Solving the Price Problem for Industrial 3D Printing Materials
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 31, 2016 |

The 3D printing industry has found itself stuck with what may be an unnecessary leftover legacy from the 2D printing market—that of the razor-and-blade model associated with the purchase of printing materials. Just as 2D printer owners are locked into purchasing inks for their brand of printer, 3D printer owners may be forced to purchase proprietary materials for their machines, particularly when those brands belong to the biggest companies in the industry, such as Stratasys and 3D Systems.

The ongoing maker movement is largely responsible for the desktop 3D printing eruptions that began in 2009. These do-it-yourselfers are not the types to be tied down by proprietary cartridges. Their demand and innovation have led the new wave of 3D printers to rely on an open-material model in which just about any 3D printing feedstock ought to work with just about any 3D printer. As a result, the old guard has had to face a disruption to the razor-and-blade model, allowing users to discover less expensive materials providers for their less expensive systems.

Those large leaders of the 3D printing industry may be less intimidated by the hobby machines on the market, which are more adept at producing consumer items and tchotchkes, but, as a new breed of 3D printer emerges on the scene, their grip on the industrial sector may begin to loosen. Companies like 3ntr, Indmatec and Roboze have introduced their own 3D printers, capable of handling professional-grade materials, that rival those of the industry leaders. One firm in particular, 3ntr, may be especially poised to shake things up through a partnership with North American service provider and representative Plural Additive Manufacturing (AM).


Enter 3ntr Low Cost Industrial 3D Printers

An interview with Plural AM CEO, Tom McKasson, and president and co-founder, Ed Israel, shed light on the ways new industrial machines and materials have the potential to reduce the costs associated with acquiring and running an industrial additive manufacturing process. The two focused particularly on the new material possibilities available. For Plural AM, this means the use of 3ntr’s robust A2 and A4 fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printers, which are capable of handling a wide range of materials by using an all-metal hot end that can reach up to 410 °C. 

3ntr’s A2 and A4 series 3D printers feature three liquid-cooled extruders for processing professional quality 3D print jobs. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)
3ntr’s A2 and A4 series 3D printers feature three liquid-cooled extruders for processing professional quality 3D print jobs. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

“Traditional FFF systems are expensive,” McKasson said, “but the fact of the matter is that if you are going to produce hundreds or thousands of parts per month over a four or five year life period of the machine, the cost of even the machines is not prohibitive. It is the material costs.”

When working with clients as a 3D printer reseller, McKasson found that his clients had difficulty justifying the purchase due to high costs of proprietary filament. However, opening up a system to third-party materials, as is the case with the 3ntr machines, reduces these costs dramatically.

In general, the Plural AM team says, the cost of proprietary filament for a traditional FFF machine can be about three to four times as much as a third-party filament provider used with the 3ntr line.

“Proprietary materials range between just under four dollars per cubic inch to just over seven dollars per cubic inch,” McKasson said. “If you want to run just basic ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene filaments], you’re paying, in round numbers, four dollars per cubic inch; we are delivering top-quality ABS at about a dollar per cubic inch in small quantities. That’s the big difference.”


Industrial-Grade Filaments from Third-Party Manufacturers

The biggest variable to consider in the use of third-party filaments with a new industrial 3D printer is the quality of those materials. Since the desktop 3D printing explosion began, a number of businesses, small and large, have jumped onto the scene to supply the growing 3D printing materials market. That market is predicted by research firm IDTechEx to reach $8.3 billion by 2025. One of the earliest startups to begin introducing industrial-grade filaments to the desktop FFF scene was taulman3D, which quickly earned a reputation among enthusiasts for high-quality materials.

taulman3D was among the first third-party filament manufacturers to produce industrial-grade materials. (Image courtesy of taulman3D.)
taulman3D was among the first third-party filament manufacturers to produce industrial-grade materials. (Image courtesy of taulman3D.)

taulman3D, led by Thomas Martzall, began with a single nylon filament before expanding into a diverse portfolio of seven nylons, four copolyesters, a polyethylene isomer and a thermoplastic polyurethane. The firm has since established partnerships with two of the largest chemical companies in the world, DuPont and Eastman Chemical Company. T-lyne, produced with DuPont’s Surlyn ionomer, is a clear polyethylene copolymer that has high-impact resistance and unique thermal properties that allow it to be heated, post-printing, for manual flexing and deformation. Once cooled, an object printed with T-lyne maintains its new shape. Given that DuPont Surlyn meets FDA 21CFR 177.1330(a) standards, the material could also potentially be used for 3D printing prosthetics. With Eastman’s Amphora material, taulman3D created the n-vent filament, which has strong heat resistance, low shrinkage, high tensile strength and low odor.

While taulman3D is now Plural AM’s core materials partner, the company will be working with other material suppliers, including 3ntr. Going forward with 3ntr’s 3D printers, Plural will be certifying materials for use with their machines.

“3ntr does have a few filaments that are relatively unique and different from anything that taulman3D has, and we will be carrying those, as well,” McKasson said. “Part of our goal is to offer a very wide catalog and a very wide range of materials to suit FDA applications, nylon applications, self-lubricating applications. None of those things are being addressed, in fact many of them not even by Stratasys, today. So, we’ll be bringing materials to market at commodity-type or hobby-type prices, but they’ll be certified high quality materials.”


Cost Savings from 3D Printing

The combination of new entrants, the likes of 3ntr, and third-party filament suppliers has opened up the possibility for greater competition in the market, potentially reducing costs for businesses looking to adopt additive manufacturing within their operations. McKasson described one client that was spending $8,500 per month for a set of three different parts to manufacture on product.

“We can deliver that same set of three parts in the same numbers they are using today at something around $3,500,” McKasson explained. “So the client put $5,000 to the bottom line in their business and this includes the annual amortized purchase of the printers and materials.”

Portland-based Plural AM sells 3ntr 3D printers and provides additive manufacturing expertise and services. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)
Portland-based Plural AM sells 3ntr 3D printers and provides additive manufacturing expertise and services. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

“We’ve found a subset of companies that, time after time, are making their parts using CNC equipment or are buying tooling or are utilizing some other fabrication method, but fit within a certain sweet spot for which additive manufacturing is a viable alternative,” McKasson continued. “And it’s a very big sweet spot because it can be tens or hundreds of parts or it can be hundreds or thousands of parts per month. And, when we fit, we’re finding that, every single time, we’re able to deliver a fully turnkey system, including the costs of the machines and material on an annual basis, at a cost per part that's at about 50 percent of what they're paying today.”

Plural AM sells services and supports 3ntr’s 3D printers in North America, working with customers to determine if additive manufacturing is right for their businesses and collaborating with them to ensure the proper use and maintenance of their machines. Plural is also slowly adding resellers meant to support the company in bringing more affordable additive manufacturing to North America. If you’re interested in learning more about the company and its offerings, visit the Plural AM website here.

Plural AM has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input. All opinions are mine. —Michael Molitch-Hou

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