Industrial 3D printers are used for manufacturing. Reliability, uptime and repeatability are very important to these systems. The availability of the printer and the throughput are key considerations on whether to buy one. Industrial 3D printers have a wide range of application areas and make many different types of parts. Many 3D printers are niche products and optimized for one particular application, customer, material or use case.
I know everyone wants to buy the “best” 3D printer but there isn’t an overall best 3D printer. Just like there isn’t a “best car”, a Veyron is great, unless you want to take four people somewhere. A 911 is an amazing car but not at offroading. UPS could not use either car to super efficiently deliver packages, even though they are fast. In the same vein, 3D printers are horses for courses. There are specific systems for dental offices and others for dental centres and others that would make sense doing dental production in a more factory-like setting. Similarly, there are systems that are meant to be deployed in factory and others that are less industrial but both are being used for manufacturing. Depending on the throughput or even a material or geometry a certain printer could be more suited for you. Due to this, I’ve tried to divvy up our industry into a number of segments that seem logical to making a 3D printing buying decision easier for you.
In-Office Production & Prototyping systems are systems that should be able to function in an office environment. They should not need industrial HVAC or high power or other advanced requirements. They should be more reliable and have higher repeatability than desktop systems. In some cases these systems are used to make many tens of thousands of parts. These parts are usually for engineers and designers for testing or they need to be added to in an office. In general these systems should be easy to use, not a pain to use and give good parts. In support removal often these machines require a water bath, solvent bath, water jet station or similar to remove support material. This area will get quite messy if not tended to well and this is not very office-friendly indeed. Other systems that are too large or would give too much hassle or too much loose powder to work in an office are not put in this category.
High-Temperature 3D Printers print at above 420°C and have build chambers that can be heated to above 90°C. They have hardened components, are generally easy to use and should deliver good quality parts when compared to desktop systems. Less capable in build volumes and speed than much larger industrial systems they should let people nonetheless make high-quality parts. They should have lots of settings and have good control over the heat in build chambers. Nozzle temperatures, build platform temperatures and airflow should be controlled. A high degree of control over the temperatures in the build chamber is a good sign of a good High-Temperature 3D Printer, HEPA and carbon filters should be on the machine as should some kind of directed airflow solution to enable better pin point part cooling. The main use of these systems is to 3D print ultra high-performance materials such as PEEK, PEKK and PEI (Ultem). PEEK is in high demand for aerospace and medical applications and has some of the highest continous service temperatures, strengths and resistance to solvents that one can find in a plastic. PEKK is a newer material that can have comparable performance in some cases but may be eminently more tweakable. PEI is a material that is eminently suited for aerospace applications as it has low smoke, low toxicity and low flame as well as being inherently flame retardant. These materials are pushing the envelope in the performance of polymers and are being used to replace metals in aircraft, high-performance automobiles and in the body.
PPA (these are high-performance nylon materials such as Ultramid, Rilsan, Stanyl and other newer versions of these materials) have traditionally not been able to reach the performance ceilings of PEEK (they’re also collectively known as PAEKs) and the like but companies are developing materials that in some cases have incredibly high performance. Developing, testing and producing these parts should be done on high-temperature 3D printers.
The two categories “For the Large-Scale Manufacturing of Fine and Highly Detailed Items” and “For the Large-Scale Manufacturing of Tough End-Use Parts” may seem a bit contrite. In reality, though manufacturers using 3D printing to make parts usually want toughness and dimensional accuracy at all costs or need smoothness and detail at all cost. For a hearing aid, you need it to be comfortable and smooth above all. It doesn’t have to be incredibly strong. For that kind of an application you’re going to be looking at SLA or DLP to make it usually because these can at scale give you millions of smooth detailed parts that work as a hearing aid. If you’re making a mould for a dental part you’re also going to use these technologies and if you need a cast for jewellery you’ll end up with these systems as well.
Meanwhile other customers want tough parts that need to be strong and hold up well in the toughest conditions. Here essentially you turn to FDM or SLS to make these parts. These printers are capable of spitting out tens of thousands of these dimensionally accurate parts per day. They’re less detailed and smooth than the other parts but stronger. Often people ask me if they should get FDM or SLS or SLA. Its the wrong question to ask. What is your need? What do you need to make and what does it need to do? Based on that usually, we end up taking a fork in the road and either go for highly detailed technologies or tough parts.
Affordable Large-Format Systems are a completely new category. Many older systems are optimized for ten thousand things the size of a marble. With large-format systems, we started to see $20,000 to $60,000 make 50 cm by 50 cm parts. A highly detailed expensive part such a size (think a grand for the part) was already possible. These systems let you make that part for a few hundred dollars though. These systems opened up completely new markets for 3D printing. Things such as 3D printed mannequins, moulds for concrete, building parts, bumpers and panels on cars. Other systems are better at speed and usually also detail but these systems develop low-cost large parts, sometimes as high as a meter or two.
The purpose of this guide is to give some clarity in the 3D printing market as to which systems are the best choices for manufacturing using 3D printing in plastics. These categories are also supposed to give people a clearer picture of what they can find for their needs. Is there a category that you feel I should add?
I’ve done 50 interviews with key people in the industry on the OEM, polymer, chemicals, additives, filament, powder and industrial users to estimate market sizes and relative merits of vendors, materials and technologies. Subsequently, I had over 40 extensive interviews with industrial end users of 3D printers this year to determine how happy they were with their equipment, what they lacked and how they used this equipment. For some machines, I’ve been able to 3D scan and test measure parts as well as look at yield. I interviewed resellers in several countries to see what they thought of their offering and what issues they had with OEMs and machines. I’ve been doing competitive analysis and competitive landscaping in 3D printing for a decade now and have been tracking the machine, materials and application data for nine years as well as doing these interviews.
There are an awful lot of vendors and there is an awful lot of value judgment in the sum total of this analysis. I do not have data on all machines and can not track all machines’ performance currently. There is no real DPI or megapixel for our industry and comparing parts is difficult as well. I’ve tried to be as fair as I can. I don’t base this on press releases, promises or blah blah. I know that you say that your thing is better. In the case of hype versus a user who can tell me that his system has been running non stop for weeks, I’ll take the latter judgement. I do understand that this approach is not perfect and although I do have some hard data, much of the information that this is based on is subjective in nature. However, I do believe that this is the most helpful way to guide customers to reviewing the best systems for them. I don’t expect people to go out an impulse buy a $330,000 printer based on this article but it should help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Ideally, I’d have a lab with 200 printers in them and be able to dial each in and then compare output with metrology and testing. This is something I’d love to do, so please do say hi if you know how I could make this happen. Also, feel free to send me printers.
I’m trying to make a very brief guide here to aid decision-making. With customers who are looking for printers something like this (but made for them) actually does suffice. If I put in too much detail it will become unwieldy and boring. However, on a previous guide people said I was too brief. What details would you like me to include? What would be helpful for you? If things like build volume are essential, I could make a table for example. I think that this would be handier and make this more digestible for you. I welcome any feedback and suggestions on how to improve this guide.
The Best Industrial 3D Printers for In-Office Production & Prototyping
Building on Stratasys’ long tradition of capable in-office systems the $50,000 F123 series F370 puts tried and true performance in a new shiny package with four material bays. Limited in materials when compared to open printers the reliability of the system remains unmatched at this price point for tough, durable parts. These systems work with the GrabCAD solution and can be monitored remotely. If you want to just press print and walk away this will be a very good choice for you. If you wish to experiment with hundreds of new materials then it will be less of a good choice.
The Markforged Mark Two system has unique capabilities in extruding composite materials in a desktop form factor. The Eiger software is some of the best software to use day in day out. Combined with unique materials and material design means that this is a good package, especially for those in the automotive industry or those working with kevlar or carbon fibre already.
The VSHAPER PRO is a capable high-temperature system that is compact and easy to use. Available for around $17,000 this system brings high-performance polymers into a semi-office environment. The Vshaper is a good choice for convenient prototyping of high-performance materials such as PEEK and PEI in a small form factor.
The Ultimaker S5 only costs $6000 and is classed as a desktop system, but the performance of this relatively small system combined with ease of use make it a strong contender for use in the office or lab.
The capabilities of the Stratasys J750 are unique. Colors, gradients and unique materials make this an incredible option for those who need high-quality colour 3D prints for display or prototyping in-house. Material is expensive and not as tough as other materials, and this inhibits manufacturing, but the parts will blow you away. An excellent solution for a design department at an automotive firm for example.
The Best Systems for High-Temperature Materials
The INTAMSYS FUNMAT PRO HT is a $50,000 high-temperature system with a 450 x 450 x 600 mm build volume and 160°C chamber temperature and a 450°C extruder temperature. The system is especially capable for the PEI (Ultem) material. INTAMSYS is known for making the most affordable high-temperature systems but is now moving up the food chain with a higher grade machine.
Roboze’s Argo 500 has nozzle temperatures of 550°C, and 180°C build chamber temperatures. The Italian company has led the way in popularising high-temperature materials and now prints carbon fibre reinforced PEEK materials in a 125 Liter volume build chamber with a nifty vacuum bed.
The 3DGence Industry F340 has interchangeable nozzles, a heated chamber to store materials as well as air filtration. The erstwhile little-known company made a significant impact with the release of this capable $20,000 high-temperature system.
If you say miniFactory many will think of the file sharing service MyMiniFactory, but this is a different company. MiniFactory’s Innovator 2 is a $30,000 dual nozzle printer developed to make PEEK parts. The Finnish company makes robust machines using linear guides, servos, HEPA filtration and quality materials. Especially the push towards higher-quality linear guides and servos seems to be a logical step in increasing accuracy and speeds that the rest of the industry should follow.
The AON3D M2 is a dual independent tool head system with hot-swappable build plates with liquid cooling on steppers and toolheads for $30,000.
Any larger Stratasys system can, of course, be included in this section. Their excellent 900mc is mentioned further down.
For the Large-Scale Manufacturing of Fine and Highly Detailed Items
Formlabs Form 2 3D printers can be combined with the Form Cell to manufacture at scale. Even though the printer is a desktop one, the Cell extends the Form’s capabilities into manufacturing. Automated part cleaning and QA lower the costs of 3D printed materials and processing.
The EnvisionTEC systems have long been the standard in the manufacturing of in-the-ear hearing aids, making millions per year. At the same time, other versions of the same DLP systems are amongst the most productive in jewellery. The Perfactory is an old model but one that is tried and true with a long service life and many versions customized to particular applications.
The ProX 800 is a beast with a 650 x 750 x 550 mm build volume. This 3D Systems SLA printer can make large highly detailed parts in a highly productive system based on tried and true technology.
The ProX is best for large items; the Formlabs has the lowest costs while the Perfactory is the best deskside system for hearing aids and jewellery.
For the Large-Scale Manufacturing of Tough End-Use Parts
The Formiga P110. The P110 is a productive selective laser sintering system (powder bed fusion) with a comparatively small form factor. Capable of producing a wide array of geometries predictably, the P110 is considered by EOS to be their entry-level lab system, but users have globally taken it into production.
The Stratasys F900 is a highly capable manufacturing system with industry-leading reliability and build volumes. Stratasys’ materials portfolio is more restricted than open systems that have access to more materials. Their optimized ecosystem substitutes this for ease of use and peace of mind with every setting and material dialled in perfectly. Stalwart materials such as ASA, PEI and ABS are available on this system.
The EOS P500 is a highly reliable optimization of the EOS selective laser sintering systems. Reliability, higher utilisation and material handling make this a very versatile productive system for a vast array of parts.
Mass Portal’s Dynasty AMS is a print farm that combines automation and a gantry with a highly productive array of Mass Portal’s 3D printers. The well-built machines combine intelligent automation software with automatic build setting, storage and calibration. Lower detail than SLS and SLA, these tough FDM parts are lower cost.
The HP Multi Jet Fusion technology (now called Jet Fusion or MJF) is relatively new but the company has put its considerable resources behind it. Less proven than SLS and FDM, Multi Jet Fusion may yet give us some major innovations in being able to tweak parts, qualities, points and surfaces. At the moment HP is focusing on expanding its range of materials and offering automation. The systems are capable and HP is really building the required ecosystem and tooling. The HP 4210 seems like just the type of printer that could expand the parts made with 3D printing significantly.
Best Affordable Large-Format Systems
The Tractus3D T3500 is a one meter by two meter delta build volume system with a 300°C nozzle temp and glass plate. Costing around $35,000 it has been used to manufacture outdoor signage and mannequins in series production.
The Builder Extreme 2000 is not a pretty system but it is used to make industrial parts, props, outdoor signage and large jigs. The $20,000 printer has good value for money with a 700 x 700 x 1820 mm build volume and dual extrusion.
The DeltaWASP 3MT Industrial costs around $23,000 and is a very versatile machine. Print quality is not amazing, but the team behind the WASP wants us to print much more than just plastics. WASP has nozzles for concrete, and high speed and one can even add a CNC milling head to the printer.
Another delta is Olivier van Herpt’s Ceramics Printer costing $40,000. This system makes parts up to 90 cm in height in porcelain, clays and ceramics. Capable of series production for thousands of ceramics parts this is the most detailed large-format ceramics printer on offer today and the print quality is astounding.
Who have I left out? What more information would you like to have?
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