French 3D printer manufacturer Prodways has made it its mission to become the third leading player in the 3D printer industry, after Stratasys and 3D Systems. To do so, the company, a subsidiary of the publicly-traded Groupe Gorgé, partnered with Farsoon Technology, a Chinese manufacturer of selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printers, and acquired a startup, Norge Systems, that, at the time of acquisition, was working toward developing an entry-level SLS machine.
Last year saw the release of the “Prodways powered by Farsoon” line of plastic and metal sintering systems and now, at the RAPID 3D printing trade show, the results of that second deal are starting to appear with Prodways unveiling what the company is billing as the first industrial SLS system priced at under EUR€100,000 (USD$113,170), a comparatively low-cost option for a typically high-priced technology. To top off the release, the company has also announced a partnership with BASF
, the largest chemical producer in the world.
The ProMaker P1000 3D printer is Prodways’ entry-level industrial-grade SLS 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Prodways.)
The new ProMaker P1000 is the result of Prodways' acquisition of Norge Systems, an Italy-born, England-based, three-person startup that originally sought to crowdfund the construction of two low-cost SLS 3D printers, the Ice 1 and Ice 9. Impressed with the technology and to secure an internal SLS team, Prodways purchased the firm in March of 2015, bringing on board its founders Alessandro Facchini, Luca Veneri, and Stefano Rebecchi to develop the P1000 system.
Standing with the ProMaker P1000 3D printer, Prodways’ SLS engineering team, from left to right: Alessandro Facchini, Luca Veneri, and Stefano Rebecchi. (Image courtesy of the author.)
In an interview at RAPID 2016, the Norge team, now heading up Prodways' SLS division, said that, in many ways, being bought by an established company was a dream, particularly considering the significant investments Groupe Gorgé has been making in its 3D printing subsidiary. Suddenly, the three entrepreneurs had all of the resources necessary to turn their low-cost technology into a powerful industrial platform.
One of the features made possible with the new resources at their disposal was the inclusion of a smart temperature-control system into the P1000. Facchini explained that this system, capable of providing thermal stability, is key to producing quality prints. With 10 lamps and four infrared sensors in the build chamber, the machine is able to monitor the temperature of the powder and print area and then maintain a consistent temperature.
Prints made with different PA powders on the ProMaker P1000 3D printer from Prodways, including small cubes with fine, 1 mm holes. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Heating the material before printing and while printing also ensures an unsintered powder recyclability rate of greater than 40 percent, Veneri added. He said that this prevents the powder from being “shocked” by the heat of the printing process that typically causes the powder surrounding the part to change chemistry and become unusable in subsequent prints.
The coating system for the P1000 is modular, so that users can control powder distribution by replacing the existing roller-style mechanism for a blade, ideally for more even layering. A built-in touchscreen is meant to make for greater ease of use. Like its other machines, Prodways' ProMaker P1000 is also open to third-party materials.
According to the Prodways SLS team, the graphics processing unit that powers the 3D printer’s software has been improved to handle more data more quickly. They said that the software, too, has been optimized for an easy user experience, ideal for the entry-level target customer. Other features of the P1000 include:
- A build volume of 300 x 300 x 300 mm (11.8 x 11.8 x 11.8 in)
- A build rate of 0.5 l/h (30.5 in³/h)
- Scanning speeds of 3.5 m/s (137.8 in/s)
- Layer thicknesses as fine as 0.06 mm (0.002 in)
- Compatibility with a wide range of materials, including carbon-based, glass-based and mineral-based polyamide powder
Some of the cost-saving measures implemented to bring down the price of the machine include the quality of the laser and mirror galvanometer for directing the laser onto the print bed. A single metal case for the frame of the P1000 was also used, which is both more affordable and lightweight than if the system were to feature many different casing components. The electronics for the printer were consolidated onto a single, custom board, reducing the cost further.
Rebecchi pointed out that the goal for the Prodways SLS team was not to build the most complex and powerful machine they could, as they would cannibalize the higher-grade “Prodways powered by Farsoon” line. Instead, the mission was to make something that was as robust as possible at the lowest price possible. In turn, they hope to open up a new market for low-priced SLS systems. While it may not be as quick and powerful as the next system up, the P2000 SD, the P1000 was designed to produce quality parts, according to the team.
The team explained that the P1000's ability to use the 10 different grades of PA12, PA11 and TPU sintering powder produced by Prodways truly adds to the industrial capabilities of the machine. The one powder it can’t handle, however, is PA6, a polyamide material developed in partnership with BASF. Used in a number of industries, such as the automotive and electronics sectors, PA6 may replace the use of metal for producing large parts with lighter weights.
Developed in 2015 with Farsoon Technology and Varia 3D, the BASF PA6 powder has been engineered to have mechanical resistance, thermal stability and hardness close to PA6 parts made with injection molding. Prodways' ProMaker P2000 HT is the only system suited to handle the material, as it prints at a higher temperature of 220 °C.
The P2000 HT 3D printer, capable of 3D printing with PA6 from BASF. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The release of any new machine or material naturally gives a company something to boast about. The claim that it is the “first” industrial SLS printer under EUR€100,000 might be open to debate, as there are at least three other SLS systems that are much more affordable: the SnowWhite from Sharebot priced at EUR€40,000, the Sinterit Lisa with a cost of USD$10,000 and Sintratec’s S1, priced at EUR€9,000. The question is whether or not any of them are robust and capable enough to be considered industrial machines.
Both Sintratec and Sinterit’s technologies can only process a single variety of nylon powder. The powder ranges of these machines are also far fewer than that of the P1000. The Lisa, for instance, only features a 5W laser, while the SnowWhite uses a 14W laser, compared to the P1000’s 30W laser. While these less powerful systems may still fall above the USD$5,000 price tag that Wohlers Associates uses to classify a printer as industrial-grade, it’s likely that the P1000 has greater industrial-grade capacity.
Because Prodways and Farsoon are established manufacturers with greater resources and access to expertise, the P1000 can process a larger variety of powders with greater resolution and reliability than these other systems. The aforementioned price for the P1000, when it hits the market at the end of this year, is far higher than Norge Systems’ original predicted price points for its 3D printers, prior to acquisition, estimated at around GBP£19,900 (USD$29,000) for their larger Ice 9 and GBP£7,500 (USD$11,000) for the Ice 1. It is clear, however, from the specifications that, for that price, customers likely are paying for an industrial-grade machine.