3D Printers for Small to Medium Sized Businesses

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Small to medium businesses work hard for their profit and growth. These businesses are also impacted the most by supply chain pressure, unexpected circumstances such as natural disasters and pandemics, and increasing monetary and time costs. 3D printing can help small to medium-sized businesses be more resilient to outside pressures like these while increasing their ability to compete.

3D printing is the process of layering 3D printing material to create a physical object. The specific measurements of the object are indicated in a three-dimensional model using 3D printing software. Due to the nature of the 3D printing process, small to medium-sized businesses can create high-quality 3D printed objects while lowering production costs and quicker turn-around time. They also have the added benefit of being able to create highly custom parts and produce small batches of objects.

There are two aspects to choosing the right 3D printer for your small to medium business. The first is not surpassing your budget. The second is being able to distinguish between the products that are available in the 3D printing market. Understanding what is available in the 3D printing market requires understanding how three aspects of 3D printing function together: 3D printers, 3D printing technologies, and 3D printing material.

Understanding 3D Printing Fundamentals

3D Printers

For 3D printing to be at its most effective for small to medium-sized businesses, it needs to produce high-quality 3D printed parts. Producing high-quality 3D printed parts means using a high-quality 3D printer. A high-quality 3D printer needs to meet industrial 3D printer standards. While there are no fixed standards for an industrial 3D printer, there are several different contributing factors. They include whether the machine can print reliably, the size of the parts it can produce (also known as build volume), how it handles 3D printing materials, how many extruders are on the machine, operating and maintenance costs, and whether the machine is user-friendly. Examples of industrial 3D printers include a desktop 3D printer, dual extruder 3D printer, and a large-format 3D printer.

Both a desktop 3D printer and a large-format 3D printer are similar in that their distinction is based more on their build volume. Build volume is an industrial term that refers to the size of a part a 3D printer can create. A desktop 3D printer has a smaller build volume and creates high-quality 3D printed parts. A large-format 3D printer has a large build volume, meaning it produces large 3D printed parts.

A dual extruder 3D printer is distinguished by its flexible printing capability because it is a 3D printer with two extruders. The extruders can work in unison or independently of one another. It is possible for a desktop 3D printer and a large-format 3D printer to also have dual extruders.

3D Printing Technologies

While an industrial 3D printer is a physical machine, the machines will be specialized for different types of 3D printing technologies. Different technologies will require other specifications. Examples of 3D printing technologies include:

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

FDM is the best 3D printing technology for small to medium businesses because it is popular, affordable, commonly used, offers the most options, and easier to find.  FDM is a form of 3D printing where extruded plastic is heated and placed layer by layer. The extruded plastic is a thermoplastic material that gets melted at a high temperature and then exits a nozzle layer by layer to create a 3D printed object. FDM printing is generally used for prototyping, manufacturing, and research and development.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering technology (DMLS) VS Selective Laser Melting (SLM)

DMLS and SLM 3D printing are similar in that both of them are a form of metal 3D printing. However, they differ from each other slightly. DMLS uses a laser to fuse/weld layers of metallic powder (metal alloys) to build up layers until the final product is created.  SLM uses a laser to melt pure metals to create a new object. While both DMLS and SLM are high-quality forms of 3D printing, they are both very expensive. It will be difficult for a small to medium-sized business to have the budget to uses either one of these two processes.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Similar to SLM, SLS also uses a laser to melt 3D printing material to build a new object. However, instead of melting metal, SLS is the process of melting nylon. As with SLM, SLS is also an expensive 3D printing technology. It will be difficult for a small to medium-sized business to have the budget for this type of technology.

Stereolithography (SLA) VS Digital Light Processing (DLP)

SLA and DLP are similar in that both deal with Resin 3D printing. However, there are slight differences in how the Resin is worked. SLA exposes thin layers of Resin to a UV laser. The laser solidifies each layer of Resin, eventually building an object layer by layer. DLP works with a photopolymer Resin. In DLP, the photopolymer Resin is exposed to a lightbulb to solidify the individual Resin layers.

SLA and DLP are not the most practical 3D printing technologies for a small to medium business to invest in because Resin is not the easiest material to work with. For starters, Resin is one of the more expensive 3D printing materials in the market. Therefore an expensive 3D printing material, like resin, will result in a higher recurring cost for small to medium-sized businesses. In addition, handling resin requires extra precautions and effort. Resin can cause irritation and certain requirements are necessary to properly handle it in post-processing. Resin requires 4 months for post-processing and needs to be washed in alcohol. Resin also needs to be exposed to more light after the actual 3D printing process to finish solidifying the object. For SLA printing, the UV light alone has hazards associated with it.

3D Printing Material

Different types of 3D printers utilize different kinds of 3D printing materials. Since FDM printers are the easiest 3D printing technology for small to medium-sized businesses to adopt, it is important to know the foundational information for their 3D printing material. The 3D printing material for an FDM 3D printer is called filaments. There are different types of filaments, each one with different capabilities and qualities.

A filament is produced into one continuous, slender plastic thread, which is then spooled into a reel for storage and printer feeding. There are a variety of filaments, each with specialized characteristics and qualities to achieve different project requirements. A few of the most commonly used filaments include:

Polylactic Acid (PLA)

PLA filaments have good tensile strength and surface quality to create high-resolution 3D printed parts. It has a lower printing temperature, meaning it does not warp easily. Overall, PLA is an easy filament to print with.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)

ABS creates durable 3D printed parts that can withstand extensive use and high temperatures.

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol-modified (PETG)

PETG filament produces 3D printed parts with a smooth finish, minimal shrinkage, and high durability. The PETG filament is generally clearer and less brittle, but still fairly easy to print with. For this, it is sometimes considered as a middle ground between PLA and ABS.

Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA)

PVA filament is a water-soluble plastic meant for multi-extrusion 3D printing. It can produce water-soluble 3D printed parts. PVA can also act as a support for another filament when using a dual extruder 3D printer.

Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate (ASA)

ASA filament is resistant to chemical exposure, UV, and weathering, which is ideal for 3D printed parts in outdoor applications. This filament is rigid and strong, but still fairly easy to print with.

Polycarbonate (PC)

PC filament produces 3D printed parts that remain strong and stable in high temperatures.

Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU)

TPU is a highly flexible material perfect for objects that need to bend, compress, or take a lot of wear.

Polyamide (PA)

PA is a nylon material. PA performs well across all standards due to its great strength, flexibility, and durability. It is an excellent option for functional prototypes, mechanical parts, and parts requiring high endurance such as rivets, washers, and gears.

Carbon Fiber Enforced

Carbon Fiber Enforced options are available for PLA, ABS, PETG, and PA. Having a Carbon Fiber Enforced filament makes the material stiff with very little weight.

Glass Fiber Enforced

Glass Fiber Enforced filaments are similar to Carbon Fiber Enforced filaments in that it adds strength and stiffness. However, it has the added benefit of remaining ductile.

Each filament has its own advantages and disadvantages for different applications in your business. It is important to keep in mind that small to medium-sized businesses have a fast-paced working environment where most equipment needs to fulfill multiple functions. A 3D printer will need to be able to be used by multiple departments to fulfill different tasks. Therefore, the right 3D printer for a small to medium-sized business will need to be able to handle a variety of materials for multiple purposes to be a good investment. It is more cost-effective for a small to medium-sized business to have a multi-purpose 3d printer rather than buying several 3D printers to handle specialized tasks.

Choosing a 3D Printer

How to Budget and Choose the Right 3D Printer

Now that we have understood the fundamentals of 3D printing, the next step is knowing how to choose the right 3D printer for your small to medium-sized business. Remember, choosing the right 3D printer for your business is heavily influenced by price, printing technology, and build volume.

High-quality machines tend to begin at $5,000 or $10,000 depending on the type of technology and printer. However, many small to medium-sized businesses have a budget of less than $5,000 for their first 3D printer.

A 3D printer for a small to medium-sized business also needs to be cost-efficient, user-friendly, and be able to handle all current and future projects.  The best starting point for managing all these requirements is by looking into dual extruder 3D printers and FDM 3D printing technology. A dual extruder 3D printer can handle a variety of projects, while FDM 3D printing technology is popular and easy to use. Additionally, both high-quality dual extruder 3D printers and FDM 3D printing technology can be found in a $5,000 budget.

Dual extruder 3D printers are the best machines for small to medium-sized businesses because it has more printing capabilities while remaining cost-effective. For starters, a dual extruder printer can accommodate a wider variety of filaments and can perform specialized functions. Examples of specialized functions include printing with two filaments at the same time and printing with PVA, a water-soluble filament. This type of flexibility and capability allows a dual extruder 3D printer to accommodate more projects so it will grow along with your business. Therefore, a dual extruder 3D printer can make the most out of your investment. The good news is that it is possible to find a high-quality FDM style dual extruder 3D printer under $5,000. If you have a larger budget, closer to $10,000 you can purchase two dual extruder 3D printers to maximize work-flow. An example of a high-quality FDM dual extruder 3D printer is the Pro2 priced at $3,999 from Raise3D.

Size, also known as build volume, is another major contributor to a 3D printer’s price. And the nature of some business’ require parts of a specific size. Remember, there are desktop 3D printers designed to produce smaller 3D printed parts and large-format 3D printers designed to produce for large 3D printed parts.

The E2 3D printer.

If the size of your projects will remain fixed at a smaller scale in the long run, a desktop 3D printer is better suited for your needs. Since these printers produce smaller 3D printed parts, they are also more affordable. For example, the E2 from Raise3D is an FDM style desktop 3D printer with independent dual extruders priced at $3,499. That means a small to medium-sized business with a $5,000 budget can comfortably afford a 3D printer.

The Pro 2 3D printer.

However, some businesses require larger 3D printed objects. In this instance, a large-format 3D printer may be necessary. But be careful, there is no set scale for what constitutes a large 3D printed object. Therefore, not all large-format 3D printers may produce the size of the object you need. It is very important to look at the dimensions of the build volume for each printer. A general rule to keep in mind is that the bigger the build volume, the more expensive the printer. Businesses looking for this type of printer will need a budget higher than $5,000. An example of a large-format 3D printer with dual extruders is the Pro2 Plus with a 12x12x23.8 inch build volume priced at $5,999 from Raise3D.

The Pro 2 Plus.

When you begin to search for your first dual extruder 3D printer, it is important to maintain two budgets. The first is a budget for the actual 3D printer. The second budget is the yearly budget for the function and maintenance of the printer. A common mistake many first-time purchasers make when purchasing their first industrial 3D printer is to spend their entire annual budget on the purchase of the machine.

By spending the whole annual budget on the machine, a small to medium-sized business does not leave room for consumables. Consumables include replacing the filament used in 3D printing. It also includes the cost of replacing machine parts due to wear and tear during the 3D printing process. Examples of machine parts that receive a lot of wear and tear include hotends and butechs. Consumables can easily cost $1,500 a year, and this needs to be added to the overall cost of the machine.

Some small to medium-sized businesses see the prices of industrial 3D printers and feel tempted to utilize 3D printing kits which run under $1,000. We would strongly advise against this because these kits are directed more for hobbyists. They will not be able to produce a 3D printed part or component at the quality businesses need.

Finally, the right 3D printer for a small to medium-sized business needs to be user-friendly in addition to meeting the other requirements. A user-friendly 3D printer can be measured in a few different ways.

For starters, a user-friendly 3D printer is the amount of time a small to medium-sized business has to set up the machine to be fully operational. It also needs to be as simple to use as possible, especially if multiple people or departments at varying skill levels will be utilizing the 3D printer. Some 3D printers require more assembly or general maintenance than others. Make sure to ask the printer manufacturer how much time is needed to assemble and maintain different aspects of the printer.

Another measure of a user-friendly 3D printer is how well it works with 3D printing software. A couple of examples of 3D printing software include slicing software and 3D printer management software. And not all slicing or management software is compatible with every type of 3D printer. Luckily, some 3D printer manufacturers include access to compatible software with their 3D printers. For example, every Raise3D printer comes with ideaMaker, a free 3D slicer software, ideaMaker Library a platform for sharing slicing profiles you create, and RaiseCloud, a free cloud-based 3D printer management software that can operate remotely.

Lastly, an easy to use printer will also benefit from technical support from the printer manufacturer. Not all 3D printer manufacturers offer technical support for their printers. Others may provide technical support at an additional financial cost. It is important to inquire after any support program the manufacturer offers for their machines.

3D printing allows small to medium-sized businesses the ability to produce high-quality parts at a lower production cost in both time and money. Choosing the right 3D printer for a small to a medium-sized business depends heavily on price, current and future project requirements, printing technology, and build volume. In general, a dual extruder 3D printer for FDM style 3D printing will be an asset to small and medium-sized businesses.

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