By Todd Grimm, Editor

In Short
  • Four technology classes for all 3D printers.
    • Consumer
    • Personal
    • Professional
    • Production
  • Combine with process types for insight into what is available.

ENGINEERING.com’s 3D Printer Landscape article presents a guide to 3D printer technology organized by the fundamental process types. That’s one way to group your options — another is by technology class.

Process type classification provides a general categorization of part characteristics. Technology class breaks the 3D printing industry down in terms of price point, operational overhead and capacity.

These classifications are not independent. When investigating your options, combine both to narrow your search.

One note before we dive into the four classes. The following terminology is not an industry standard, yet. These terms are still evolving, and 3D printer vendors may not use them as described.

Four Classes

MakerBot Replicator

The Replicator is the latest in MakerBot's line of consumer-class 3D printers. MakerBot Industries.

1. Consumer (AKA DIY or Maker)

General:

Consumer-grade 3D printers come in kit form, some-assembly-required units or fully assembled systems.

The vast majority are derivatives of the open-source RepRap project, so the general characteristics are similar, but features and options will vary.

Price range:

$500 - $3,500

Operations & ease-of-use:

Designed with the casual, home-based user in mind, these systems offer basic, simple file processing and system controls.

Facilities:

No special requirements —just a workbench or tabletop, PC and an electrical outlet (110 V).

Size:

8 in3 – 800 in3

Output:

The majority of systems will make parts from ABS or PLA plastic. Other materials are available but are far less common.

Limited in terms of types of parts (geometry) produced. Varies by system, but in general, parts that need supports and parts with geometric (versus organic) shapes may be problematic.

Part quality is acceptable (at best) — in terms of accuracy, finish and material properties— when compared to other classes.

Who:

Home-based artists/designers, inventors, educators and budding entrepreneurs.

Process time chart

uPrint 3D printer is Stratasys' entry-level device in the personal class. Stratasys, Inc.

2. Personal (AKA Desktop)

General:

This is the entry level for business-based, commercial systems. Machines in this class have a lot in common with consumer-class machines but more closely match the output qualities of professional-grade systems.

With the growing demand for low-cost alternatives, vendors have responded with scaled-down versions of high-end systems. So there are many options in this class.

Price range:

$7,000 - $40,000

Operations & ease-of-use:

Since parts are intended to be built by the engineer who doesn’t have the time or interest in learning systems operations, this 3D printer class leans to simple (nearly pushbutton) operations.

Facilities:

Positioned as desk-side or desktop solutions, these systems are generally office friendly. Yet, some may benefit from a bit of ventilation (heat and odor), and others may be a tad too noisy to be closer than 10 feet from work areas.

Post-processing (support removal, curing and sanding) can get a bit messy, so a separate work area may be a good idea for backend operations.

Build envelope:

200 in3 – 800 in3

Output:

Part quality will rival (or approach) that of professional systems. Yet, slight differences in accuracy, material properties and resolution are possible.

These systems are likely to lack the advanced features of their big brothers; features that allow more control over build parameters, build processes and part characteristics.

Most systems in this class offer only one or two material options.

Who:

Small companies with limited financial resources; companies with diverse 3D printer needs; engineers and designer that need a close-at-hand, self-serve option; and companies with distributed processing requirements.

EOSINT

The EOSINT M 280 is a professional-class system that produces metal parts. EOS GmbH.

3. Professional

General:

This is the original class of 3D printing technology. But it has only recently been classified as professional grade.

This class includes nearly all of the 3D printer technologies and most of the advanced features available in the industry. These systems are positioned for heavy use and demanding applications, spanning concept modeling to full production. As a result, they are a service bureau staple as well as an in-house resource.

Price range:

$30,000 - $750,000

Operations & ease-of-use:

To deliver advanced capabilities, operators have more control over the process. With increased control comes more need for a trained, skilled technician rather than a casual user. So a dedicated operator is the norm for professional-grade systems.

Facilities:

You will rarely see one of these systems anywhere near the office. They are just much too big, too noisy or too messy to be located in the engineering department.

Facility requirements vary, but these systems generally need a lab or shop environment with high voltage, HVAC controls or compressed-gas lines.

Build envelope:

800 in3 – 18 ft3

Output:

These are always top-of-the-line systems, so they offer all that a technology provides. For each technology type, professional-grade systems will have the highest level of control and best quality parts. When compared to personal-class machines, they offer much higher throughput and larger capacity.

A key feature is material options. These systems offer a wide selection that can span plastics to metals.

Who:

Companies with daily demands for models, prototypes, tools and production parts with the highest quality levels. Also, companies where a centralized, shared system is desired.

voxeljet VX4000

Production-class systems can be massive, as illustrated by voxeljet's VX4000. voxeljet technology GmbH.

4. Production

General:

This class builds on the professional platforms and adds greater automation, larger capacity and improved operational monitoring to ensure consistent part quality.

Since professional-class systems can be used for production of end-use parts, this class’s name is a bit of a misnomer. But the name is truly fitting of the high-volume, series production applications for which they are designed.

Price range:

$300,000 - $1,000,000 (or more)

Operations & ease-of-use:

These top-end systems aren’t for the casual user. But when investing this much in a machine, this shouldn’t be an issue; you will want skilled operators to get everything out of the technology that it has to offer. And you will want to keep these machines running around the clock.

Facilities:

Make room for these big boys. Like their little siblings, you will also need to supply power, gases and HVAC. Plan your installation as you would with any conventional manufacturing line.

Build envelope:

8 ft3 to 285 ft3

Output:

Part quality will match or exceed that of professional-class systems since they are designed to be production grade. Material options span plastics, metals and application-specific materials like sand.

These systems offer the biggest build envelopes to give you high throughput and large part capability.

Who:

Companies with demands for either extremely large objects or very high throughput for part manufacturing, mold production or functional prototypes.

 

Subscribe
 

Recommended Resources
Most Read
Community

Masters Discovery Tool

iPhone/iPad App

Android App