24 Mar, 2022
By: Cadalyst Staff
The 3D printing arena includes a variety of players: from small to large, well-known companies. Find out which companies are using technology that will work for you.
Small manufacturers face the same problems as the titans of industry, just on a different scale. 3D printing (AKA, additive manufacturing) is working its way into firms of all sizes, as the cost-benefit ratio continues to come down and as successful use cases multiply. Read part one of this series for an overview of what additive manufacturing is, how it’s used, and where the technology is leading.
Additive manufacturing (AM) continues to grow as an industry. The field is in a state of constant innovation, as both established firms and startups discover new ways to improve not only the digital fabrication processes but also improve the required support ecosystem.
3D printing offers unique opportunities to solve design and production challenges. It can be a little overwhelming at first to say, “Let’s look into 3D printing,” and discover there are hundreds of products and thousands of use cases. Beware of any 3D printing company that says only one print technology — theirs — can solve all manufacturing problems.
One way to get started in 3D printing is to establish performance criteria for your project. A printer for quick iteration of concept design prototypes is probably not the same printer you want for creating custom jigs and fixtures or short run parts.
For most potential users, evaluating these seven performance criteria will be the key to limiting your choices and making the right selection:
Time-to-finished part. Every 3D printer has a different file-to-finished part speed. Some required extensive post-production part processing, which needs to be taken into consideration.
Accuracy, precision, repeatability. A printed part for design review has a different standard for accuracy than a printed part for a new fighter jet.
Aesthetics. Will the parts be strictly functional (meaning ugly is OK), or do they need to be visually appealing? One major vendor can give you hard, functional thermoplastic parts at large volume in any color you want, as long as that color is dark gray.
Part strength. Each printing method and each material has specific mechanical properties.
Material properties. There is no one type of Nylon, no one version of aluminum, that works in all 3D printing environments, so what materials work best for you?
Print capacity. Print capacity is about more than the size of the printer’s build box. Serial production or one-off printing require different processes. One printer might do the exact part you need, but also need significant time between builds for maintenance.
Initial investment and total cost of operation. Do you want a low cost of entry for your first step into 3D printing, or are you willing to make a higher initial investment if you know it means a lower total cost of operation?
To help narrow the choices based on performance criteria, what follows is an overview of the major players and promising newcomers in additive manufacturing with some examples of products available.
Chuck Hull started 3D Systems to bring his invention of stereolithographic printing to market. Today it is the largest company in the field and continues to be an innovative player. The company currently offers printers and related equipment for plastics, metal, and metal casting, plus special products for the dental and jewelry industries. The company has a large software division (primarily created by acquisition) and prefers to either create its own materials or partner closely with leading materials vendors including BASF.
3D Systems’ DMP Flex 350 and DMP Flex 350 Dual (above) are high throughput, high repeatability metal 3D printers that generate parts in a broad range of alloys, up to 275 x 275 x 420 mm in size.
The mission statement of Desktop Metal is to make metal and carbon fiber 3D printing “accessible to all.” It offers three product brands for metal (Production System, Shop System, and Studio System) and a fourth brand for fiber, which offers printed composite parts reinforced with industrial and aerospace-grade continuous fiber AFP tape. Of special interest to Cadalyst readers: several SOLIDWORKS veterans are part of the development and leadership teams. In addition, recently Desktop Metal acquired ExOne, which focuses on sand 3D printers and related products for foundries, tooling, and pattern shops. The company says its binder jet technology “enables digital foundries to produce previously impossible shapes, consolidate complex cores to reduce assembly, and iterate design changes without the time or investment of traditional tooling.” We’ll watch to see how these two powerhouses start to collaborate with their technologies.
Desktop Metal’s X-Series line of binder jet 3D printing systems for metal and ceramic powders prints objects in a wide range of particle sizes. The three X-Series models include (from left to right) the InnoventX, an entry-level binder jet system for academic, R&D, and low-volume production applications; the X25Pro, a mid-sized solution suitable for volume production that features a build box of 400 x 250 x 250 mm; and the X160Pro, a large metal binder jet system, featuring a build box of 800 x 500 x 400 mm.
Electro-Optical Systems is one of the oldest players in the metal printing space, but also offers plastics production. EOS focuses on production volume printing, including its alternative to injection molding, LaserProFusion.
EOS printers use either plastics or metal in production volume.
HP is not the only industrial giant with a 3D printer division. GE created its own AM technology for its aviation systems, then spun the additive technology to its own division. Two metal technologies, electron beam melting (EBM) and direct metal laser melting (DMLM) are the basis for several specific printers.
GE Additive’s M Line uses DMLM technology, an additive manufacturing process that uses lasers to melt ultra-thin layers of metal powder to build three-dimensional objects. It can build products up to 500mm x 500mm x 400mm.
This well-known industrial giant created its own 3D printing division to leverage its many years of 2D digital printing. Its MultiJet Fusion technology controls the print process on a voxel-by-voxel (3D pixel) basis. The process looks like large-format 2D printing, with the print bar laying down a layer at a time. HP offers both plastics and metal printing solutions.
HP’s 3D Jet Fusion 4200 is designed for functional prototyping and short-run production using plastics. It can build products up to 380 mm x 284 mm x 380 mm in size with a maximum layer thickness of 80 microns.
“The Digital Forge” is this company’s description of the ecosystem it has created for both volume production and desktop one-offs for metal and carbon fiber parts. The company claims its proprietary Continuous Fiber Reinforcement technology using its Onyx micro carbon fiber-filled Nylon is 11x stronger than Onyx when printed with older methods and 25x stronger than ABS plastic. Markforged offers 3D printers for a broad range of users — from desktop to industrial units.
Markforged’s Onyx One ($4,990) is a desktop model, designed to produce plastic parts up to 320 x132 x154 mm in size. (Image source: Markforged)
This young, publicly traded company specializes in additive manufacturing of printed electronic and electromechanical subassemblies, which they call Additively Manufactured Electronics. One early user, a satellite manufacturing consortium, says Nano Dimensions “led to cost reductions of $400,000 per small satellite.”
Nano Dimension’s Dragonfly IV can print various types of electro-mechanical devices, with complex geometries, enabled by the 3D printing technology, for example sensors, RF devices, complex devices packaging, up to 160 mm x 160 mm x 3 mm in size.
Today’s Stratasys is the merger of two early players in the field, US-based Stratasys and Israel-based Objet. The company offers a wide variety of printers based on three distinct plastics technologies (fused deposition modeling, PolyJet, and stereolithography), and one metal technology, layered powder metallurgy.
The Stratasys J55 desktop-sized 3D printer uses the company’s PolyJet technology and can print products up to within the tray area of 1,174 cm2 and 18.7cm high in any Pantone color and with a variety of textures, such as wood or fabric.
Fast-growing Velo3D offers an end-to-end metal additive manufacturing solution it calls Intelligent Fusion. The focus is on part production, including real-time validation and software to prepare CAD models for print production.
The Sapphire family of 3D printers from Velo3D are integrated production systems driven by the company’s SupportFree manufacturing process. They are laser powder bed fusion metal AM printers capable of printing complex geometries including low angle prints down to 0-degrees, high aspect ratio structures up to 6000:1, large inner diameters up to 100mm, and support free free-floating parts.
High Speed Sintering (HSS) is Voxeljet’s “next generation industrial polymer” printing technology. The company is focused on volume production, but also offers desktop units. The company also offers “universal binder jetting” printers for sand, plastic, and ceramic products. HSS is completed by using heat-reactive binders as the product is printed.
Voxeljet’s VX1000 process plastics, sand, and ceramics up to 1000 x 600 x 500 mm volume, and can make a variety of products from medium-sized molds and cores for metal casting, to investment casting patterns and ceramic components. (Image source Voxeljet)
The firms above are not the only players. There are literally dozens of small 3D printing companies, many of which came into existence after the initial patents in the field expired. Best known among them include: