3D Printing

With 3D Printing technology becoming more affordable and mainstream, it’s never been easier to design and manufacture your ideas. However, continuing developments mean that it's often difficult to keep up with the latest products and 3D printing information. Use our guides below to find out everything you need to know about 3D Printers and 3D Printing.

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With 3D Printing technology becoming more affordable and mainstream, it’s never been easier to design and manufacture your ideas. However, continuing developments mean there are more and more machines to choose from, covering a number of different technologies. While choosing the best 3D printer for you can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be if you ask the right questions.

 

What 3D printing machines are available to you? 

3D printers can be spilt into two categories; "desktop & mid-range" and "professional". The biggest development in recent years has been at the desktop & mid-range end of the market, with a number of smaller, affordable machines entering the market aimed at the personal user and some offer up to 3 print head/extruders providing multiple material support. These are also ideal for education as they are a great way to introduce the technology into schools and it is more feasible to purchase more than one unit at the lower price range. 

Professional printers are much larger, more capable machines offering advanced printing technology. These are traditionally used in industry as well as higher educational establishments for serious engineering and finished products.

 

How much do 3D Printers cost? 

The recent developments outlined above have meant that you can now get a 3D printer for less than £1000, with the majority within this range costing between £1500 and £3000. Mid-range machines, which are widely used in education for example, range from £10,000 to around £30,000, while larger, more advanced professional printers can cost anywhere from £50,000 to upwards of £200,000.

 

Are there any extra costs I need to think about? 

With any 3D Printer, it’s important to find out what you get for the advertised price. Is it for the machine only? Do you get any material? Are there any other pieces of equipment required but not included? Some of the mid-range and professional machines require separate equipment for post processing parts which are integral to the machine’s functionality. It is important to check if your machine requires any such equipment and whether or not it is included as part of a package or sold separately.

 

What about the on-going costs? 

Once you have bouight your printer, you are going to need to buy material for it and you need to make sure you are fully aware of how many consumables are involved in producing a finished part. Is there just one material? Are there separate build and support materials? Is any material wasted? Are post processing materials required such as wash fluid, coatings or other infiltrants? 

Desktop & mid-range machines feature some of the most cost effective printers with many able to produce a model with just one material. Some of these printers offer a build cost under 10p per gram, so you could print a smartphone cover for around £1.20. The more expensive the material and the more consumables used for each build, the more expensive the same part will be on different systems, so also consider the life and replacement costs of any print heads, build beds, filters and moving parts.

 

What features should I consider when looking at a 3D Printer? 

Build Area – This can range from 14cm3 to four times that, and are priced accordingly. Most desktop and mid-range printers have similar build sizes, sufficient for most people's requirements. 

Print Speed – Some manufacturers may specify print speed as the time taken to print a certain amount of distance on the Z-Axis e.g. mm per hour. Others may specify it as how long it takes to print a certain model or specific volume, which may increase depending on the part geometry. 

Part Cost – This can be specified as cost per volume, cubic centimetre for example, or cost per weight. As mentioned earlier, it’s important to make sure that when comparing part costs all consumable costs are considered. 

Resolution/Layer thickness – This will depend on the machine's capability as well as the material used. It is usually specified as layer thickness, and will provide an indication of how detailed the produced models will be. 

Colour – Is using different colour materials important to you? Even most of the desktop/mid-range machines have a choice of colours which can be used on their own or in one model on some machines. The only machines capable of full colour printing with blended colours and details are part of the ProJet X60 range (previously Z printers). When a machine is presented as a ‘colour’ printer, this often refers to the range of material colours available.

 

Which build material is best? 

This will depend on what you want to get out of the machine as well as what budget you have for the running costs. It also doesn’t depend solely on the material, but how the machine delivers it. It’s a good idea to get hold of build samples where possible to see what outputs can be achieved and also consider the usage and shelf life of the materials.

 

What about training & support? 

Check to see if training is required for the 3D printer you are interested in, and if so, is it included in the price? Some desktop machines are described as ‘Plug n Play’ meaning that the set-up is minimal and training is most likely not required. In this case, check how easy the machine is to use and what kind of documentation is supplied. Some training may also be provided for an extra cost. 

Larger machines may be sold with support contracts, so check carefully to be clear on what’s included and for what duration. Are call-outs included? Replacement parts? Servicing? Phone support? What is the renewal cost? Warranty is also something you should be clear on with any machine, especially from manufacturers/suppliers outside of the UK.

 

Do I need to think about software? 

Most 3D printers will come with their own software to process 3D CAD files ready for printing on that particular machine. It is important to remember that this software is different to 3D design software which you will use to create 3D CAD files for printing. There is no specific piece of software you should use. It can be as basic or advanced as you require; it just has to be capable of producing an STL file which is the industry standard CAD file for 3D printing.

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