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Which 3D printing technology is best for my business?

Laser Lines’ business development manager, Richard Hoy, talks through the options.

As the market reaches maturity, the options for on-site 3D production have never been more diverse. Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), PolyJet, and metal each offer something different, but which best fits your development workflow?

Fused Deposition Modelling

FDM printers are simple to use and easy to get to grips with. They are perfect for runs of small batch production parts and, as you can use soluble supports with engineering-grade materials, the finishing process is quick and fuss-free: you only need to immerse the parts in a heated circulation tank and the support material washes away.

Opening spool bay drawer of Stratasys F370 3D printer

Stratasys’ F123 series printers make an ideal first purchase. Compatible with PLA, ABS, ASA, and even PC ABS, they are flexible and versatile. ABS and ASA are widely used, particularly by beginners who don’t need higher chemical- or heat-resistance. (Anyone requiring higher grade materials should look to a Fortus machine, such as the Fortus 450 or 900mc.)

It helps to know what you want to produce before you choose your hardware and to maintain realistic expectations. For example, the Stratasys F370 is versatile and has an extensive range of features. It could be used for producing final parts, just as you would on a Fortus, and is the perfect upgrade from a Dimension, MakerBot – or competing low-end machine.

There is currently an offer to all users of 3D printers – of any type, model or manufacture – whereby you are eligible for a discount of up to 10% when trading in for a new Stratasys system bought through Laser Lines.  If the printer to be traded-in is a Makerbot, you not only get the discount on a new printer, but get to keep the Makerbot too!

PolyJet

Rigid, flexible, glossy or matt: PolyJet can handle them all. Parts printed this way have a finer layer resolution than their FDM equivalents, for a smoother finish overall.

A lot of FDM skills are directly transferrable, and parts produced this way are easy to de-support using soluble material. The overall process is a little more time consuming, as swapping materials and cleaning the heads takes longer, but it is worth the effort if you need smooth surfaces and access to a wider range of materials.

The Stratasys Objet30 Prime is about twice the size of a photocopier, so easily accommodated in a factory or design lab. It is keenly priced and supports a wide range of materials, even though it can only access one at a time. This won’t be a serious limitation for many users, and it helps keep the price down.

If you only occasionally need to combine multiple materials, consider using Laser Lines’ bureau service to produce one-off or short-run parts instead, at least until you reach production numbers that make buying your own machine financially prudent.

Metal

There will always be a place for metal. There are some instances where we can swap to an FDM process, especially with Stratasys now producing carbon fibre-infused plastics, but metal outclasses even these for durability and heat tolerance. In almost every instance, you could use what you produce in a metal printer as a production part, so for creating bespoke tools in an industrial environment, it still can’t be beaten.

All SLM machines work with the company’s full range of materials, including aluminium, cobalt, chrome, stainless steel and tool steel. Changing between them takes a little bit of cleaning, but if you invest in additional sieving stations and pipework it makes things easier.

Orlas Creator openWhile metal remains a more expensive medium to work with, OR Laser recently debuted an innovative entry-level machine (right), albeit with a smaller build platform and access to a narrow range of materials. It’s a great starting point for anyone with limited requirements, but we’d direct commercially-minded users towards the SLM 280HL, with its more practical maximum build size and dual laser set-up.

Buying metal-based printers requires a bit more advice than with FDM or PolyJet. It is not simply a case of working out the return on investment and buying accordingly: you need to make sure you have the perfect pairing of hardware and materials. That’s why we recommend you have a chat to us to produce a few samples first to identify the most appropriate device for you.

Laser Lines’ 3D experts are always on hand to help you choose the best printer for your workflow. Call us on 01295 672599 or email 3dworld@laserlines.co.uk

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