With multiple options for additive manufacturing (AM) / 3D printing platforms available today, it can be confusing for potential users to select the best fit for their needs.
Felixprinters, a 3D-printing technology supplier, recommends considering the following to help make informed decisions and ultimately the correct investment, one that dovetails one’s needs.
1. Accuracy, surface finish and resolution
AM platforms come in various shapes and sizes, offering varying capabilities in terms of accuracy, surface finish and resolution. Increased accuracy normally relates to higher machine cost. At one end of the spectrum are low-cost, entry-level 3D printers, characterised by low accuracy and lack of repeatability, aimed at consumer and hobby markets. The other end comprises costly and highly-accurate machines for OEMs and their suppliers, who require exacting performance for production applications. Therefore, the Holy Grail is to select a lower-cost machine that does not compromise on accuracy and repeatability.
What will the AM application be used for? What should it build — prototypes, concept models, end-use production parts, master patterns for castings or tooling and fixtures?
The requirements for clean-cut concept models differ greatly from those of a manufacturer who needs them to provide an end-use product or component with precise design intent and detail.
Material requirements pertain to physical properties that the AM part must exhibit. Should the part be stiff or flexible? Does it have to be a specific colour? How durable must it be? Must the part be water-repellent or chemical-resistant? Another important question is whether all the parts are to be made of the same material or different materials? Then, opt for an AM platform that promotes ease of change when it comes to purging and recalibration.
4. Build size
The build envelope of AM machines varies greatly. Also, one platform may not necessarily accommodate every build one plans to make. The key is to choose a platform that accommodates the majority of the parts to be printed and outsourcing the rest, which is more economical than purchasing multiple machines. Alternatively, a supplier who provides a variety of build volumes on different platforms, which are positioned at a cost, can make a multiple-platform purchase a viable option. Or select a supplier who offers platform upgrades as requirements evolve or grow.
5. Build speed
The machine builds in inches or millimetres per hour in the vertical build direction. Build time varies depending on application, geometry, layer thickness and material. It is important to know whether adding parts to the build platform will increase the build time. There are several AM platforms that are slower when parts are added.
For some applications, colour is vital or preferable for aesthetic reasons, while for others it is irrelevant. Several platforms can only print one colour at a time, meaning that it becomes necessary to change materials between builds, while others have full-colour printing capability.
7. Post-processing needs
Almost every 3D-printed part for any application requires post-processing after the build. This must be seriously considered because post-processing requirements can effect up to 60% or more of the final cost of a printed part. The AM platform choice impacts the extra floor space one needs for post-processing activities, hardware and tools as well as the cost of staff to undertake post-processing activities.
Maintenance is a must when using a 3D printer. Most 3D printers are highly technical. Here, a reliable supplier who offers maintenance services and post-sale assistance when needed is a great help.
9. Cost and extras
AM platforms can cost anywhere from 1,000 to over one million euros. While lower cost implies lower accuracy and repeatability, a few suppliers provide comparatively low-cost machines (10,000 to 20,000 euros) with good accuracy and repeatability. Find out whether the quoted cost is final and whether shipping, sales taxes, installation and training costs, technical support and extended warranties are included. Furthermore, ask whether additional investments for computers, specific power supplies, ventilation systems or equipment to regulate humidity, temperature and the control of air-borne particulates are needed.
Having an AM platform means there are always on-going costs for materials and other consumables, solvents for cleaning-up and post-processing, maintenance, repairs and recalibration to consider.