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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

Desktop 3D Printers Grow Beyond Trinkets, Tchotchkes, and Toys

 
July 2nd, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

Without a doubt, one of the biggest developments in the MCAD world in the past few years has been 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing). Until relatively recently, though, the cost of the 3D printing machines was cost prohibitive for all but large companies. To a large extent, costs have been plummeting, but there are machines that cost more than a million dollars. However, that is changing with the advent of relatively low-cost desktop 3D printers.

3D printers sound cool, and to a large extent they are. But, before running out to buy one, there are a few things to keep in mind. Currently, a machine will set you back $500 to $5,000, plus $40 to $100 for a roll of plastic filament (think Weed Wacker) for producing parts. Also keep in mind that producing one small object could take hours, and end up costing much more than buying it. Don’t forget, too, that you need some technical know-how to make it all work, including how to create a solid model with a CAD tool. As I have maintained for some time, with all the online 3D printing services that are available, why buy when you can rent. Check out my blog post on this sentiment from last year entitled, “3D Printing Goes Retail: Why Buy When You Can Rent?”

Being the smiling skeptic that I am, I also wrote a blog entitled “Is 3D Printing Really A Miracle?” My short answers are “Yes” and “No.”

That’s why I have said that the first low-cost devices were more fun than functional, and appealed to DIYers, hobbyists, and early adopters. All that is changing as the technology matures, prices come down, more materials become available, and part quality vastly improves.

Desktop 3D Printers

Although he didn’t coin the term, Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, for several years has distinguished personal or desktop 3D printers as those costing less than $5,000. In his book that we recently reviewed in a blog entitled, “Wohlers Report 2015 and the State of the 3D Printing Industry,” he states that there are over 300 companies now making desktop machines; with most using FDM technology and the RepRap reference design. He also says that the sales of personal or desktop are increasingly to companies, not individuals. Not surprisingly, he says that many desktop 3D printer manufacturers tend to “overstate the capabilities, reliability, and ease of use of their machines.” I agree and can attest to this.

I will admit, however, that some of the latest machines are capable of producing parts that are well above the novelty level in quality. This increase in quality is what I believe will propel desktop 3D printers to the next levels of both perception and reality.

The majority of the desktop 3D printers available today use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology that is somewhat analogous to using a precise glue gun for drawing. FDM (known by the open source community as Fused Filament Fabrication, or FFF) commonly uses plastic from a spool called filament and fed to the printer by motors. It is then melted by a heater inside the “hot end,” and extruded through the nozzle as a liquid onto the print bed where it immediately hardens and fuses to the layers below. Simply, Simply put, this process pushes a plastic filament through a heated “print head” that extrudes molten plastic in thin layers to build an object. The repetition of this process forms a 3D object layer by layer.

The FDM process is what most desktop 3D printers use. Currently, this method of 3D printing is the most cost effective, but FDM can sometimes struggle with sharp corners, overhangs, and undercits. Using secondary support material can often solve these 3D printing challenges.

The main materials used for FDM 3D printing are ABS and PLA plastics. These cost around $40 for a 2.2-pound roll. As a frame of reference, MakerBot claims that one roll provides enough material to print 100 chess pieces – that’s 40 cents apiece, assuming every attempt is perfect. This ideal scenario is something I have not yet experienced, nor have most users I have talked with.

That said, desktop 3D printer users should have a lot of patience. Also, at least some technical background is required, so you can use CAD software to create solid models and export them as STL files to the machine. You also need to perform routine maintenance on the printer itself, including leveling the print bed, cleaning print heads, and so on. Like all machines, the better shape your 3D printer is in, the better it will perform.

The listing below of desktop 3D printers is meant to be comprehensive, but by no means all inclusive, as new companies and products continue to come online and into this competitive marketplace. Also, the products listed below are representative of a company’s offerings and may not include all 3D printers within a company’s product line. The source for all of the companies listed below came primarily from companies we met with at SME’s RAPID 2015 Conference & Exhibition earlier this spring in Long Beach, CA.

With a couple exceptions, the desktop 3D printers listed below are priced starting below $5,000. Also, all of the “printers” below process materials as 3D printers, with the exception of the DiWire machine, which forms metal wire into 2D and 3D shapes.

Note, also, that the names of all listed companies are “live” links, so clicking on them takes you directly to the company for getting more information on their machines, consumables, and services.

Finally, one of the most innovative 3D printers that will be available in 2016, the HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer is not included here because of its probable price point ($100,000+) and the fact that is meant for higher volume manufacturers, and not consumers. It is said to produce parts 10x faster than current comparable technologies, but there are not yet a lot of details available with regard to technical specifications. However, as more details do become available, we will certainly be passing them along.

So, back to the topic at hand. Desktop 3D printers have great potential, but still need more refinement before they’ll achieve mainstream adoption. They are, however, advancing rapidly on many fronts, so their potential is likely to be realized in the near future.

3D Systems

Product Name: CubePro

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 10.75” x 10.75” x 9.50”

Maximum Print Speed: 15 mm/s

Layer Resolution: 70 µ

Materials: PLA, ABS

Cost: $2,799.00

Other: Print up to 3 colors simultaneously

Afinia 3D

Product Name: Afinia H800

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 10” x 8” x 8”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 100 µ

Materials: PLA, ABS

Cost: $1,899.00

Other: Machine just coming onto the market

Airwolf 3D

Product Name: Airwolf 3D HDR

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 11” x 8” x12”

Maximum Print Speed: 150 mm/s

Layer Resolution: 60 µ

Materials: 30+, including nylon and polycarbonate

Cost: $4,595; $99.00/month lease available

Other: Can print two materials simultaneously

Aleph Objects

Product Name: LulzBot TAZ 5

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 11.7” x 10.8” x 9.8”

Maximum Print Speed: 200 mm/s

Layer Resolution: 0.075 mm

Materials: PLA, ABS, PETT, nylon, polycarbonate, others

Cost: $2,200.00

Other: Open source hardware and software; available tool head upgrades

Autodesk

Product Name: Ember

Build Technology: DLP SLA

Build Volume: 64 mm x 40 mm x 134 mm

Maximum Print Speed: 18 mm/hr z-axis

Layer Resolution: 5-100 µ

Materials: Various resins

Cost: $5,995.00

Other: Printer for open source Autodesk Spark project; includes 1 year license for Autodesk Fusion 360

Dremel

Product Name: 3D Idea Builder

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 9” x 5.9” x 5.5”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 100 µ

Materials: PLA

Cost: $999.00

Other: Touchscreen control; customers like machine quality

EnvisionTec

Product Name: Perfactory µicro XL

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 4” x 3” x 4”

Maximum Print Speed: 20 mm/hr z-axis

Layer Resolution: 50-150 µ

Materials: Several, including ABS

Cost: Varies

Other: Several models available for specific uses, such as dental and jewelry

Felix USA

Product Name: Felix 3.0

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 10” x 8” x 9.3”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 10-50 µ

Materials: PLA, ABS, nylon, others

Cost: $1,499.00-$1,675.oo (DIY) – $1,975.00-$2,150.00 (Assembled)

Other: Hardware part kits available for upgrading machines

Formlabs

Product Name: Form 1+

Build Technology: SLA

Build Volume: 4.9” x 4.9” x 6.5”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 25-200 µ

Materials: Various resins

Cost: $3,299.00

Other: Comes with finishing kit for model secondary operations

FSL 3D

Product Name: Pegasus Touch

Build Technology: SLA

Build Volume: 7” x 7” x 9”

Maximum Print Speed: 3000 mm/s laser draw speed

Layer Resolution: 25-100 µ

Materials: Various resins

Cost: Starts at $2,999.00

Other: Grew out of Kickstarter project; several upgrades available

 

Kevvox

Product Name: SP4300

Build Technology: DLP

Build Volume: 2.2” x 1.4” x 3.9”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 10-100 µ

Materials: Several resins

Cost: Starts at ~$20,000

Other: Several applications, including medical and dental

MakerBot

Product Name: Replicator (Fifth Generation)

Build Technology: FDM

Build Volume: 9.9” x 7.8” x 5.9”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 100 µ

Materials: ABS, PLA, others

Cost: Starts at $2,899.00

Other: Company owned by Stratasys; print monitoring camera

MakeIt

Product Name: MakeIt Pro

Build Technology: Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)

Build Volume: 9.5” x 7.9” x 7.9”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 50 µ

Materials: ABS, PLA, nylon, others

Cost: $2,899.00

Other: Currently available only in the Los Angeles, CA area, globally soon

Pensa Labs

Product Name: DiWire

Build Technology: CNC Wire Bending

Build Volume: N/A

Maximum Print Speed: N/A

Layer Resolution: N/A

Materials: Several metal wires

Cost: $3,200.00

Other: Interchangeable bend head and feed wheels to accommodate a range of material diameters

Printspace

Product Name: Altair Pro

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 8” dia x 10” H

Maximum Print Speed: 300 mm/s

Layer Resolution: 50 µ

Materials: 25+, including PLA, nylon, ABS

Cost: $3,399.00

Other: Fully automated bed calibration; remote monitoring and control

Roland Monofab

Product Name: ARM-10

Build Technology: DLP

Build Volume: 5.1” x 2.7” x 2.7”

Maximum Print Speed: 0.4”/s

Layer Resolution: 0.01 mm

Materials: Roland ImageCure resin

Cost: $6,995.00; $147/month lease

Other: Can be paired with Roland SRM-20 for subtractive processes

Solidscape

Product Name: 3Z Pro

Build Technology: Drop on Demand/Smooth Curvature Printing (DoD/SCP)

Build Volume: 6” x 6” x 4”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: Variable

Materials: Casting waxes

Cost: $45,000.00

Other: Owned by Stratasys

SprintRay

Product Name: MoonRay

Build Technology: DLP

Build Volume: 5” x 3.2” x 9”

Maximum Print Speed: Not given

Layer Resolution: 20-100 µ

Materials: UV resin

Cost: <$3,000.00

Other: Grew from Kickstarter project; limited current availability

Type A Machines

Product Name: Series 1 Pro

Build Technology: Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)

Build Volume: 12” x 12” x 12”

Maximum Print Speed: 15-120 mm/s

Layer Resolution: 50-300 µ

Materials: PLA, PET+, others

Cost: $3,199.00

Other: Has onboard monitoring camera; 1 year license for Autodesk Fusion 360

Tiertime Corp.

Product Name: UpBox

Build Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Build Volume: 10” x 8” x 8”

Maximum Print Speed: Not Given

Layer Resolution: 100 µ

Materials: ABS, PLA

Cost: $1,899.00

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