The economics of 3D Printers and brands which took over the market

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The age of 3D printing is here and its growth continues to expand at an astounding pace. The so-called ‘additive manufacturing’ industry is now worth according to certain estimates more than 3 billion dollars and doesn’t give any signs of slowing down. In this article, I will try to present the underlying economics of this revolutionary technology that has so many applications in all kinds of areas.

We are going to look over the most important brands in 3D printing and why they are considered the most profitable in the business but before that, let’s understand a bit better the impact of 3D printers on the economy. Hopefully, you can then see the bigger picture much easily and decide if 3D printing as a technology is economically profitable for you. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or actually more familiar with these devices, I think certain factors like rentability and versatility of 3D printing need to be discussed more.

One of the first uses of 3D printing which had big potential was prototyping. Usually, this process takes a considerable time like more than a few weeks. But thanks to a 3D printer, designers can create prototypes much rapidly in hours instead of weeks. Now, this is pretty interesting but 3D printers have moved even further from this stage allowing for more and more uses. One particularly big growth area is regarding the production of jigs and fixtures. Here 3D printers can really shine as they are very precise getting all the meticulous details right so that the finished product can be replicated without any human errors. For building a jig or a fixture the normal method usually involves skilled workers that must handle the job but it seems it has become increasingly faster and simpler to have a 3D printer do it.

I’ve mentioned prototypes but they are part of a more general category called short-production runs. It makes sense to try out a product on the market before actually investing in more expensive tooling. A 3D printer can thus create a few products to see if the demand is there and if the business has the potential to be profitable. Another aspect where 3D printers may come in handy is regarding replacement parts for old cars that are still on the road.

One thing 3D printers excel at is customization. The great ability to model a product exactly to fit a certain customer’s needs has applicability in lots of fields. Some companies, for example, developed custom ear buds with the help of 3D printing optimizing each pair for an individual customer. The University of Florida has developed plastic brains on which student surgeons can practice on. The technology is powerful enough to replicate the real feel of an actual brain by modifying with precision certain aspects like the density of the material. The 3D printer is a device capable of handling production surprises. In the case of unexpected high demand, 3D printing can quickly handle the extra job. The process of manufacturing has its ups and downs and sometimes a machine can break down and in that case, a 3D printer can take over to act as a temporary replacement.

With so much economic potential right now it’s difficult to say how 3D printing will evolve in the future. One interesting perspective can be observed by imagining the following scenario. A certain component gets broken and instead of going to the local hardware store for a replacement, you just find the reference number of the item on a computer and print it yourself. Actually, it would probably make more sense to just place your customized order at the hardware store so you won’t even need to have a 3D printer yourself. This means there is an amazing opportunity for 3D printing to revolutionize how businesses handle inventories. Basically, in the future, there may no longer be a need for inventories at all.

The economy of 3D printing is a very dynamic environment and lots of companies have tried to create an impact and meet the specific demands of its customers. A small number of these businesses have established powerful brands in this field. I’ve selected five of them, the most important and relevant because they managed to deliver constant quality and products that are worth every penny.

Aleph Objects

Is a manufacturing company based in Colorado and has gained worldwide recognition through its LulzBot 3D printer product line. At the core of LulzBot stands the principle of respecting freedom and as such all their products use an open source hardware and software design. Their products are extremely reliable, performant and something that really sets LulzBot above many other brands is the relative ease of maintenance and use. With many of their printers which have been consistently rated by many reviewers and authorities in the field as the best 3D printers on the market, LulzBot has launched Aleph Objects from an obscure company a few years ago into one of the most respectable forces in the industry. Notable examples of LulzBot models are the TAZ 6 and the Lulzbot Mini.

Ultimaker

Driven by a team of talented people and forged within a culture of innovation, Ultimaker has emerged as one of the most important brands of 3D printers on the market. Its founding values are reliability, open-mindedness, professionalism and playfulness among others. Their product line is made up of the Ultimaker 2 & 3 families and the Ultimaker Original. Ultimaker is a Dutch 3D printer company with a mission to inspire people around the world with their powerful open source 3D printers and tools.

Prusa Research

Developed by Prusa research, the Prusa i3 is definitely a familiar brand among enthusiasts and professionals in the industry. Considered one of the most used 3D printers in the world, the Prusa i3 was designed by Josef Prusa in 2012 and relies on the RepRap open-source project. The comparable low cost and the DIY approach to the construction of the printer have made it very popular because of the incredible flexibility that its design entails. Many variants have been produced by companies and individuals around the world. It has a proven reliable design with limitless possibilities and comes at a very affordable price.

MakerBot

A global leader in desktop 3D printing, MakerBot is another company that scores high on innovation and the rentability of their products. Always setting the highest standards for reliability and ease-of-use, MakerBot has been ever since its founding in 2009 one of the pioneers when it comes to the accessibility of these amazing machines to the masses. They own a thriving design community called Thingiverse which has made it much simpler to discover, make and share 3D printable things. It is the largest of its kind in the world. To give some examples of their strongest 3D printers when it comes to value for money I would go with the Replicator+ and the Replicator Mini+.

Formlabs

Last but not least, a brand that I think more people familiar with 3D printers should know is Formlabs. The Massachusetts-based company has been specializing in stereolithography and they made waves with their Form 1 and Form 2 3D printers, machines that deliver high-resolution quality and incredible value. Formlabs has achieved industrial-grade print quality at reduced costs by reinventing the SLA technology. Its products are aimed at professionals and are engineered with precision in mind. Their resin-based 3D printing has applications in many fields like product design, manufacturing, education, model making, jewelry, and dentistry.

If you want to know more about 3D Printers check out these articles: Best 3D PrintersHow 3D Printers work and What to know about 3d printers.

What do you need to know about 3D printing?

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What do you actually need to know about 3D printing, and is it worth it?

Building real objects from scratch is now possible as we are living in the era of 3D printers. In the last few years, 3D printing has piqued considerable interest across the tech space. The mainstream has fully embraced these amazing machines. They can be found at retailers such as Best Buy, Home Depot, and Staples and a few online outlets. Acquired by lots of small business and schools but also by designers, engineers and many enthusiastic people about this fancy technology, it’s very clear that 3D printing is now more popular than ever. In this article, I will try to outline the basic things you need to know about 3D printing, hopefully without getting too technical.

What is 3D printing?

You probably have a basic idea of what 3D printing is, simply put is the process to transform raw material into something resembling an actual object. Starting out from zero means that this process is additive. A 3D printer gradually adds layers onto a platform being directed by a file which contains the instructions for the particular model designed. This method represents the most frequently found desktop printer type on the market. There are others too but the main idea remains the same. Employing a wide range of materials, 3D printers all have the ability to mold a three-dimensional object from a digital file containing the data, into a real item.

Is 3D Printing Even Printing?

This is a good question because technically speaking, the official definition of printing refers to the production of printed matter like publications or photographs and using the method of applied pressure by means of impression. 3D printing doesn’t really fit this definition but despite that, it should still be considered as such. If we imagine the usual printing as applying solid ink – basically a layer of material, then it’s simply a problem of perspective. What 3D printing has achieved is an outgrowth of traditional printing. It greatly extended the height of that layer by depositing multiple ones. When looked at this notion from this angle I think it makes sense to expand the definition of printing to contain the fabrication of 3D objects.

What’s the history of 3D printing?

When people think of 3D printing they are assuming that it’s some ’futuristic’ concept but in reality, it has been around for quite some time, for more than 30 years in fact. The first 3D printing process was invented in 1983 by Chuck Hull and it was called ’stereolithography’. After realizing the potential of his technique, Hull founded a company called ’3D Systems’ and built the foundations of what presently we know as 3D printing. Since then, there have been advances in the technology and nowadays they are experiencing a massive surge in popularity.

What Are the Benefits of 3D Printing?

Among the uses of 3D printing, we can count the rapid prototyping, the ability to turn 3D concept models into real objects quickly. This is helpful because it’s much easier to analyze the object and implement changes in design. This technology looks promising because it completely reshapes the nature of manufacturing. Sometime in the future, it could be possible to even download a file to print a very complex object like an electronic device directly at home.

What Can 3D Printers Make?

3D printers can quickly create models and prototypes but let’s see how well they can manage when we consider final products. Their versatility allows for the creation of numerous objects such as shoe designs, tools, furniture, gifts, toys, tripods, and many others. With the help of powerful industrial 3D printers, the automotive and aviation industries can fabricate tough components according to precise measurements. It is also a very useful technology for artists and designers or architects. They can make sculptures or models for their projects. Some uses exist for physicians and medical technicians, as they are able to manufacture artificial teeth and bone grafts or hearing aids as well as create models of organs and other structures in preparation for surgery. The expansion of 3D printing in lots of fields is proof of the great benefits it provides. But that’s not all. 3D printers are starting to get popular in some unexpected fields like gastronomy for example. Using a special open source printer, a famous institute managed to prepare some creative delicacies. In principle, it works like any other 3D printer but it applies items like cheese, chocolate or icing in liquid or paste form. NASA researched the potential for 3D printing foods like pizza and soon enough the consumer market could be populated by these so called 3D food printers.

What Are 3D Printing Services?

Some people are not that excited about owning a 3D printer because they wouldn’t use them as often. Spending some serious money just for an occasional print doesn’t seem like a good deal. Thankfully, 3D printing services are starting to reach that gap in the market for those who are simply looking to print an object in a fast and convenient way. These services take care of your request in a swift manner by printing the submitted user file (or a chosen one from an online catalog) and then delivering the finished object to you like any other shipment.

What Software Do I Need for 3D Printing?

Lots of CAD software like Blender and AutoCAD allow you to design the models you need to print. But if you aren’t necessarily interested in doing this job yourself there are databases for 3D objects which you can download and have them printed. A good resource is Makerbot’s Thingiverse which offers a great selection of files for 3D printing enthusiasts. For all your other software needs, the manufacturers of 3D printers are known to provide complete packages of the essential programs in most cases.

What Does the Future Hold for 3D Printing?

It’s hard to guess what the future has in store for 3D printers but considering the flourishing market for desktop printers right now the chances are for this trend to continue. It wouldn’t be so far-fetched to imagine a world where these wonderful machines become commonplace in houses in all sorts of places from studios, home offices, workbenches, and kitchens. Maybe not everyone is excited to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon but surely the future is bright for this technology because for lots of professionals and hobbyists it will become indispensable to their work no matter the nature of it.

If you want to know more about 3D Printers check out these articles: Best 3D PrintersHow 3D Printers work and The economics of 3D Printers.

How 3D Printers Work? A complete guide

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3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the fascinating process of transforming a digital file into a solid three-dimensional object. You can think of a 3D design file as a blueprint for an actual physical object – that’s pretty much the working magic behind 3D printing. If you are curious how exactly a 3D printer achieves this feat, then read on.

Nowadays 3D printers have become viable products to be used by more and more customers as the prices have gone down and the technology behind their functioning keeps advancing. Hardly a week goes by without hearing about the amazing potential of these machines. They are capable of creating anything from simple scale models, clothing and all sorts of gifts, to more complicated stuff like prosthetic limbs and hearing aids.

The technologies that 3D printers use can vary a lot. There are desktop printers that have the ability to melt a plastic material and then creating an object onto a print platform but there are also large industrial machines capable of selectively melting metal powder with a laser at very high temperatures. The printing process may be quite lengthy in duration, it can take many hours depending on the size of the project and usually, there is a special treatment that needs to be done to completed items to reach the desired finish. A reasonable amount of variety can also be found regarding available materials used for 3D printing. Considering the printer type they can range from plastics to sandstone, rubber, metal and alloys with lots of new materials constantly hitting the market every year. This article mostly focuses on those common 3D printers intended for the consumer market. These are the machines that appeal to hobbyists and designers and such but before that, let’s look at some other methods used in 3D printing.

SLA and DLP

Since the late 1970s, several processes have been invented. Some methods use a light source to solidify a liquid material. Examples are Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP), both are creating 3D printed models from a liquid-like resin (a photopolymer). SLA uses a laser while DLP employs a projector. In order to create a 3D printed object the first step is the submerging of a build platform into a translucent tank containing liquid resin. Then a light inside the machine, like a laser, maps each layer of the object and solidifies the material. These 3D printing technologies can be found in desktop 3D printers. They are exceptionally good at producing highly accurate items and are commonly used for extremely detailed sculptures and prototypes but their small size does not recommend them for printing big objects.

SLS

Another method used in 3D printing is called Selective Lasers Sintering (SLS) which solidifies layers of powdered material using a laser to form physical objects. With the help of a laser, successive layers of plastic, metal, glass or ceramic are melted. SLS is mostly employed in industrial 3D printing applications. The technology is rather in its incipient stages on the desktop market but the first versions have appeared and its popularity is expected to rise further into the mainstream. One great advantage of laser sintering is the freedom when it comes to designing thanks to the fact that the excess unmelted powder can act at the same time as a support for the entire structure as it is produced. Therefore you can manufacture some intricate designs without the addition of extra support. The drawback is that finished objects will require more time to cool and as a consequence of that, the entire process takes a considerably longer amount of time.

Material Jetting

Considered the most precise technology for creating realistic prototypes with amazing details and smooth surfaces, Material Jetting is a 3D printing process that looks very promising. PolyJet and MultiJet Modeling technologies draw some similarities with the standard inkjet printing but these 3D printers don’t jet drops of ink onto paper. These machines use UV light to instantly cure jetted layers of liquid photopolymer onto a build tray. To provide support for more complex shapes, the printer jets a removable gel-like material that acts as a temporary support which can be removed after the object is finished. This 3D printing method is reserved to industrial printers and makes use of liquid photopolymers, a material which adds interesting properties to a completed item including flexibility, toughness, and transparency. Because of the incredible printing resolution of up to 16-micron layers which is basically thinner than a human hair, this technology is the most precise when it comes to 3D printing.

SLM and EBM

Other industrial 3D printing processes, named Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Electron Beam Melting (EBM) are used for printing using various metals and alloys. They require a high power laser because of the higher melting point of metals. An SLM or EBM machine works by distributing a layer of metal powder onto a build platform which is then melted, in the case of an SLM by a laser and by an electron beam for an EBM printer. Along the materials used for these technologies are steel, titanium, nickel, cobalt-chrome and aluminum. Metal printing is definitely the ultimate additive manufacturing process as it has many applications for aircraft, aerospace, automotive and healthcare industry.

Binder Jetting

If you were wondering about the possibility of printing an object in full color well, it’s actually possible thanks to the binder jetting technology. It’s very similar to the SLS process but uses a binding agent that gets extruded from a nozzle to bind the powder together as opposed to using a laser that simply sinters the layer together. This is yet another industrial method and has its own ups and downs. It commonly uses sandstone as a material which although is more affordable than using a laser, the resulting objects are much frailer and not as strong comparatively. Because of this, binder jetting is mostly used for architectural models and lifelike sculptures.

3D Bioprinting

A method that looks extremely promising for the healthcare industry is the 3D bioprinting which is the process of printing tissue-like structures using cell patterns. An important aspect of this is regarding the cell function and viability which have to be preserved within the resulting construct. It’s quite obvious that multiple applications can be found in medical and tissue engineering fields. At this stage, the technology is a bit far from printing an actual organ replacement but 3D bioprinting is currently used to print tissues and organs to be used for researching new drugs and pills. Additionally, this 3D printing process can incorporate the printing of scaffolds that help to regenerate joints and ligaments.

FDM Printing

The most common technology used for desktop 3D printing, favored for quick and low-cost production, is the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printing process. By extruding small beads or streams of a material which forms layers by hardening immediately, a model can be shaped with decent precision. This basic operation remains the same even if sometimes there can be differences between FDM 3D printers. The popularity of this process is due in part to the RepRap open-source 3D printing movement, which helped kickstart the creation of capable software and hardware for 3D printers. Now that we analyzed the most important 3D printing methods used in present times, in the next sections we’ll take a look at each essential component of an FDM printer and what’s its role in the printing process.

Software

One common aspect for all 3D printers is the way they rely on CAD (computer-aided design) files to print any physical objects. Models created using a CAD package are less prone to errors and can be corrected before printing to allow the verification of the design of the object before it gets printed. Similarly to plastic arts such as sculpting, 3D printing begins with a manual modeling process to prepare the geometric data for 3D computer graphics.

3D printers are controlled by a computer by using several programs and usually, the manufacturers already provide an optimized packaged bundle of software with their models. One kind of program that 3D printers make use of is called the slicer. It works by taking a 3D object file and “slicing” it into layers ready for printing. This process is done based on some parameters that can be set such as resolution – the height of the layer. Another print control software allows you to set up the distance correctly between the extruder and the build platform. It also lets you control the temperature of the extruder and manipulate it in 3D. The actual software work you have to do depends on how demanding is a project, in most cases the printing can be done in a much more straightforward way by just connecting the printer to a PC, loading the object file and pressing Print.

Filament

Regarding the most frequent materials used by FDM printers, they are called polylactic acid (PLA) which is a biodegradable polymer and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a lightweight material with a strong impact resistance and mechanical toughness. These filaments can generally be found in 1kg spools for purchase and most commonly have a diameter of 0.07 inches.

Frame

There is plenty of variation in the bodies of 3D printers. Some can be made from plastic and give a minimalist feel while others can come packed in sturdy metal frames. Expensive 3D printers usually have enclosed print areas and most lower-priced ones have an open frame. One advantage of an open frame is that you can see the process of printing much clearly but with this feature, the problem of extra noise can appear. Another downside of an open body is if you’re printing with ABS you need to keep the room ventilated because of the emanating fumes which are known to cause headaches for some people.

Print head

In a 3D printer, the print head is represented by the extruder. It contains a nozzle that squirts the liquefied filament layering the model. Above the extruder, there is a melting chamber where the material is liquefied by a heating element. The filament is fed into the extruder through a hole at the top of the printer. For heat dissipation, a small fan may be included near the nozzle.

Print Bed

This is where the object gets shaped. Also called a build platform, it can be usually as large as the printer’s build area. For adherence, it has to be treated with glue before printing which gets removed after the job is done. Some machines have heated platforms to reduce the tendency of warping of models printed with ABS thermoplastics.

Motion

The movement of a 3D printer is done side to side, in and out and up and down by the extruder assembly relative to the print bed. This is required for the extruder to continuously deposit layers one by one. Motors on each axis and connected to belts control this movement for the process to proceed smoothly. There is a particular level of variation when it comes to the motion of different 3D printers.

Printing

After you hit the print button the 3D printer moves into action. To achieve the required temperature, the melting chamber heats up. The extruder gets down to its starting position, placing itself very close to the print bed almost touching it. This proximity has an important role, it helps the first layer to adhere to the build platform. After the heating is done and the plastic has melted, the extruder starts depositing layer by layer instructed by the design file which it has received. This layer can vary in thickness and this is the factor which determines the quality of the printed object, called the printer’s resolution. A typical resolution is somewhere between 100 and 250 microns.

It’s worth noting that in FDM printing, the objects are created always from the bottom up in successive layers. In case you decide to print multiple items they will get printed simultaneously. After the printing finishes and the extruder goes away, you can finally admire the completed object. Removing it from the build platform can get particularly challenging with some printers but some persistence will definitely pay off.

If you want to know more about 3D Printers check out my other articles: Best 3D PrintersWhat do you need to know about 3D printing, and The economics of 3D Printing