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Home, Office, Professional Grade: 3D Printer “Classes”

In our last issue, Replicator World reviewed the newest and most popular desktop 3D printers.  Whether they were DIY, as is the case with most Reprap machines, or they were pre-packaged printers such as the MakerBot Replicator and 3D Systems’ Cube, most of those printers fall into the range of $500-2,000 and print in the medium of plastics such as ABS.

But what if they just don’t cut it?

What if you work for a company that needs a printer with a bigger build area or higher quality prints?  Or if you want to print something using a mix of different materials?  What if your company, like Rolls Royce, wants to 3D print jet engines?  You’re not going to be able to print jet engines with your Reprap Mendel.  At least not yet.     

 

 

 3D Printed Jet Engine (Stratasys)

 In order to understand which types of 3D printers have these high-powered capabilities, first it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different “classes” of 3D printers on the market.  That way, you will be able to get the right printer for the tasks you need it to do. 

However, this process is a bit trickier than you might initially think.  While some 3D printers fall within the boundaries of these “classes”, many could arguably fall into more than one.  On top of this, there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus (at least right now) of what exactly to call each “class”.  What one person may call a desktop 3D printer, another calls a consumer 3D printer.  This is cause for some confusion. 

But have no fear!  We at Replicator World are here to help. 

We’ve already written extensively about one of the “classes” of 3D printers.  Though this class is still in its infancy, it is blooming larger nearly every day.  These printers are designed for home use.  For right now, this means that mostly hobbyist, geek-techy types have them. 

But the potential is startling. 

Just think of a 3D printer, not much bigger than a regular paper printer, sitting on a desk or counter in your home.  Say one of your pipes breaks.  Or a kitchen appliance.  Or even your shoelace.  You could just go to your printer, design a replacement, and in twenty minutes (or probably less), voila!  There it is in your hand! 

A proto-form of this technology is available even as we write this.  For now, many of these printers come in open source kit packages, mainly from DIY places such as Reprap.  Some, such as MakerBot’s Replicator and 3D Systems’ Cube, come pre-assembled and ready to go right out of the box.  Their current price range runs from about $500 to about $2,500.

 

                         

3D Systems’ Cube                                    Reprap Mendel                              MakerBot Replicator

Home 3D Printers 

These “Home” 3D printers currently have their limitations however.  As we’ve stated before, they have much smaller build areas for 3D printed parts than their larger counterparts.  They also have limitations concerning the different materials they can use in order to create those 3D objects.  As you would expect with cheaper machines, for now Home 3D printers produce lower quality parts as well.  Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this class of 3D printer is the software (mostly open source) used to run them.  Though this is changing, and more user-friendly interfaces are arriving, the majority uses either really simple programs that don’t have many modification capabilities or very complex, technical programs that have high modification ability, but you would need at least some engineering skills to understand how to operate it.             

Which brings us to “Office” 3D printers.  These printers are targeted at businesses using additive manufacturing for commercial purposes, such as creating models, prototypes, and in certain circumstances, finished products.  These objects will rival the quality of parts created by larger, more advanced 3D printers, with slight differences in accuracy, material properties, and resolution. 

 

Objet Connex 350                                                                  Stratasys Mojo
Office 3D Printers

Due to the fact that Office 3D printers are intended for engineers who don’t have the time or interest in learning unnecessary systems operations, this class of machines usually have simple (virtually pushbutton) operation.  Though, they do lack more advanced features like the ability to control build parameters, build processes and part characteristics.  With a $7,000-40,000 price tag and a build envelope of 200 in3  – 800 in3  (compared with the Home printers’ wide variety of envelope sizes (8 in3 – 800 in3)), Office 3D printers are a good option for smaller companies with varying 3D printer needs with engineers and designers in need of a quick, pain free pushbutton experience. 

A step above Office 3D printers sits the “Professional Grade” 3D printers.  Twenty years ago, these were the only 3D printers around.  At $30,000-750,000 and with a build envelope range of 800 in3 – 18 ft3, this class contains most 3D printing technologies and advanced features available.  Professional Grade 3D printers are designed for heavy use.  They are suitable for any application, from concept modeling to full production, which allows them to be used as a service bureau fixture as well as an in-warehouse resource.  In order to take full advantage of the advanced capabilities, operators have a large amount of control over the process.  However, because of this, unlike the smaller printers on this list who only need a casual user, these machines demand a skilled, fully trained technician.  Another thing to keep in mind is that these machines are big, loud, and messy, so they usually require a lab or shop-environment with high voltage, HVAC controls or compressed-gas lines. 

            

3D Systems’ Zcorp 3D Printers

But compared with Home and Office 3D printers, Professional Grade machines have a much higher level of control, quality of products, throughput, and capacity.  Much of this is due to the material options.  Unlike their smaller counterparts, with Professional Grade, you get a wide selection of available materials, from plastics to metals.  All in all, these machines are perfect for companies with a daily need for models, prototypes, tools, and high quality production parts with a centralized, shared system.  

And beyond Professional Grade are “Production” 3D printers.  Production machines take the idea behind Professional Grade machines and add greater automation, larger capacity, and improve the operational monitoring in order to ensure consistent part quality.  Even though some Office and Professional Grade 3D printers are capable of producing end-use parts, the Production class is far more capable of high-volume, series production applications.  With a build envelope of 8 ft3– 285 ft3 and costing a whopping $300,000 – 1,000,000 (or more) Production 3D printers are not for your average DIY hobbyist working out of his or her basement. 

Voxeljet VX4000

A company, which invests in a machine like this will want skilled operators to maintain it and keep it running.  Additionally, you will need to supply power, gases and HVAC.  Plan installation as you would any conventional manufacturing line.  Object quality will match or exceed Professional Grade quality, as will the range of materials available.  To sum up the fact, Production 3D printers would work well for companies with a need for extremely large objects and/or very high throughput and can be used for part manufacturing, mold production or functional prototypes.         

And there you have it: an overview of the current “classes” of 3D printers.

Photos Courtesy of 3D Systems, MakerBot, Reprap, Objet/Stratasys, and Voxeljet

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