Best industrial 3D printers
3D printing is no longer just a concept; today, businesses are using it to gain a competitive advantage. As industry players flood the market with proprietary devices, software, and materials, navigating that space can be quite a challenge. So we’ve put together a few things to consider before investing in an industrial printer. We cover some of the most prevalent technologies in industrial 3D printing, with at least one 3D printer in each category to give you a benchmark as you begin your search.
The emergence of 3D printing
New materials, automation, reduced costs, and the speed of new devices have driven the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing.
There was a time not so long ago when 3D printing (3DP), or additive manufacturing (AM), was used almost exclusively for prototyping, and billed only as a future game-changer. But such has been the growth of the technology – it’s no longer just an exciting prospect, nor is it just the next big thing in the evolution of industry. New materials, possibilities for automation, reduced costs, and the speed of new devices have driven the widespread adoption of the technology for production in spheres like the aerospace, automotive, healthcare, dental, and jewelry industries, among many others.
A 2019 Ernst & Young report revealed that one in two surveyed companies were expecting to make products using additive manufacturing by 2022. There was evidence of that well before the year came around. A poignant example is how, when global supply chains were ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, many hospitals turned to local 3D printing to supply PPE needs.
If 3D printing is the future, it seems the future is already here.
Why 3D print?
3D printing offers businesses considerable benefits over traditional processes like injection molding, grinding, or CNC milling. 3D printers can produce monolithic objects that are geometrically complex but lack the usual structural weaknesses like joints and sealing surfaces where leakages or mechanical failures typically occur.
3D printers can produce complex parts, circumventing the design restrictions of traditional methods, and saving time and expense on tooling, machining, and assembly.
This ability to produce parts in one piece also means companies can cut down on the time and expense it takes for tooling, machining, and other processes to assemble parts. In other words, 3D printers can produce completely customized content without many of the design restrictions that hinder traditional manufacturing processes, and without the costs that come with short-run production, or product design changes when companies use traditional methods.
Navigating the 3D industry’s crowded marketplace
For all the progress that’s been made, however, the industry is still not fully mature. There are many players operating under the additive manufacturing umbrella. All of them are relentlessly innovating and pushing their own proprietary methods in a dynamic, ever-evolving marketplace. The result is a rich diversity of technologies and materials, but also a fragmented space that can be challenging to navigate.
This article aims to provide you with a more informed perspective if you are thinking of investing in an additive manufacturing solution. We will first look at a number of things to bear in mind when making your choice, then we explore the different types of technologies dominating the industrial 3D printing space. We nominate at least one device in each category, and discuss their characteristics, including aspects like capacity, accuracy, and material properties.
Additive manufacturing has quickly grown to become an essential part of industry. But this rapid growth has resulted in a fragmented market that can be quite challenging to navigate.
To buy or not to buy?
There are several considerations to take into account before investing in industrial 3D printers:
What business priorities will be addressed specifically by your new 3D printer?
There is no one-size-fits-all 3D printer. So with the variety of approaches to 3D printing, it’s important to determine exactly what you want to achieve with the technology, and then work out what the return on this investment will be. It usually comes down to how varied the materials or composites you want to print with are, the mechanical properties you want from your final prints, and whether your needs can be served by one device.
How ready are you to adopt an in-house AM strategy?
It could be that your company would be better off outsourcing 3D printing services instead of investing in an in-house industrial 3D printer. If most of the parts you require 3D printed can be made using one printer, then acquiring devices optimized for this purpose would be a sensible decision. You’ll just want to make sure the printing size is adequate for your needs, the material properties – hardness, elasticity, extensibility, and such – are appropriate for your prints, and that you have the necessary infrastructure (power supply, floor space, ventilation, etc.) to install the 3D printer of your choice.
However, if your 3D printing needs have varying material and performance characteristics, then you might want to outsource 3D printing services and just get those parts printed on demand. You could also do a combination of both, performing the most common applications in-house and outsourcing the rest.
What will it cost to run the printers?
Once you have determined which technology suits your needs, you’ll also want to look at the total cost of ownership of the devices. Apart from the cost of acquiring the device, think about what printing supplies are needed, their cost and availability, and to what extent the materials are reusable. There may also be extra running costs like safety equipment, additional infrastructure like ventilation and plumbing, and post-processing requirements that will demand time and labor. Also, do the printers require specialized expertise, or can your existing staff operate them? It may turn out that in the long run, the associated overheads might be too prohibitive for you to adopt the technology on a large scale.
The total cost of ownership of an industrial 3D printer can get quite high. Before taking the leap, explore the alternatives and make sure it is the right choice for you. You might be better off outsourcing 3D printing services.
Industrial 3D printers by type
The most commonly used industrial metal 3D printing methods are based on Selective Laser Melting (SLM). Some technologies use sintering instead, a process that’s very similar to melting except the material is pressurized and heated to a temperature that’s enough to solidify it but stops short of liquefying it. The approaches roughly correspond with the following process:
Software slices a 3D model into 2D layers that the 3D printer will use to build the final print. A special powder is spread across the surface of the 3D print bed, and a laser beam melts or sinters (depending on the technology) each layer of the 3D part.
When one layer is completed, the print bed is lowered slightly, and a recoating system spreads a new layer of powder across the base plate. The melting or sintering process with the laser beam is repeated, and the new layer adheres to the one immediately below it.
Most metal printers use a laser or electron beam to sinter or melt layers of powder into a complete 3D object.
In Electron Beam Powder Bed Fusion (EBM) printers, the process is similar, but instead of a laser beam, an electron beam is used to melt (not sinter) the powder. This is a faster process but it comes with a trade-off on accuracy.
The printing process involves melting or sintering each layer, lowering the powder bed, and repeating the process until the complete object is formed.
Selective Laser Melting (SLM) printers
EOS’ DMLS printers are capable of speeds of up to 7.0 m/s, and have a catalog of materials that include nickel alloys for high-temperature applications.
German manufacturer EOS has a high-end Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) printer that comes in two versions. You can get the EOS M400, which has one 1,000 Watt laser, or you can opt for the EOS M400-4, which uses four 400 Watt lasers in a system designed to enhance the melting and fusing of powder and to improve the surface finish of prints.
Both options come with a build volume of 400 × 400 × 400 mm which is sufficient for many industrial applications. Both are capable of scanning speeds of up to 7.0 m/s. The M400 has a focus diameter of roughly 90 microns, whereas the M400-4’s is slightly higher, at approximately 100 microns.
EOS provides an entire catalog of materials for use with its devices. These include nickel alloys for high-temperature applications, a pure tungsten alloy for use in imaging devices such as those used in the medical field, copper for heat exchangers, precious metals, and other high-performance alloys used across many industries.
EOS also offers a suite of software applications for you to create and adjust build parameters for CAD data, monitor production, and provide a dashboard to monitor an entire machine park and send notifications about print jobs and the status of the printers.
This includes EOSPrint 2, an application that is designed to help you optimize factors relating to your print jobs – things such as the build speed, surface quality, and parameters to ensure your prints go smoothly.
EOS also has additional specialized solutions like EOState Monitoring, for quality control, EOSConnect Core, for IoT-capable connectivity, and EOSConnect MachinePark, with which you can monitor your entire EOS network of printers.
DMP Factory 500
3D Systems’ Direct Metal Printing solutions consists of five modules that perform simultaneous tasks to cut wait times and increase efficiency.
Touted as their game-changer for the AM world, 3D Systems’ Direct Metal Printing (DMP) Factory 500 is another interesting proposition when it comes to metal 3D printers. It is modular, and designed to enable companies to choose a setup that is suited to their requirements.
This modularity makes it possible to have several processes operate at the same time, as opposed to a non-modular system, where you have to wait for one print job to be completed before starting another. So printing, depowdering, recycling material, and preparing a new build can all take place simultaneously, considerably cutting wait times and associated costs, and increasing efficiency.
The system consists of five modules that each perform specific tasks:
There is a Printer Module (PTM), a Powder Management Module (PMM) that depowders parts and recycles unused powder, a Removable Print Module (RPM) that seals the build platform and powder from the atmosphere and can be moved between the Printer and Powder Management Modules, a Transport Module (TRM) for moving the Removable Print Modules between Printer Modules and Powder Management Modules, and a Parking Module (PAM) for temporary storage of Removable Print Modules between stages in the print job.
The Factory 500 has a build volume of up to 500 × 500 × 500 mm, so it is considerably larger than the EOS M400, and also has three 500 Watt lasers.
On the software front, 3D Systems offers 3DXpert, which has tools to support the whole 3D printing process from design to post-processing. The software has all the features you’d expect to come standard when bundled with a device at this price point. You can set up print plates, generate support structures, tweak print parameters, and observe things like thermal stress parameters using the build simulation feature so you can make the required adjustments before the actual printing.
LASERTEC 6600 DED hybrid
DMG Mori’s devices can do both additive and subtractive manufacturing on the same device.
DMG Mori offers a range of hybrid devices that are capable of both additive and subtractive manufacturing. These machines are able to do both welding and milling on one device, enabling both the manufacture and repair of metal parts.
The LASERTEC 6600 DED hybrid is one their leading devices. It is based on what was initially a mill turn center, the NT6600 DCG. DMG Mori fitted it with an Additive Manufacturing (AM) unit, which uses directed energy deposition, a process which employs a laser to fuse metal powder layers.
The LASERTEC 6600 DED hybrid has a build volume of 1,040 × 610 × 3,890 mm, and is great for prototyping, low-volume production of single-molded parts, and parts with complex shapes.
Desktop Metal also has the P-50, a device that is intended to speed up the process of metal 3D printing, according to Desktop Metal’s estimates, by as much as 100 times compared to some laser powder bed fusion technologies. This helps bring down the cost-per-part to levels that can compete with traditional production techniques.
The P-50 uses a technology called Single Pass Jetting. It has a build volume of 490 × 380 × 260 mm, supports bi-directional printing, and has a 1,200 dpi print bar.
Two of the biggest names in additive manufacturing, 3D Systems and EOS, have impressive options if you’re looking for a SLM metal printer. However, other technologies like laser cladding and Single Pass Jetting are compelling propositions depending on your use case.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printers
The P810 produces flame- and UV-resistant parts. It is specifically targeted at the aerospace sector.
The P810 is a dual-laser SLS printer that EOS designed in cooperation with Boeing. This printer is designed to work only with a material called HT-23, making it a very targeted solution aimed at satisfying industry demands for high-performance parts in the aerospace sector, although it may find uses in other industries as well.
HT-23 is a material that is 23% carbon fiber, is flame- and UV-resistant, and meets the FAR 25.853 and EN 45545 standards of the aerospace and mobility industries respectively. This means that the P810 can produce lightweight, high-strength prints that can withstand high temperatures. These could be used as alternatives to carbon fiber laminated parts, and can also replace aluminum parts.
The P810 boasts a build volume of 700 × 380 × 380 mm, uses two 70-watt lasers, has a refresh rate of 40% for its material, and has a build rate of 2.7 l/h with a packing density of 5 percent – factors that help reduce production time and the cost per part.
Farsoon’s HT1001P has a modular design featuring loading, build, cooling, and breakout stations to support continuous production and minimize downtime.
The HT1001P is a polymer laser sintering system developed by Farsoon Technologies. Farsoon calls it a CAMS system – Continuous Additive Manufacturing Solution. It has a modular design that comprises loading, build, cooling, and breakout stations. The HT1001P was designed to support continuous production in cycles with minimal downtime between builds, and to be a solution that is easy to automate and can easily integrate with existing production setups.
The HT1001P has a build volume of 1,000 × 500 × 450 mm, a dual system of 100-watt lasers that can support a scanning speed of up to 15.2 m/s, and a closed-loop powder handling system that automatically returns unused powder to the supply.
The system is supported by the company’s proprietary BuildStar and MakeStar software which, they are keen to point out, offers several features including open machine key parameters, real-time build parameter modification, three-dimensional visualization, and diagnostic functions.
Stereolithography (SLA) printers
ProX 950 is a large-format SLA printer that is great for producing large objects with very good surface finishes in one go.
SLA printers are renowned for the quality of the surface finish they produce. They are also highly accurate and can typically work with a wide range of plastic materials. Another plus is that they are capable of large build volumes. Having pioneered the technology, it stands to reason that 3D Systems would have a device that best demonstrates these qualities.
The ProX 950 is a large-format SLA printer with a very impressive 1,500 × 750 × 550 mm build volume. This means that it is able to print, for example, the dashboard of a car in one go. The printer works with various resins that produce different mechanical properties.
On the software side, the proprietary 3D Sprint software package is meant to provide support for the whole process starting from the CAD data to the final 3D print. It features options for preparing CAD and polygon data, and also for managing the 3D printing process not just for SLA printers, but also for 3D Systems printers using other technologies – CJP, DLP, MJP, and SLS.
Digital Light Processing printers
Figure 4 printers
Essentially an array of smaller DLP standalone printers, Figure 4 Production is designed to deliver small parts in large volumes.
3D Systems’ Figure 4 Production is an industrial DLP printer designed to maximize manufacturing throughput. DLP is a similar technology to SLA. The difference being that it uses a projector to cure an entire layer of resin, instead of a single light beam.
According to their website, Figure 4 Production is capable of producing over one million parts per year using a wide range of industrial, dental, and custom materials. It has a printable build volume of 124.8 × 70.2 × 346 mm, so it’s essentially an array of smaller DLP standalone printers.
Figure 4 Production is a great choice if you want to scale up production of smaller parts. It is not a large format 3D printer like, say, the ProX 950. As the manufacturer puts it, the platform works well for fast product iteration, mass-customization, bridge manufacturing, and low-volume production.
Like the ProX 950, Figure 4 Production uses the company’s proprietary 3D Sprint software for file preparation and production, with possible cloud integration capabilities using 3D Connect.
Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)
Another resin-based technology worth looking at is Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP). Digital Light Synthesis, a technology that is proprietary to Carbon, is based on this approach. The process uses digital light projection and oxygen-permeable optics to quickly produce durable parts with the mechanical properties, resolution, and surface finish that are typical of resin-printing.
Carbon’s L1 is a large-format 3D printer with a build volume of 400 × 250 × 460 mm. Carbon has a range of materials that offer different properties from high elasticity, to biocompatibility, heat resistance, and high strength. This versatility, coupled with its capacity for high-volume production, has made it an appealing choice for global brands like Adidas.
Having pioneered SLA printing, 3D Systems is predictably a dominant name when it comes to 3D printers using variants of the resin-based technology like DLP. For high-volume production of durable, end-use parts, Carbon’s ground-breaking L1 3D printer is also worth a look.
MultiJet (MJP) printers
ProJet MJP 2500 series
ProJet MJP 2500 series printers (MJP 2500W, 2500, and 2500 Plus) work with different materials to print wax patterns, engineering and rigid plastics.
3D Systems’ dominance in the additive manufacturing industry is again apparent in another category of 3D scanner. MultiJet Printing is an inkjet printing process that uses printheads to deposit a range of printing materials like resins or casting wax on a build platform. Each layer is cured by a UV lamp mounted on the printhead that moves across the platform and selectively cures the material.
The ProJet MJP 2500 series printers (MJP 2500W, 2500, and 2500 Plus) work with different materials to print wax patterns, engineering and rigid plastics. The printers have a build volume of 294 × 211 × 144 mm, and so would work well for jewelry and dental applications.
Like some of the other 3D Systems products, these printers use the company’s proprietary 3D Sprint software for file preparation and production, and 3D Connect for cloud integration.
The J55 Prime can create over 640,000 unique combinations, including Pantone Validated colors.
Stratasys features in our final category for industrial 3D printers – color printers. These printers do not typically produce sufficient part strength for engineering applications, so they are more commonly used for education, toys, and color prototypes. All the same, their ability to produce prints using full color, rigid or transparent materials, elastic flexible surfaces, or Digital ABS, make them an interesting prospect for functional prototyping.
The J55 Prime has a build volume of 140 × 200 × 187 mm. It is equipped with five material channels with a fixed printhead with a rotating build platform. According to Stratasys, it can create over 640,000 unique combinations, including Pantone Validated colors, in a quiet, odorless process.
For software, Stratasys has GrabCAD Print. The software has features that help you throughout the printing process from CAD design or render, to 3D printing. GrabCAD Print supports common file formats, like 3MF, OBJ, STP, and many others. Formats you can export to include STEP (.stp), IGES (.igs), STL (.stl), ACIS (.sat), JT (.jt), and VRML (.wrl) files.
ProJet CJP X60 series
ProJet 860Pro is a full CMYK 3D printer with multiple printheads that can print an assortment of colors and gradients.
3D Systems’ X60 series offers a range of color 3D printers that are capable of high-quality prints in an impressive range of colors. The printers are great for organizations of different sizes in various industries. Educational institutions, architectural firms, consumer goods manufacturers, and media and entertainment companies can all use these devices to, for example, create educational models, or build prototypes that illustrate design intent, or show clients the finished look of a part.
The ProJet 860Pro is a full CMYK 3D printer with a build volume of 508 × 381 × 229 mm. It has multiple printheads, can print an impressive range of colors, including gradients, and can nest parts horizontally and vertically.
Additive manufacturing, once considered a technology for the future, is already here. The benefits it offers are being demonstrated every day across diverse industries in many industrial processes. However, the AM sector still remains a fragmented industry that requires some navigation. If you do make the choice to invest in an industrial 3D printer, you first want to make sure it is the right solution for your needs. Having made that choice, there are quite a few options based on different technologies you might want to consider as you get your feet wet.