10 questions you should ask before buying a professional 3D printer

The 3D printing market is roughly divided into four different segments. The desktop 3D printers are for home users and range from kits that require a lot of work by the user, to systems that work straight out of the box. The prices of these printers range from $300 to $5,000. Examples of these systems are the Ultimaker and Printrbot.


A home user range from Ultimaker

Professional printers are for use within offices. They tend to be more productive and produce better looking parts. Their pricing ranges from around $10,000 to $150,000. Examples of these systems are the Stratasys Design Series and the 3D Systems Professional range. They are mainly used for visual prototypes by design, engineering and marketing teams.

Increasingly however people are using them for form & fit testing and small production runs. In between the desktop and professional segment we have the “Professional desktop 3D printer” segment which straddles the two markets. Systems such as the Formlabs Form1+.

Highly productive systems meant for large prototypes or actual production fall into the industrial 3D printer category. These systems range in price from $30,000 to $1.5 million. Examples of these systems are the EOS systems, Envisiontec Perfactories and Arcam Q10s. (Disclosure: I’ve done work for Ultimaker, Formlabs & Envisiontec).

3D printing is a vernacular collective name for many different technologies. Each works very differently, the materials are very dissimilar and the output ranges widely. Post processing and designing for each of these technologies is also very different. Depending on your part, work space, the final application of the part or even your design, different technologies or individual systems could be better suited.

There are 3D printers for dental applications, ones for small jewelers, ones for making large car bumpers for concept cars and ones for making hearing aids. Even within the same 3D printer, printing technology output can vary widely between vendors. And even within a vendor’s range one will find differences in layer height, materials allowed on the machine and cost that make one system much more suited than the other to your individual application. Therefor the market can be a bit bewildering when you’re first shopping for a 3D printer.


The PolyJet 3D Printer from Stratasys Design Series

In order to aid people shopping for a system or those who may consider buying one I’ve prepared some handy guides meant to help your selection of a 3D printer. I hope that this will give people pause when considering a system and also let them assess the costs and requirements. I’ve made this guide for companies looking to buy a system mainly meant for prototyping used in an office or semi-office costing between $10,000 and $150,000.

1. Am I buying this just to be cool?
With the hype about 3D printing reaching new peaks many people, even theoretically rational companies, are shopping for a 3D printer just because it’s cool. If you are doing this then don’t buy a professional system. Just get a desktop system, put it in the corner and show it to people visiting the office. This is much cheaper and desktop systems also take up much less space.

2. How many people in my company can 3D model or do CAD?
A huge bottleneck at many companies is the lack of in house CAD capability. You need good CAD people to make use of the system. These CAD people will also be working with it most intensively, so it important that they are on board before you select a system. Once you have these people they should be given the time to learn to design for 3D printing, and learn the technical constraints of whichever 3D printing process you are taking in house. You can not expect a CAD person to straight off the bat make good files that are optimized for 3D printing.

3. What are the technical requirements of the parts that I want to make?
If you’d like parts that work in aircraft for example or need full color it will reduce the plethora of 3D printers to a handful of choices. Other requirements such as high temperature parts or biocompatibility will also greatly reduce the choice landscape.

4. Can I fit this thing in the office?
Many 3D printers are labeled as being office friendly. Often this is the case with the systems being relatively quiet and emission free. But, to 3D print intricate shapes you will also need 3D printing support material. This material will have to be removed. In many cases the 3D printer is office friendly but the support removal process can not be done in an office. You will need a waterjet station or a post processing unit. Often post processing processes will produce dust, smells, chemicals or damp that you will not want in your office. Let the sales rep walk you through the entire 3D printing process including post processing to get a real idea of how 3D printing works. I know it’s nice to have the thing in the office but often the best place for them is in an industrial or semi-industrial room with good HVAC.

5. Have I calculated in the labour costs?
It’s not a question of putting a machine in a corner and pushing a button every once in a while. With 3D printing you have to optimize files, nest them and post process the parts. The amount of labour varies widely depending on how much engineering is required for your parts, and how much post processing your parts would require. Companies often forget to put in labour in their 3D printer investment calculation.

6. How many useful parts am I going to make per month?
I’ve been so surprised at just how many companies go ahead and buy a 3D printer without calculating the cost per part. Over time you will see 3D printing spread through your organization. But, initially in many companies the business case is simply not there since the number of parts per month is too low. That’s why I’d always recommend first engaging a service bureau for a number of months before considering buying a 3D printer. That way you can experiment with different technologies, learn about 3D printing and actually make a strong business case for owning a 3D printer rather than buying one willy nilly.


“John, I heard you were looking for a new challenge in addition to your role as our office manager”

7. Am I actually only going to be making one type of part?
Some machines are really good at producing visual models. Others are very versatile while still others produce very strong parts suited for testing. Many companies should not buy a 3D printer because the types of parts they need are simply too varied. One time an SLA part is needed, another time a metal part, then an ABS part etc. For these types of companies owning a machine does not make sense and they would be better off using several different technologies through a service bureau.

8. What software do I need?
CAD software and 3D printing software is expensive. Budget the CAD and 3D printing seats beforehand to keep yourself from any nasty surprises. You will need a 3D printing software package such as Magics to repair files and nest builds.

9. Do I really want to pay $800 per kilo for plastic?
Another thing sometimes overlooked is the price of the consumables per part. Consumables in 3D printers range widely with some plastics being sold for higher prices per kilo than titanium. Differences in consumables pricing can completely change the cost picture of one machine or technology versus another.

10. What will be the main use of this 3D printer?
Often only one department is pushing the purchasing decision for a 3D printer. But, if many other departments would also need a system a completely different system could be a more optimal choice. Also, if you will be using the 3D printer for product development then it may be worthwhile to consider deeper uses for the system within the company. Using it for product development may speed up this team, and it will let them make many more iterations of products.

But, if you do have the system then looking at how you can use it to really change how you develop and market things will help you get higher utility from it. Involving marketing and letting them see designs earlier can eliminate many mistakes. Involving customers or sales channel partners in design and development through letting them see visual prototypes is also something to consider.


The EOS M 400 laser sintering machine from DMLS

Maybe you’d like to do testing of the form factor of your device very early in the design process with consumers? Or you could give wax models of your jewelry line to your sales force so you can be the first to show retailers the fall collection. Or make a detailed model of your industrial wind turbine so your sales managers can visually showcase the improvements or USPs of your design to prospects.

The use of 3D printing in sales is super effective but rarely talked about or used today. It is through looking more holistically at the use of the 3D printer by the entire company that often the greatest value is unlocked. Additionally, when answering this question many companies come to the conclusion that they’re only getting it because it’s cool. In that case just buy a desktop machine.

Article by Joris Peels, a heavyweight 3D printing industry commentator writing for Inside 3DP.