing, follow blogs on Xometry.

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