19th November 2013
Everyone will have read or heard about the ‘arrival’ of 3D printers in the consumer marketplace over recent times. Even in a relatively short timeframe, one trend in the 3D printer consumer market is evident -; prices are tumbling. One machine, which requires self-assembly, can now be purchased in the retail market for circa £750, while prices for ready-made 3D printers vary between £850 and £1800. There are even reports that a certain supermarket is currently considering the adoption of an in-store 3D printing service in much the same way it prints photos.
Bearing all this in mind, why is there still a thriving market for professional 3D printers from the likes of Stratasys? Well, there are many, many reasons. Top of the pile is that a professional 3D printer will deliver true design answers. For example, if a product designer has two mating parts, he or she doesn’t want to invest extensive CAD time only to find that the company’s cheap 3D printer has no accuracy or repeatability, thus offering no opportunity for the components to fit together.
Ultimately, the only way to obtain confidence in the outcome is to use a professional 3D printer, where the material quality is known and the accuracy is guaranteed. Only this will deliver the necessary design assurances and confidence to move into volume production. This premise is the same whether the industry concerned is automotive, defence, toys, shoes, consumer electronics, medical, dental, jewellery or a host more besides. Product design and development engineers in all these sectors want to print high quality, fine detailed parts in production-grade materials.
Stratasys offers commercial 3D printers either based on Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), which builds parts out of sturdy material, or Polyjet inkjet technology which provides fine detail and smooth surfaces.
The 3D printers available on the High Street are aimed at the hobbyist, the DIY enthusiast or simply the technology geek who wants little more than to impress his friends. The models produced by such machines are exactly that -; models. These are to be admired but little else. Conversely, a professional 3D printer will deliver components from a far wider choice of engineering materials that offer form, fit and function -; genuine prototypes with design intent. Moreover, they produce these prototypes faster, with greater accuracy and higher resolution.
The Stratasys FDM process imparts heat during the build, which aids curing of the ABS thermoplastic component being built, thus delivering inherent mechanical strength and long term durability. One machine using this very process is the Stratasys uPrint, which offers an entry-level professional solution at a near-consumer price. The price includes not only the machine but a soluble support removal system and starter-packs of consumables. Stratasys has even incorporated easy-change features into its material cartridges. Compared to hobbyist machines, this is true turnkey operation with a quiet, clean performance for building ABS parts in up to nine different colours.
For those seeking a low cost 3D printer offering a stereolithography-like, high quality finish, but matched with impressive accuracy and speed, then consider the Objet24. Based on jetted photopolymer technology, this is a universal yet affordable office desktop solution capable of matching any product designer’s expectations.
When planning to purchase a 3D printer, buyers will find capabilities and a price range wider than products from almost any other industry. Only by understanding the fundamental differences between hobbyist and professional machines will organisations identify a reasonable investment for a 3D printer that will do the job right.
While an attractive price tag will always succeed in drawing attention, those with flexibility in their budget should always consider additional factors such as capacity/build envelope, materials, speed, ease-of-use and accuracy before committing to a purchase. Those looking to spend less than four figures should not expect to tick many of these boxes. Only those prepared to sacrifice quality or assemble their own machine will find value in the High Street 3D printer market.
Ultimately, professional product design and development engineers don’t want to spend time replacing a cog or wiggling the bed by a few millimetres until a print job comes out right. They want to be able to push a button, walk away and trust the work will get done. A low cost 3D printer from the High Street will cost far more in time and money than a professional counterpart. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States once said: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”