3D Printer Cost of Ownership: What You Need to Consider

3D Printer Price & Cost

The Additive Manufacturing market continues to grow at an exponential rate. This includes a significant increase in adoption from industrial manufacturers while the 3D printing industry itself welcomes new hardware, software and material companies everyday.

There are many factors to consider when purchasing a 3D printer, such as material capabilities, build size, purpose and future intention. However, one conversation that OEMs are afraid to have with prospects and clients is the true cost of ownership.

What are the upfront costs associated with my machinery? Where can I purchase consumables, resin or filament? When will my equipment become obsolete? This article will address all these questions and more.

The goal is to provide you, the end user, with enough information so that you can be prepared to present solutions to your management. Unexpected costs or limited financial transparency will become quite problematic, especially if your organization is budget sensitive.

The 3D printing market is vast. There are hobbyist-level 3D printers available for amateur enthusiasts, and then there is industrial additive manufacturing equipment used by engineers and professionals. Hobbyist-level 3D printer prices range between $200 - $7,500 with basic printing capabilities and materials. The industrial-grade printing equipment has a much broader price range, $25,000 - $500,000, that is much more technologically advanced.

Average Prices for 3D Printers
BigRep Industrial 3D Printers at Ford

The purpose of this article is to understand the professional-grade equipment and assess the costs associated. If you wish to learn more about the entry level 3D printing market, you can find more in this article at allthat3d.com as a resource.

Part One: Capital Equipment Expenditures + Purpose

Regardless of company size or department budget, capital equipment expenditures over $50,000 will always be scrutinized. If it doesn’t fit on a corporate card then you will most likely be required to justify the purchase. And let’s be honest, your name will forever be connected to that piece of machinery once it’s installed—so it’s important to do the homework and make a good decision. In Part One, we will dissect the cost of AM equipment, and its purpose.

Industrial additive manufacturing equipment (operating with thermoplastic materials) can range from $25,000 to $500,000 depending on a variety of factors. This includes the size of the machinery, capability, reliability, ease of use, material compatibility and even brand name recognition. That’s a lot to keep track of.

For example, larger platform printers require robust servo motors and high-performance components to remain reliable and repeatable for users. Additionally, printers with advanced material capabilities operate with controlled heating chambers that will undoubtedly raise the cost of ownership and may be unnecessary for your application. You may be asking yourself, how do I determine which printer is the right one for me?

Is your department purchasing AM equipment for prototyping or production applications? What does your current process look like from a time and cost perspective? Who will be managing the machine? Analyze your current prototyping/production process and identify AM ready parts – meaning which parts are too expensive to outsource or are too complicated with traditional machining. AM provides inherent values when it comes to designing, so understanding the intention and purpose of your equipment will help determine the return on investment.

For example, assembly line facilities have historically used metal parts for jigs and CMM fixtures simply because that was the only material available to them at the time. 3D printing with PLA plastic has become a viable alternative because it’s less expensive and lighter weight. Understanding the costs associated with traditional processes or parts helps determine the savings with 3D printing and ultimately, justify the ROI. The industry standard for equipment ROI is typically 18-24 months.

Kawasaki experienced a positive ROI after just 6 months.
Read this eBook to see how Kawasaki uses their large format 3D printer.

3D Printer Cost Return on Investment

Part Two: Service Contracts, Consumables, + Post Processing

The equipment cost is just one piece to the printer acquisition puzzle. Purchasing a service contract for an expensive piece of machinery is commonplace in every industry, but AM is unique when it comes to consumables and post processing technologies. Almost every 3D printing technology comes with proprietary materials and a recommended solution for support removal.

The best estimate for an equipment service contract is between 15-20% of the overall cost. Indicating that $100,000 3D printer may require a $20,000 annual service contract. Much of this is dependent on equipment reliability and complexity. However, the alternative of no service contract is having to purchaseing replacement parts at a much higher cost so you’re left with trying to decide what makes the most sense for your business. It’s possible that your business has separate budgets for equipment and service so we recommend speaking to your finance team first.

Every 3D printer OEM offers proprietary consumables in resin, filament or pellet form. The question is compatibility and control. Some OEMs restrict users from using 3rd party materials and consider it a breach of service contract if they do. Those OEMs tend to charge more for their materials while suggesting that the printer is more reliable because of that. However, the industry is transitioning to an open platform concept that enables end users to operate printers with third party materials.

BigRep’s approach is unique because it makes both options available. Be confident to use our suggested filaments with predefined settings embedded in the slicing software or feel free to experiment with other material providers. We simply recommend to our users to reach out and ask about the options. Oftentimes, we have experience with many materials and can point you in the right direction.

Historically, support removal and post processing equipment in 3D printing wasn’t discussed. Yes, it’s the less attractive part of the industry but it’s impossible to ignore if your AM technology requires it. For example, many thermoplastic technologies use soluble support materials which typically requires an ultrasonic bath for removal. The size of your parts justifies the size of the support removal system, which increases the cost accordingly. Alternatively, some AM technologies use breakaway support structures which require manual removal and sanding. Ultimately, it depends on your application and what type of finish your part requires. It’s not uncommon for designers and engineers to paint, weld, bond, sand or coat parts for optimal look and feel. With each process comes costs—whether automated equipment or manual labor.

These air duct fittings from Boyce didn't require any post-processing before they went into the Verizon Kiosk they produce.

3D Printing Lower Cost with less Post Processing

Part Three: Intangibles + Obsolescence

Okay, if you’ve come this far then it’s time to talk about the future of your 3D printer and how to maximize your investment. As previously mentioned, the AM marketplace is complicated and it’s challenging to discern which technology is right for you. After you have determined the purpose of your 3D printer and analyzed the cost of ownership, it’s likely that you will have several options to consider. There are so many competing technologies that exist; so which company, brand or product are you willing to commit to?

How long has this company been in existence? Who are the major investors? What are the equipment reviews and will the company provide access to users and references? There is no need to work in a bubble when there is a world of resources available. When it comes to intangibles like company reputation or service standards, never underestimate the user testimonial. The industry is constantly evolving, and it’s very common to see major partnerships between OEMs, material providers, research institutes, and industrial leaders. In 2021, we have seen several AM companies go public and multiple mergers. Take time to learn about the company you wish to invest in. After all, your name is going to be attached to the decision.

Obsolescence is a much trickier conversation, and is one of the major reasons why some companies are hesitant to adopt 3D printing. Technology is advancing faster than ever before, and no one wants to be left holding the keys to outdated equipment. How can your department proactively prepare for obsolescence? First, determine a realistic ROI and try to stay under a 24 month payback schedule, which will improve the printer’s profitability. Second, ask the OEM if they have upgrade paths or buyback programs — most organizations do and are willing to drive customer loyalty. Finally, build an internal or external network of users, customers and research institutes that want access to your equipment and would pay to do so. These are just a few examples of building purpose for your 3D printer and monetizing it as quickly as possible.

Industrial 3D Printer Price Customer Nikola Corp.

What advice would you give to someone just getting started?

"Talk to someone that has one of these. It's guys like me that are operating the machine that can really tell you. Learn from their successes and failures."

Riley Gillman,
Nikola Corporation

Conclusion

The industrial AM market is complicated and expansive. The technology exists to enable engineers to rapidly produce prototypes, increase new product development, and identify new methods or materials for production purposes so the cost is justified. The question is, what exactly are you trying to accomplish? There is an alternative mindset in the market to purchase equipment now and identify ways to use this machinery in the future. These businesses typically have the financial resources to make such acquisitions and the luxury to wait and see. For the rest of us, we must develop ways to justify equipment purchases and truly understand the costs associated. Every 3D printer available on the market was originally designed to solve a problem but now every printer is the ultimate solution—one size does not fit all.

We recommend taking the time to develop an ROI calculation and truly assess every aspect of a 3D printer purchase. How expensive is the annual service contract? If we find less expensive materials, can we run them through our equipment? Will my printer be reliable enough to become profitable for my business? We invite you to speak with our team of experts to learn more, and find out how BigRep can be profitable for you.

Talk to a 3D Printing Expert to help you calculate your ROI with a BigRep 3D Printer

4 Things to Consider Before Buying a Self-Assembled Large-Format 3D Printer

Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled / DIY

Would a self-assembled large-format 3D printer be worth the price tag savings?

Price of an Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled

The answer depends on a variety of factors.

The reality is there are an array of options when choosing a 3D printer, and the right system for you is going to depend on several factors, ranging from your knowledge of 3D printers, budget, and what you want to accomplish with the printer.

How much experience do you have working with 3D printers? Are you comfortably knowledgeable of every component? Can you troubleshoot most problems yourself or do you often depend on services? Even if you can troubleshoot your own printer, how large is your margin for error?

In the right situation, self-assembled 3D printers can be  an affordable option. Highly experienced users who understand 3D printer construction, maintenance, and modification with a wealth of time to build and troubleshoot their new 3D printer can make use of self-assembled offerings. Unfortunately, DIY 3D printers are too often treated as a cost-saving solution and purchased without fully understanding the expertise and time they’ll likely require.

It’s important to understand what each offering includes, and weigh them against your expectations. So, in this article we’ll go over 4 key considerations when deciding if a self-assembled (DIY) 3D printer is right for you, and why we believe premium offerings like BigRep’s 3D printers are a better choice.

Infographic: Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled

Assembly Time

Time is money and your time is extremely valuable. Assembly is one of the clearest reasons to buy a premium 3D printer, so we’ll get it out of the way first.

Many businesses invest in technologies like 3D printers with specific goals in mind. They may want to reduce the lead time on parts and tooling or decrease outsourcing expenditures. Others may need a resource for agile product development to create prototypes on demand. It’s important to consider when you want to start progressing through these goals if you’re considering a self-assembled 3D printer.

Just assembling a DIY 3D printer takes time. How much time exactly will vary from user to user depending on pre-existing knowledge and clear instructions and labeling but could take a few days up to a month or more depending on labor availability, parts and any issues that could arise.

Additive manufacturing requires high precision to function effectively. Even small imperfections – in the wrong place – can render a part useless for many applications. During self-assembly it’s easy to misalign or mistakenly construct a printer that can cause excess vibrations or other inaccuracies during operation. Experienced users may know how to troubleshoot and repair these issues if they aren’t simply the result of low-quality hardware. Less experienced users may be unable to properly assemble their new 3D printer at all. In this case, and if the manufacturer doesn’t offer onsite servicing, you would need to hire a technician for assembly – likely bridging the cost gap. Either situation, requires significant time investment to ensure a system is operating properly.

With premium 3D printers like offerings from BigRep, a highly skilled technician can install your system onsite and validate its performance in as little as one day. They’ll introduce you to your new printer, train you on typical 3D printer troubleshooting, and help you to understand large-format best practices. Better yet, should unexpected problems arise, a BigRep service technician can come onsite or through a virtual service call to remedy the problem and ensure as little productivity is lost as possible.

Assembly Time: Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled

Costs

At first glance, the price of a DIY system might seem too good to pass up. However, what many don’t realize is the price you see for many self-assembly 3D printers are “barebone” packages. These price points offer the most basic system, and a few upgrades are usually required to bring the system to an industrial standard.

Barebone systems are typically packaged en masse straight out of an affordable manufacturer, usually in China, and come with hardware of minimal quality – depending on the specific offer. If you don’t purchase upgrades before assembly, it’s likely that you’ll feel the need to once you’re using the system regularly.

When choosing upgrades, integrations are important features to pay mind. Is your build volume’s heating integrated with the 3D printer control board? If not, you might have to manually switch the heating off before the print bed can cool down. Limitations like this can severely restrict the flexibility of large-format 3D printing, like running prints overnight.

Aside from these big quality of life upgrades, there are a lot of smaller parts – like ware components – where quality will be very important.

Industrial 3D printers come fully equipped so they are ready to perform out of the box, no upgrade costs required. So yes the price tag will be more but it also comes with the assurance there are no hidden costs or components needed to bring it up to an industrial standard for printing.

Costs: Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled

Down Time

You purchase a printer to do a job. So when the printer is down, it effects the bottom line. Most users will compare a 3D printer’s key components out the gate and upgrade self-assembly systems where they feel necessary – hot ends, filament detection, and control systems are common in the first pass. While easier to ignore, it’s essential to also examine the quality of ware components. Check various gears, bearings, and straps for quality.

All moving parts are essential to replace early on cheaper systems to ensure consistency and reliability throughout operation. Low-quality parts will ware much faster than premium industrial parts or otherwise require additional intervention when compared to parts and systems that come standard with premium industrial 3D printers like BigRep’s.

Experienced users will either upgrade low-quality moving parts from the start or when they’re skilled troubleshooters, replace them as needed. It may be difficult for less experienced users to locate these smaller components when they begin to fail and overlooking these parts can lead to serious downtime and lost business if you’re not prepared.

Keep in mind that cost-cutting doesn’t stop with the quality of a system’s parts: many DIY 3D printer manufacturers maintain their low prices by offering limited support or none at all; meaning you’ll need to hire a third-party technician if you can’t fix it yourself. That’s not a slight against the companies, their systems are made to be routinely customized and upgraded by users with extensive 3D printer knowledge and familiarity. However, given to less experienced users or placed in demanding industrial environments these concessions could mean large maintenance down times and easily bridge premium cost.

Down Time: Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled

Quality Assurance

You buy a printer to produce parts – prototypes, jigs, fixtures, molds or end use parts. One expectation when producing them is that they will meet your quality expectation. The quality of parts coming off your 3D printer will be directly determined by the quality of your printer in many ways. In most cases this will be obvious parts – high-quality control boards or gantries will be pivotal to high-quality parts. Even upgrading these core components can eliminate your initial savings from many self-assembled 3D printers, but it’s important that you consider the overall quality of the system you’re purchasing.

In the wrong place even a degraded nut or bolt can lead to excess vibrations that heavily impact your production quality. While replacements for these flawed support components may be very affordable, they can be far more difficult to identify as the source of a problem. In industrial settings, those issues directly impact future revenues.

Mass manufacturing is all about cost efficiency, so many DIY 3D printer manufacturers will take advantage of these hidden concessions so they can compete better with visible features. Unfortunately, even these small components have a significant impact of the quality of your parts. If your business will be negatively impacted by reduced print quality or printer downtime, it’s vital that you consider your supplier’s commitment to their product over its lifetime. A robust service offering like BigRep’s shows that corners won’t be cut on manufacturing and assembly so your business can operate smoothly with consistent quality.

Quality Assurance: Industrial 3D Printer vs Self-Assembled

Conclusion

So the question “are they worth it?” is really up to your needs, time allowance, and expectations. If you have a dedicated technician who wants to know their machine inside and out, modify heavily, has endless time and is confident they can handle all servicing, a DIY 3D printer may be an option for you – even in large-scale. However, without the right staff, available labor, and 3D printing knowledge, they have the potential to cause more problems than they’re worth.

With an industrial large-format 3D printer like one of BigRep’s, uncertainties are taken out of the equation. Our products are carefully designed to balance cost with the performance and long-term reliability expected by industrial users. With German-engineered and validated systems installed onsite by a specialized technician, you’ll waste no time getting your 3D printer up and running with every assurance of its quality and reliability.

Not sure which solution is best for you? Talk to one of our experts and we’ll help you uncover which type of 3D printer could help you.

Dual Extruder 3D Printer – Two Heads Are Better

Dual Extruder 3D Printer

The old adage, two heads are better than one, simply indicates that two people can solve a problem better than an individual can. This is certainly the case when it comes to 3D printing, and why dual extruder technology is must-have for any engineer, designer, architect or artist. Single extruder technology that is available on the market today is incredibly limited and actually defeats the true purpose of a 3D printer, the ability to transform complex, digital designs into tangible, physical items. If you’re a serious designer with aspirations to bring your ideas to life, then you should never underestimate the value of a professional 3D printer. First, let’s understand the basics of 3D printing.

Limitations of Single Extruder 3D Printers

The vast majority of 3D printers available today operate with FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) or FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) technology. Essentially, thermoplastic material is fed through a heated nozzle that melts the material and simultaneously deposits it on the build platform. It’s arguably the simplest and most effective 3D printer technology that has been adopted by consumers and professionals in every industry imaginable.

With single extruder printing, you are able to 3D print very basic parts and shapes. For example, it’s possible to print a small pyramid or a six-sided box, because the geometries are not challenging and do not require additional design or rework. But 3D printers are supposed to enable the impossible. Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, why not redesign the peg? Why not customize the hole and create new functionality for the whole system? Adding a second material extruder enables this and so much more.

The Value of Dual Extruder 3D Printers

Advancements in 3D printing materials are enabling new applications across several different industries. What we are experiencing today will look very different tomorrow with the current rate of technology improvements and adoption. Dual extruder 3D printing is the primary mechanism fostering the next generation of industrialization because it allows engineers to design with freedom and without constraints. Compared to conventional manufacturing methods or single extruder 3D printers, multi-material 3D printers will equip product development teams to enhance functionality, aesthetics and other critical requirements.

“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein - Referenced in Aaron Council’s 3D Printing: Rise of the Third Industrial Revolution

A dual extruder 3D printer goes beyond design & print applications. Instead, it’s a mind-opening technology that can influence so much more. For example, single extruder 3D printers rely on the basic principles of fabrication and will simply print parts layer-by-layer with one material. This eliminates the ability to create complex parts, internal channels, or working gears which leads to a lack of functionality or purpose. Most engineers and designers operate with CAD (computer aided design) software that allows them to digitally design prototypes and products in a 3-dimensional space that doesn’t adhere to natural forces (i.e. gravity). Therefore, designs can become quite complicated and require a technology that is sophisticated and advanced enough to produce these parts.

That’s what dual extruder technology brings to the table for designers and engineers. From inexplicable art to impossible prototypes, this further supports why 3D printing is becoming the primary tool for so many different industries. To further paint the picture, or build the masterpiece, let’s dive deeper into several different dual extrusion use cases and how different industries are applying it today.

Dual Extruder 3D Printer - Support Material

Impossible Parts

The true beauty of a dual extruder 3D printer is the ability to combine model (M) and support (S) materials. Essentially, you are able to 3D print your model in a PLA thermoplastic material and simultaneously print water soluble support structures out of BVOH. This is the science that enables true design freedom and flexibility. You can design and print in a 3-dimensional space that goes way beyond surface level. Now, it’s possible to create interlocking features for workable gears or internal channels for fluid and air passageways. This is only possible with the use of support structures that are literally washed away once the 3D print is finished.

Tips for Users: Different support materials eliminate post processing nightmares or enhanced aesthetics. Contact our Engineering team today to learn more.

Enhanced Mechanical Properties

Let’s take it a step further and instead of Model +Support, why not Model 1 + Model 2? Yes, that is completely possible with dual extruder 3D printers and will provide improvements to the mechanical properties of your part. Combining Model 1 + Model 2 can be a strategic and helpful feature for those product development teams that wish to take functionality to the next level.

For example, lightweighting is a common tactic used by many transportation, automotive and aerospace companies that wish to reduce costs through design. Eliminating weight = less energy costs. A door, table or chair must retain the same strength capabilities but instead of a fully dense part, engineers can create honeycomb internal structures with lighter weight plastics. M1 is a PLA Shell and M2 is a PVA Ultralight infill material that ultimately prints a part with the same strength characteristics, but with less weight associated.

Dual Extruder 3D Printer - Multi-Material Print

Ergonomic Improvements

Ergonomics is the study of human and product (or machine) interaction. Those who design consumer products are constantly iterating prototypes to test ergonomics and user satisfaction (i.e. how to make user friendly, comfortable products). You’ll notice that the majority of consumer products and electronics are designed and built with soft touch overmolds, rubber or TPU materials to enhance comfort. Think of a grip on a power tool. With dual extruder 3D printers, engineers can combine rigid plastics with soft touch flexible materials to produce overmolds. Material 1 is a Pro-HT plastic with enhanced strength properties combined with Material 2, a TPU categorized as a Shore 98 A flexible material.

Tips for Users: Using PLA as a support material for TPU printed singularly will enhance aesthetic features. Contact our Engineering team today to learn more.

Improve Aesthetics

We have discussed functionality, now let’s turn to the possibilities for artistic features with multicolored 3D printing. We do not live in a monochromatic world, so we do not expect you to design for one. Oftentimes, prototypers will present their products to focus groups or potential customers for invaluable feedback to validate a design. It’s important to provide parts that are aesthetically pleasing and match a color scheme for the end product. Having multi colored parts is valuable for other applications - such as color coded safety fixtures on assembly lines, diagram models used in healthcare communications or other research, education or artistic purposes.

Dual Extruder 3D Printer - Multi-Color Print

True Mass Production

Unique to BigRep is that ability to print Tandem mode, which splits the printing platform in half and enables the production of parts in twice the time. The dual extruders are separated by distance, but connected by advanced software so that they mimic each other and print identical parts on the platform. This is ideal if you wish to begin batch production and want to bypass tooling, machining and other costly manufacturing methods. BigRep already offers one of the largest build platforms in the industrial market, and Tandem mode enables manufacturers to react immediately and produce parts on demand. This is unheard of in the marketplace today, and provides a significant time and cost savings advantage to users.

Tips for Users: If you have a print bigger than 8 kilos with the same material, split the STL, and print the first 8 kilos with Extruder 1. Use Extruder 2 with the remaining material which will allow you to print 16 kilos with the same filament.

Learn more about Tandem Mode by talking to our 3D printing experts today.

This is only a small collection of advantages awarded by a dual extruder 3D printer. It’s important to remember that new materials drive applications, and the book of 3D printing continues to write itself. Single extruder technology is a toy made for tinkerers and hobbyists. In order to produce parts that are functional and reliable, dual extruder 3D printers are a necessity.

The Future of Dual Extruder 3D Printers

To summarize the benefits: Industrial 3D printers and dual extruder technology with BigRep enables you to produce impossible parts with support material. It exceeds a variety of functional requirements such as mechanical property improvements or soft touch overmold applications. Dual extruders provide a pathway for artists, architects and creatives to think outside of conventional fabrication methods and bring color, realism and life to their designs.

Where does dual extruder technology go from here? Are three heads better than two? Maybe, but the evidence isn’t there to support it quite yet. In the meantime dual material printing continues to be such a major advantage for industrial engineers and designers. We recommend staying in touch with us, since we are constantly evolving our technology and materials to further the adoption of 3D printing.

Do you have a new application you want to bring to life? We want to hear from you!

Dual Extruder 3d Printer FAQs

What is dual extrusion 3D printing?

Dual extrusion is the process of 3D printing with multiple filaments. You can mix colours or different materials with a print head that has two extruders and nozzles. With two spools loaded, the printer alternates between them by printing one at a time.

Do dual extruders print faster?

Many people think that a dual extruder printer finishes jobs faster than those with just one. That can be the case, but there's much more to it. A dual extruder printer is faster because it eliminates the lengthy process of swapping out one filament for another.

What is the purpose of dual extruder 3D printer?

The main purpose of dual extruder 3d printer is that you can print in multiple materials. A dual extruder 3D printer allows you to print in more than one material and / or more than one colour during the printing of a single object.

What is dual extrusion in 3D printing?

Dual extrusion is the process of 3D printing with multiple filaments. With two spools loaded, the printer alternates between them by printing one at a time. It's not actually faster at printing because it’s still using only one extruder at a time.

What is the benefit of having two extruders?

Dual extrusion provides the opportunity to reinforce your main printing material with something tougher. For example, one nozzle could print most of a part out of PLA while the other prints only specific areas using a carbon-fibre-based filament.

What is an extruder and how does it work?

An extruder is simply the machine used to complete the extrusion process. Using a system of barrels and cylinders, the machine heats up the product and propels it through the die to create the desired shape.

What are the types of extruders?

There are two major types of extruders single and twin screw (co-rotating and counter rotating). These come with a wide range of screw diameters (D), lengths (L), and designs. The single screw and co-rotating twin screw are inherently axially open-channel extruders. They can be regarded as drag flow pumps.

What does an extruder do in a 3D printer?

Extruders are used to produce long continuous products such as tubing, tire treads, and wire coverings. They are also used to produce various profiles that can later be cut to length.

What is Thermoforming & Vacuum Forming? How to 3D Print Molds Easily.

What is Vacuum Forming & Thermoforming?

Vacuum forming has been used for nearly a century to make many of the products we see and use daily. From grocery store items to car parts, vacuum formed components are all around us. But how are they made - and how is 3D printing making them better?

What is Thermoforming & Vacuum Forming?

Vacuum forming is a type of thermoforming: heat used to form a design. Thermoforming processes include vacuum forming, pressure forming, and twin sheet forming. Each of these processes uses a mold or molds to shape heated sheets of plastic into the desired form.

Pressure forming methods require that the plastic sheet be pressed between two molds and then heated to assume the shape. In twin sheet forming, two plastic sheets are heated and fused together to form double-walled or hollow parts.

Vacuum forming is the simplest of the thermoforming methods, using only one mold at a time. As the name might indicate, vacuum forming relies on a vacuum, as suction applied to the heated plastic sheet will draw it around the mold to create the appropriate contouring.

How Does Vacuum Forming Work?

The vacuum forming process comprises a few relatively straightforward steps:

  1. Clamp a plastic sheet in a frame
  2. Heat the plastic sheet to the point the plastic is workable - soft enough to take on a new shape, but not heated to the point of melting or losing its integrity.
  3. Apply vacuum to pull the plastic around the mold, shaping the heated sheet to the desired contours.
  4. Allow the plastic to cool before removing from the mold. This may be expedited for large pieces, using fans or cool mists.
  5. Trim excess plastic and smooth edges to final part quality.

See how the process works on a Formech vacuum forming machine:

What is Vacuum Forming ?

Types of Plastic for Vacuum Forming

The ultimate result of a successful vacuum forming operation is creating a shaped plastic part. But what type of plastic should be used? That depends on what you want from the product; different plastics are applicable for different uses. For a clear plastic salad box, you wouldn’t need the same high impact strength as you would for an outdoor sign, for example, while a car bumper needs still more durability.

When choosing a plastic, considerations that should come into play include:

  • Strength
    • Rigidity
    • Chemical/impact/UV resistance
  • Specific gravity
  • Formability
  • Colours
  • Hygroscopicity
  • Temperature range for pliability
  • Availability/cost

Further, you’ll need to take into account the look and feel of the plastic for the end-use application you have in mind. A strong plastic may not be usable if it offgasses volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when subjected to high temperatures, for instance.

Among the most popular plastics used in vacuum forming are:

  • ABS – acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)
  • Acrylic – PMMA – Poly(methyl methacrylate)
  • HDPE – high density polyethylene
  • HIPS – high impact polystyrene
  • PC – polycarbonate
  • PET – polyethylene terephthalate
  • PETG – polyethylene terephthalate glycol
  • PP – polypropylene
  • PS – polystyrene
  • PVC – polyvinyl chloride

Each option has its pros and cons. As with any end-use material choice, you’ll need to weigh the cost and ease-of-working of a given material with its strength and performance.

Car surrounded shell vacuum forming machine

How to Create Molds for Vacuum Forming

The molds used for vacuum forming are critical to the process: they form the basis of the actual shape for the end product. How you choose to create your molds will depend on the precision, complexity, and timing of your project.

While wood, aluminium, and structural foam are among the conventional options for mold making, 3D printed molds are becoming more popular. These newer options enable more complex geometries to be made and can significantly speed up the process of mold making.

3D Printed Molds

The benefits of 3D printing are many. 3D printing can reduce the time and costs needed to make items like vacuum forming molds, as well as improve the geometric complexities possible. Faster turnaround and lower costs can be a major incentive when it comes to adopting a new way to create molds, forms, and rapid tooling.

In-house 3D printing can substantially shorten timelines when it comes to producing new molds and tooling. Without the need to outsource mold production, wait for turnaround is limited only to how fast a 3D printer can bring a CAD design to life - which can be as short as a matter of hours. Only the material needed to produce a given design need be used, eliminating waste and additional material costs. Furthermore, small features - think textures or even text - can be added without increasing the cost of a design. Customization and rapid prototyping of designs are also big benefits, getting unique designs to customers who need them quickly and for lower cost.

Working with the right 3D printing equipment is of course key to producing the best results. Industrial equipment offers professional quality, as well as the opportunity to work with heat-resistant materials like carbon fiber 3D printing filament. Furthermore, large-format 3D printers enable faster production of either large parts or several small parts in a single build job.

3D Printed Mold for Vacuum Forming or Thermoforming
3D Printed Mold for Vacuum Forming

Wood, Aluminium and Structural Foam Molds

Traditional vacuum forming molds are formed by subtractive processes, such as carved wood or structural foam, or by metal casting processes. While each of these processes when leveraged appropriately will produce workable molds, their use is subject to the wait times of casting and high costs of milling.

Wooden molds are well-known to be durable for vacuum forming. Strong wood choices can lead to molds that can be used for hundreds, if not thousands, of vacuum forming runs. Eventually, though, most wood molds will splinter or warp. The best usage of wooden molds is when little detail is required or a thicker mold is desirable.

Cast aluminum molds are among the most durable types, best-suited for scale production of 100,000+ parts. Costs of both material and production – which can take up to a few months – make aluminum molds infeasible for shorter production runs.

Structural foam molds are durable and can also be used for larger production runs. These molds are lightweight yet extremely durable, and are often a lower-cost alternative to aluminum options. Many plastics are viable, as a chemical blowing agent is used to makes the plastic’s internal walls thicker for longer-lasting molds.

Applications for Vacuum Forming

Vacuum forming is often used to create parts we interact with every day. Lightweight packaging, securely fit coffee cup lids, and car parts are just a few of the places we often encounter vacuum formed parts.

Aerospace

Aerospace applications for vacuum forming can range from specialty packaging to keep tools in one place to massive parts. Cabin components like large bulkhead dividers and seating needs like arm rests, footwell trays, seat backs, and tray tables are increasingly produced via vacuum forming.

Thermoforming Application: Aircraft Interior

Automotive

In the automotive industry, both internal and external components are often vacuum formed. From relatively small cabin structures like the grate on an air conditioning vent to a full bumper, shaped plastics help to shape our automotive experiences.

Thermoforming Application: Automotive - Car Interior

Packaging

Salad containers or sushi boxes, razor packaging, and sterilized medical device packages are just a few of the packaging uses for vacuum forming. The plastic sheets used in this process can be shaped to precisely house a premium product or made more generally to hold whatever we need to carry.

Thermoforming Application: Food Packaging

Consumer Goods

Toys, musical instrument cases, helmets, luggage, barware – you name it and the plastics we use every day often come about through vacuum forming. From the outer housing on a bicycle helmet to the body of an RC car, vacuum formed products keep us all rolling.

Thermoforming Application: Luggage

Conclusion

When it comes to vacuum forming, the sky is the limit. Heated plastic can be exactly shaped to match a custom mold for one or thousands of parts. When the molds are 3D printed, they can be made with more complexity, more detail, more options – and less cost.

FAQs

FAQ

GRADUATE FROM DESKTOP. 3D PRINT FULL SCALE. GET INDUSTRIAL.

The BigRep STUDIO G2 gets 3D printing off your desk and takes it to the next level. Operating with the same ease as a desktop 3D printer and with 10 times the build volume, the STUDIO G2 provides large-scale industrial manufacturing capabilities in a compact “fits everywhere” build.

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GRADUATE FROM DESKTOP. 3D PRINT FULL SCALE. GET INDUSTRIAL.

The BigRep STUDIO G2 gets 3D printing off your desk and takes it to the next level. Operating with the same ease as a desktop 3D printer and with 10 times the build volume, the STUDIO G2 provides large-scale industrial manufacturing capabilities in a compact “fits everywhere” build.

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Vacuum Forming and Thermoforming FAQs

What is thermoforming molding?

Thermoforming is a process of heating a thermoplastic sheet to its softening point. The sheet is stretched across a single-sided mold and then manipulated. Then, it cools into the desired shape.

Is thermoforming and vacuum forming the same?

Vacuum forming is a type of thermoforming, heat used to form a design. Thermoforming processes include vacuum forming, pressure forming, and twin sheet forming. Each of these processes uses a mold or molds to shape heated sheets of plastic into the desired form.

What are the advantages of vacuum forming?

The cost of tooling is significantly less than with other processes. In addition to this, the turnaround time is much faster. Because of cost savings and a faster turnaround time, the vacuum forming method is often preferred for R&D, prototyping, and, in some instances, long-term production. In addition, vacuum forming is highly detailed formed products that are possible in a range of sizes

What is the vacuum forming process?

Thermo or 'Vacuum forming' is one of the oldest and most common methods of processing plastic materials. The process involves heating a plastic sheet until soft and then draping it over a mould. A vacuum is applied sucking the sheet into the mould. The sheet is then ejected from the mould. In its advanced form, the vacuum forming process utilizes sophisticated pneumatic, hydraulic and heat controls thus enabling higher production speeds and more detailed vacuum formed applications.

What products are made using vacuum forming?

In recent years, vacuum forming has also started to be used for creative purposes, particularly within the retail and marketing industry. Numerous household items are made from vacuum forming plastic. The plastic bathtub in the bathroom, the plastic utensils, and appliances that can found in the kitchen, the garden equipment that is stored in the shed. These are all common products found in the home environment, things that are used on a day-to-day basis, created via the vacuum forming process.

What are the materials used in making thermoforming mold?

One of the most common thermoformed plastics, PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, is commonly used for synthetic fibres and bottle production. Six plastics lead the way for thermoforming: ABS, HIPS, HDPE, PVC, PET and PETG.

How are thermoforming molds made?

Thermoforming mold is usually made of cheaper aluminium. Injection molds are made of steel, thick aluminium or strong alloys to maintain large production runs. 

Thermoforming is using a single-singe tool and injection molding is using a double-sided mold. The initial cost for thermoforming is lower than injection molding. But thermoforming mold is not as durable as injection molds so it can be used only for small volume and not repeat production.

Which type of molds are used in thermoforming?

Both ferrous and non-ferrous metals have been used extensively for this purpose, with advantages and disadvantages of different types well balanced depending on the nature of the part to be formed, the volume of production, type of equipment and numerous other variables.

Generally, wood and plaster are the most used materials. Cast phenolic and epoxy resin molds works well in short to medium runs. In long production runs generally require a metal mold.

How 3D Printing works with the vacuum forming technique?

When it comes to vacuum forming, the sky is the limit and when the molds are 3D printed, they can be made with more complexity, more detail, more options – and less cost. Heated plastic can be exactly shaped to match a custom mold for one or thousands of parts.

Today, Made in Space has announced that such a feat has now been proven possible through a series of tests performed here on Earth. This ability is an exciting one, but the true goal of NASA and Made in Space has been to 3D print in vacuum of space itself.

Carbon Fiber 3D Printer: Everything You Need To Know

Carbon Fiber 3D Printing

Carbon Fiber 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Strong Parts

A carbon fiber 3D printer allows you to produce strong, light weight parts. With the right printer and matching carbon fiber filaments, you can get started in an instant.

In this article you will find everything you need to know about carbon fiber 3D printing!

What is Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP)?

Carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) is, as its name suggests, a plastic material reinforced with carbon fiber. These composite materials bring together the qualities and performance properties of carbon fiber with the polymer material it is reinforcing. That is, the printability and ease-of-use of a standard thermoplastic like PLA, ABS, or PET gains superior performance properties from including chopped or continuous carbon fiber content.

The carbon fibers usually come in one of two forms:

  • Long woven fibers
  • Chopped carbon fibers

Long woven fibers are come in mats that are very similar to fabric. For fabrication these fabrics are laid in a mold and then impregnated with a plastic epoxy. Then they have to be cured and hardened in a heated environment. This process is very time consuming and mostly used in manual processes.

Chopped fibers are mostly used for industrial production and also 3d printing. These carbon fibers come as a "filler" material in thermoplastic materials for injection molding or as carbon fiber filaments to use in 3D printers. They can be processed like any other thermoplastic material. But they have some extra requirements to your equipment, which we will see later.

What is Carbon Fiber Filament?

Carbon fiber filament is simply 3D printer filament made using CFRP.

BigRep's PET-CF Filament is an excellent example of this type of material. Made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) reinforced with carbon fiber, PET-CF offers dimensional stability and low moisture absorption that can be 3D printed to produce exceptionally strong, stiff parts with a fine surface finish and heat resistance up to 100°C.

FFF (extrusion-based) 3D printing uses chopped carbon fibers. These small — sub-millimeter-long — fibers are mixed into a standard thermoplastic as a reinforcing material. Continuous fiber strands are stronger and longer, but require a more involved 3D printing process with two print nozzles.

Carbon Fiber Filament

Why you need Carbon Fiber 3D Printing

Industrial environments often demand specific mechanical properties and finely tuned precision. Fortunately, carbon fiber 3D printing brings the strength and stiffness of engineering-grade material to additive manufacturing.

Bringing together the capabilities of a high-strength material and the many advantages of additive manufacturing, carbon fiber 3D printing offers exceptional dimensional stability in strong, stiff parts with a fine surface finish and high heat resistance - ideal for functional, performance applications.

With 3D printing moving ever deeper into end-use production, the ability to manufacture both parts and tooling using carbon fiber filament is coming ever more into demand.

Whether using these materials in moulds, jigs and fixtures, and tooling or in high-performance race cars, specialty aerospace equipment, or professional cycling equipment, carbon fiber 3D printer filament enables you to create the high-strength parts you need. Of course, as a relatively new offering in the manufacturing industry, carbon fiber 3D printing has its pros and cons that must be well understood prior to investing in its use.

Pros of Carbon Fiber 3D Printing

The advantages of carbon fiber 3D printing come down to possible the performance properties. These include:

High Strength

Perhaps the most-touted property of carbon fiber 3D printer filament, high strength is key to its performance — and desirability as a 3D printing material. Carbon fiber offers a strength-to-weight ratio that enables high performance with low density.

Light Weight

Hand-in-hand with its strength is the light weight of a carbon fiber 3D printer filament. Lightweighting is a key advantage of 3D printing in general, and using carbon fiber materials enables that weight reduction without a loss of performance-grade strength.

High Heat Resistance

Compared to standard 3D printing materials like PLA, ABS, and PETG, carbon fiber can withstand significantly higher temperatures. Carbon fiber composite materials — using a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer — enhances the heat resistance of the base material for better performance.

Stiffness

3D printed carbon fiber parts maintain their shape under high stress. In contrast with other materials that trade off strength and durability for stiffness, the rigidity possible with carbon fiber ensures structural integrity.

Cons of Carbon Fiber 3D Printing

No material ticks every box. The downsides of carbon fiber 3D printing materials generally include investment, equipment, and brittleness, as well as the makeup of a given material option.

Cost

As an engineering-grade material, carbon fiber 3D printer filament is a premium product. That is, it is inherently more expensive to obtain and use than standard 3D printing materials. Significant engineering goes into the production of every spool of carbon fiber 3D printer filament, and this is reflected in the pricing structure of these materials.

Specialized Equipment

3D printing with carbon fiber requires specific hardware to appropriately handle these materials. For example, hardened steel nozzles — like the BigRep STUDIO G2's — rather than standard brass or aluminum nozzles must be used to stand up to abrasive carbon fiber filament as they will not erode. High heat is also required to 3D print carbon fiber with full layer bond strength.

Brittleness

While carbon fiber 3D printer filaments offer high stiffness, the tradeoff there is relatively low impact resistance. High impact force applications may lead to the 3D printed carbon fiber part shattering.

Material Makeup

Not all carbon fiber 3D printer filaments are made equal. Significant research must be done to ensure full understanding of the difference between filament using chopped versus continuous carbon fiber, for example. While this is not necessarily a disadvantage specific to only this material type, the relative scarcity of options when it comes to carbon fiber 3D printing means that more due diligence must be done when shopping for the best-fit material by composite makeup.

Make Carbon Fiber Molds instead?

Airflight uses prepreg carbon fiber parts to build their human-sized drones.
See how they use BigRep machines to produce 3D printed molds for fastercheaper carbon fiber fabrication.

Composite Mould 3D Printed with Carbon Fiber Filament

Where is CFRP used?

CFRP 3D printing is best put to use in manufacturing environments. Among the primary uses of these materials are the creation of moulds, jigs and fixtures, and tooling.

Composite Moulds & Thermoforming Moulds

3D printing moulds is one of the most cohesive ways of advanced and traditional manufacturing technologies working together in an industrial environment. 3D printed moulds offer the complexities and speed-of-production of 3D printing to the mass production capabilities of mould-based manufacturing.

When it comes to composite moulds and thermoforming moulds, the performance properties of CFRP are a natural fit.

Composite moulds are one of the most common manufacturing methods to cost-effectively produce large batches of identical parts. As their name implies, composite moulds are made using composite materials, which can be made in complex shapes and stand up to repeated use — all at a significantly lower cost than aluminum or steel moulds.

Thermoforming moulds are used to use heat and pressure to shape a flat thermoplastic sheet into the mould’s form using conduction, convection, or radiant heating to warm the sheet prior to conforming it to the mould’s surface. Thermoforming moulds must stand up to repeated high-heat usage, requiring specific performance capabilities that can be well delivered via CFRP materials.

Jigs & Fixtures, Tooling

Often viewed as supplemental to manufacturing processes — but vital in their own right — are jigs, fixtures, and tooling. Jigs and fixtures are used to hold specific parts in place throughout different stages of their manufacturing, and tooling is used throughout.

These all-important tools often perform best when customized to the application at hand and may be worn out through highly repetitive use. For these reasons, jigs, fixtures, and tooling are increasingly often 3D printed at the point of use. They can be custom-fit to their specific need and reproduced on demand without outsourcing or waiting on a restock.

3D printed jigs and fixtures and tooling last longer and perform better — especially in terms of long-lasting durability — when made of reinforced materials like CFRP.

How to 3D Print Carbon Fiber Filaments

3D printing carbon fiber filaments requires a specific production environment. Because these are “exotic” engineering-grade materials, they cannot simply be swapped out for standard 3D printer filament and expected to print with the same settings.

Requirements to Work with Carbon Fiber Filaments

Carbon fiber filament is more abrasive than many other plastic materials and has specific heat requirements.

Among the necessities for 3D printing carbon fiber filaments are:

AGILE-STABLE-3D-Printing-Bigrep

Heated Print Bed

Hand-in-hand with an enclosed 3D printing environment is a heated print bed. The first layer of the print must adhere to the print bed in order to lay a strong foundation for the full print job.

ABRASIVE-MATERIAL-COMPATIBLE-Bigrep-3d

Hardened Nozzle

Over time — which can vary from one to a few print jobs — carbon fiber filament will wear down a standard 3D printing nozzle due to its abrasiveness. A brass nozzle, for example, will deform and erode when extruding these materials and will ultimately be rendered functionally useless. Hardened steel is a requirement for a 3D printer to handle CFRP filament.

Of course, designers, engineers, and operators working with any CFRP-inclusive project must all be well trained in the requirements for working with carbon fiber filaments. Training and upskilling must be considered when considering bringing CFRP into operations.

Conclusion

When you decide to take on carbon fiber 3D printing, you’re committing to an endeavor that requires significant attention to parameters and specialized equipment and requirements. When those conditions are fulfilled, you can produce best-in-class lightweight, durable, functional parts that can stand up to a variety of industrial uses with all the complexity in design that 3D printing has to offer.

ITERATE FAST. PRODUCE FASTER. GET TO MARKET FASTEST.

The BigRep PRO is a 1 m³ powerhouse 3D printer, built to take you from prototyping to production. It provides a highly scalable solution to manufacture end-use parts, factory tooling or more with high-performance, engineering-grade materials. Compared with other manufacturing and FFF printing solutions, the PRO can produce full-scale, accurate parts faster and at lower production costs.

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ITERATE FAST. PRODUCE FASTER. GET TO MARKET FASTEST.

The BigRep PRO is a 1 m³ powerhouse 3D printer, built to take you from prototyping to production. It provides a highly scalable solution to manufacture end-use parts, factory tooling or more with high-performance, engineering-grade materials. Compared with other manufacturing and FFF printing solutions, the PRO can produce full-scale, accurate parts faster and at lower production costs.

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Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing

Rapid Prototyping - Better Engineering

Rapid prototyping changes the way you develop a product. That process, though, is subject to a variety of bottlenecks at various points throughout. Forestalling one major bottleneck that happens on the way to a final product design can make your entire process better - and faster. Rapid prototyping can ease your entire engineering process in a big way with large-format 3D printing.

What is Rapid Prototyping?

Prototypes are physical parts or assemblies that come closer to final with each iteration. Starting with conceptual mockups and building toward a functional prototype, each successive prototype is a step toward a fully engineered final design. That’s prototyping - rapid prototyping refers to the cycle of quickly iterating to reach a final design.

We say “cycle” because that’s just what it is; a few steps are required to go from idea to delivery. At its simplest, it’s a three-step process that looks like this:

What is Rapid Prototyping

The review stage of each successive prototype gets the cycle one step closer to completion, with refinement in iteration required to move toward that acceptable conclusion.

Rapid prototyping employs a few technologies, from CAD design software to manufacturing process(es), to create a series of prototypes.

Traditionally, each physical prototype would require a new design to be outsourced to a manufacturer to be made with subtractive (e.g., milling, cutting) or molding/casting processes. That may require lengthy waits and costs, as tooling and logistics come into play every time. Speeding up the process, technologies like 3D printing remove the need for tooling and can take your idea straight from design file to the physical. This shortens wait times, as feedback can translate immediately to an updated design file that can in turn be 3D printed as quickly as just a few hours. When this is done in-house, several cycles of prototyping can even be accomplished in the same day - a far cry from the traditional weeks or even months between iterations.

Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing

Is Rapid Prototyping the Same as 3D Printing?

When the technology was first developed, 3D printing was so synonymous with rapid prototyping that the two terms were interchangeable. Whether referencing “3D printing,” “rapid prototyping,” or “RP,” the conversation generally all referred to the same thing. Today, 3D printing has developed into end-use production capabilities as well and is more commonly synonymous with “additive manufacturing.”

Still, rapid prototyping was the first and remains the largest application for 3D printing. Iterations from proof-of-concept through to functional prototype can all be 3D printed. Whether outsourced or in-house, using 3D printers speeds up the rapid prototyping significantly through removing traditional bottlenecks in tooling and/or shipping. Rapid prototyping can also increasingly be done using the same 3D printing technology as will be used for the final product.

Benefits of Rapid Prototyping

At its broadest, rapid prototyping carries the significant benefits of speeding time-to-market, offers better opportunity to test and improve each iteration, is a cost-competitive process, and improves the effectiveness of communication throughout the design cycle.

Decrease Time to Market

The time it takes an idea to move from concept to deliverable should be as short as possible. Replacing months or years of traditional wait times in the iterative prototyping process with days or weeks is an easily apparent benefit of rapid prototyping. A 3D printer can precisely create your next iteration from a slightly tweaked design file much faster than could any traditional tooling-based prototyping process. Speeding the design cycle inherently improves time-to-market for a new product.

Test and Improve

Each 3D printed prototype will be one step better than the version before it, ideally. Getting hands-on with a life-sized functional prototype can allow you fuller understanding of that particular design’s pros and cons, enabling fast approval or disapproval as it can be put through its paces in testing. Your engineering team can test performance and get a feel for the look and feel of each prototype, understanding, evaluating, and improving any manufacturability issues or usability risks while still in the pre-production stages.

Create Competitive and Cost-Efficient Models

Hand-in-hand with speeding time-to-market is the reduction of costs associated with lengthy design cycles. Getting a product to market faster will inherently reduce the hefty price of longer, more tooling-intensive traditional workflows. Competitive positioning requires that development and introduction be quick, especially in the consumer market. Large-format 3D printing also allows for several different prototypes to be made at the same time, allowing for faster decision making when the choice is between a few looks or feels.

Improve Effective Communication

The fast turnaround of rapid prototyping eases communication gaps by opening up the conversation. It’s much easier if every engineer on your team has the same understanding of a process, and quickly getting a next physical prototype in hand offers a clear point of reference. As each prototype becomes closer to the feel and performance of the final design, small tweaks and large adjustments both become easier to understand for your entire team.

Rapid Prototyping - Ford MegaBox

How to Use Rapid Prototyping in Your Engineering Process

Rapid prototyping sounds great, but where can it be used in the engineering process? The answer may not be wholly surprising at this point: from initial proof-of-concept to final-look-and-feel prototype, rapid prototyping can come into play across the entire process.

Concept Prototypes

The earliest prototypes are often conceptual. Proof-of-concept prototypes serve as physical validation of the ideas that may have emerged as a sketch on a napkin. Taking an idea into the three-dimensional real world is the best way to prove viability. Getting hands-on with a concept model can help your engineering team understand their next steps at the same time as it may encourage management to simply move forward with a project.

These early prototypes are often the roughest, as they are the lowest-risk representations made in the rapid prototyping cycle. These prototypes are made quickly and generally in different materials and colors than later-stage prototypes, much less final designs.

Rapid Prototyping - LOCI PodCar

Aesthetic or Industrial Design Prototypes

Once a design is validated in its roughest form, it moves next into an aesthetic or industrial design step. These next prototypes begin to hone in on how the design should look and feel, with the thought process beginning to turn toward usability and functionality – without necessarily being fully functional quite yet. To ensure a new part will fit into a greater whole, or a new product will fit with your brand’s existing aesthetic or functional line, these prototypes more accurately look like something that is moving toward a final design. These prototypes also enable engineers to consider how exactly to best manufacture the eventual final design.

Especially when working with life-sized, larger designs like furniture, having life-sized prototypes to fit to spaces and users becomes ever more important as designs move through the prototyping cycle. Large-scale 3D printing can bring these large-scale designs to life, allowing for a full iteration to be made and tested in less than the time it would take for a traditional tool to be made. Furniture maker Steelcase experienced this benefit first-hand as they use their large-format BigRep 3D printer to create new furniture designs:

Steelcase 3D Printing Furniture Prototypes

Functional Prototypes

A functional prototype does just that: it functions. These later-stage prototypes are often made of materials similar to what will be used in a final product, to validate that everything will work as intended. Engineers at this stage pay attention to performance: does it fit, does it function, do load-bearing parts bear loads?

Attention must be paid to detail, to how the final part will be manufactured (especially if this will be done in a different process than the prototype; for example, 3D printing a prototype for a part that will ultimately be injection molded) as well as how the final part will be post-processed/finished.

Test Serial Production

Many products bound for the mass market are bound for mass production, and this may mean in a different manufacturing process. While 3D printing may be the right technology for both rapid prototyping and serial production of the final part - consider, for example, cases of mass customization - this will not always be the case.

Prototyping must take into account the eventual manufacturing process to be used, and later-stage prototypes should use the same materials and fit into the appropriate manufacturing parameters as the final parts will be. Consideration for traditional production processes comes more into play here, for example for tooling, jigs and fixtures, or any other necessary implements. Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) may move toward traditional design for manufacturing (DFM) thinking.

Demonstration or Presentation Model Prototypes

The final look is the final stage in prototyping, the last step before full production begins. At this stage, a prototype should not only feel and operate like the final product, but needs to look like it, too. This prototype can be used for marketing materials while production ramps up, for convincing investors of final viability and feasibility, for final field testing, or for any other demonstration or presentation needs. The goal of rapid prototyping is to reach this stage faster than ever before using conventional prototyping workflows.

Rapid Prototyping - Rexroth AGV Automated Guided Vehicle

How Can I Get Started with Rapid Prototyping?

To get started with rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing you basically just need one thing: Access to a 3D printer. But there is more than one way to get there. You can buy a 3D printer in many sizes, from desktop to large-format 3D printers. Your easiest entry to prototyping in big sizes is the BigRep ONE.

If you are not there to buy a 3D printer yet, you can just order your part from a 3D printing service. With BigRep PARTLAB you can get your part in 3 easy steps: You upload you CAD file, we will send you a quote, and after your order, our 3D printing experts will do the rest.

Conclusion

Rapid prototyping and 3D printing work together hand-in-hand for better and faster engineering. By speeding up you workflows and removing bottlenecks and other pain points of traditionally drawn-out prototyping cycles, 3D printing enables a new solution for a faster time to market. Better-tested, cost-efficient rapid prototyping is a win for your engineering team.

Learn more about Additive Manufacturing

How Large-Format 3D Printing is Transforming Industries

Learn how industry-leading companies are putting 3D printing to use as we explore four applications that are helping increase productivity, reduce leads times and improve time to market.

Large Scale 3D Printing: Realizing Value from Design to Production

“Why does size matter and what value does it provide?” Join this free webinar to learn how the power of large-scale 3D printing can help you enhance design and reduce costs, all while accelerating time-to-market.

Mass Customization and the Power of 3D Printing

Mass Customization and the Power of 3D Printing

Mass Customization and the Power of 3D Printing

One of the major selling points of adopting 3D printing technology into operations is the ability to mass customize.

But what exactly is mass customization, why would anyone want it, and how does 3D printing enable it?

What is mass customization?

At its simplest, mass customization is exactly what it sounds like: customization on a large scale.

Customization is typically thought of as more one-of-a-kind than one-size-fits-all, which can make it difficult to achieve on a large scale. The major benefit here is in combining the low cost-per-unit of mass manufacturing with the appeal and flexibility of individual design.

Mass customization can be simple or complex, depending on the manufacturer and application. Selecting a different color or size of a design, for example, is a relatively simple way of customizing a mass-produced product. Upping the complexity, the shell of a certain system may look the same, such as in the case of a computer, while the internal components may be swapped out to affect speed or power, to create many potential configurations of customization within a single product.

In many cases, the ultimate assembled product may thus be customized, even if the individual components themselves are still subject to standard mass production. In different applications, though, a single order of many of the same object may require slight variations between each item in the run. This inherently changes the plan for manufacturing, as a single mold for injection molding can only create the same geometry time after time.

mass-customization-advantages

Why is mass customization useful?

From shoes to computers to widgets, there are myriad reasons why a customer might want to offer variances within a single production run. Let’s look to an example in the medical industry to easily understand why customizing on a larger scale might be helpful to a manufacturer.

One of the earliest wide adopters of 3D printing technology was the hearing aid industry. Another more recent example is the orthodontic aligner business. In both these cases, a manufacturer must make an individually fitted device for the unique anatomy of a single person. No two ear canals, nor two sets of teeth, are quite the same. When it comes to dental aligners, even a single person’s needs will change as the teeth are shifted through wearing these and new aligners will be required on a fairly regular basis.

In both hearing aids and aligners, it’s clear to see why each design must be unique to its eventual wearer. But getting there with mass production technology can be a trickier proposition.

For a manufacturer, good business sense dictates that every effort should be made to create the best possible product at the lowest cost, using the least material, time, and labor possible. That generally means producing on a larger scale, as price-per-unit can be reduced through the concept of mass production. Combining that capability with the needs of products that are customized in at least some aspect is where the idea of mass customization begins to make strategic sense.

Mass customization examples

Beyond the medical industry, mass customization comes into play across many application areas.

One of the most interactive ways to access mass customization is through co-creation, which is a collaborative effort working closely with a partner or customer. Both parties’ expertise, whether of technology or end-user experience, comes into play to together design a solution that can be tweaked as needed to individualize the ultimate experience.

Sizing and color are among the primary aspects of many designs, from furniture to clothing, that can be customized, but by no means are they the only facets.

Mass Customization: 3D printed part for special needs car

German automotive company Paravan, for example, is the market leader in producing wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The company has turned to large-format 3D printing to customize vehicles for drivers and passengers with disabilities or special needs. While a base car may be similar, each individual’s needs are different; some may need a modified steering mechanism while another may need an adapted braking system.

Comfort, style, safety, adaptability, personality, luxury – the reasons for wanting mass customization are many, though ultimately all boil down to the need to satisfy the end user.

mass-customization-adaptive-customization-example

Different approaches to customization

Just as the goals of customization differ case by case, so do the approaches to achieving it. Among the major approaches are collaborative, adaptive, transparent, and cosmetic customization.

Collaborative customization

When it comes to collaborative customization, co-creation is the key. Working closely together with your customer to identify exactly what needs must be met, and what may need to be adjusted to meet individuals’ unique needs from a base design, the co-creators are able to determine the whats and the whys to then develop the hows of appropriate mass customization.

Adaptive customization

Focused more on the end user, adaptive collaboration enables, well, adaptation. Allowing a few options to customize a product, a customer can select the fit or style that best suits them. When making products like water sports mobility devices, for example, ensuring the right fit for the rider is not only practical, but a safety measure. Large-format 3D printing is enabling just that for JAMADE’s AMAZEA underwater scooter.

Transparent customization

Sometimes customization seems obvious - and when needs are apparent, transparent customization can come into play. Here, individuals’ products are customized from the back end as the producer can reliably predict and then discreetly create designs that suit those needs. The goal with transparent customization is to make workflow easier for the client, removing the need for ongoing back-and-forth discussion.

Cosmetic customization

Customization can go into the very essence of a product, or be a bit more front-facing. Cosmetic customization comes into play for mass production that doesn’t “look mass produced.” No one wants to feel like they’re one of a crowd, so presenting essentially the same product in a few different ways can help differentiate between customers – think company logos, different colors, and other cosmetic branding.

Challenges to mass customization

As valuable a prospect as mass customization is, actualizing the concept still faces some challenges. As more industrial 3D printing capabilities are put to use in mass customization, though, these challenges can be seen as simply the next landmarks of achievement.

Higher costs

The numbers are simple: it’s more cost-effective to mass produce batches of like items. We see this same split when considering injection molding versus additive manufacturing when it comes to mass production. As of today, injection molding is a more economical option for mass production.

The same cannot be said, however, when it comes to customization. Producing quantities of slightly different items means that the same mold will not suffice for each. Making new molds in this manner would be extremely expensive, and likely more costly in terms of both money and extended lead time to make them all than a manufacturer would find agreeable.

In order to effectively mass customize, either individualized molds must be made for each or manufacturing must be done with no molding at all - and that’s where industrial 3D printing comes into play. This changes the value proposition, as the lack of molds enables the individualization of each piece in a mass production pipeline without adding to costs as would happen with traditional processes.

When considering higher costs, comparisons must be apples-to-apples; like must be compared with like. Mass customization is not inexpensive, but with increasing demand from end-use consumers preferring their specific needs be met, it is only going to be on the rise across a variety of applications and industries.

Returning of customized products

Returns are a fact of life in any production environment. For any number of reasons, customers may see the need to return their goods. Any reason may be given, from having not selected the right item for their purpose to changing their minds - and most major suppliers have return policies in place.

When those items to be returned have been customized, though, things change for the supplier. Many returned goods can be returned to the shelves with only a slight inventory adjustment. Items made to fit a specific user or need, though, cannot simply go back on a shelf.

Returns must be handled on a case-by-case basis, with consideration of the ability to resell the product to a new buyer. When it comes to personalized medical goods, for example, there simply is no other customer. When customization came in the form of a size or color, though, more opportunities are likely for different buyers.

Supply chain efficiency

Finally, mass customization may alter the efficiencies of supply chain operations. Mass production typically requires longer lead times when custom options are available.

However, through advanced manufacturing technologies like large-format 3D printing, lead times may not see much impact. Because digital designs lead directly to the physical products, with no need for tooling or molding made along the way, each print job takes a specified amount of time regardless of the variation in designs on the build tray.

BigRep Retro Seats - Additively Refurbished Airplane Seating
How can you achieve Mass Customization?

How can we achieve mass customization?

When it comes to true mass customization, making full product runs with slight-to-major variances among each object made, the single best option available today is to use 3D printing.

3D printing is a digital manufacturing technology that enables every object on a build plate, whether that be two or 2,000, to be different. By tweaking the 3D model, each design can be customized for its ultimate purpose without any additional expense. There is no need for tooling to be made, nor new molds for each individual design adjustment, significantly reducing the time and money typically involved in creating different designs.

When using large-format 3D printing equipment, new possibilities open up for industry and art alike, enabling every design to be as unique as a fingerprint.

How can we achieve mass customization?

When it comes to true mass customization, making full product runs with slight-to-major variances among each object made, the single best option available today is to use 3D printing.

3D printing is a digital manufacturing technology that enables every object on a build plate, whether that be two or 2,000, to be different. By tweaking the 3D model, each design can be customized for its ultimate purpose without any additional expense. There is no need for tooling to be made, nor new molds for each individual design adjustment, significantly reducing the time and money typically involved in creating different designs.

When using large-format 3D printing equipment, new possibilities open up for industry and art alike, enabling every design to be as unique as a fingerprint.

How can you achieve Mass Customization?

Learn more with these Additive Manufacturing Use Cases

Large-format 3D printers for education and research

Read how Kingston University, Helmut Schmidt University and more are using BigRep 3D printers for their classrooms and research.

Guide to Large-Format Additive Manufacturing

3D printing a large part all at once means less time is spent designing around multiple print jobs, less time assembling multiple parts, and more time getting those parts to work for you.

Learn Industrial Design for Additive Manufacturing

Demonstrating with real-world examples of large-format designs created by BigRep and its partners, see the unique product-capabilities that designers can take advantage of with AM in large-format on an industrial scale.

Find your industrial Additive Manufacturing machine

GRADUATE FROM DESKTOP. 3D PRINT FULL SCALE. GET INDUSTRIAL.

The BigRep STUDIO G2 gets 3D printing off your desk and takes it to the next level. Operating with the same ease as a desktop 3D printer and with 10 times the build volume, the STUDIO G2 provides large-scale industrial manufacturing capabilities in a compact “fits everywhere” build.

Learn More

PREMIUM-EFFIZIENZ FÜR ANWENDUNGEN IN DER INDUSTRIE

Der industrielle 3D-Drucker STUDIO G2 wurde speziell auf Zuverlässigkeit bei abrasiven und technischen Werkstoffen ausgelegt. Er ist ein langlebiger und kostengünstiger Partner für Ihre Innovationen, da er das gegenwärtig beste Verhältnis zwischen Bauvolumen und Auflösung bei 3D-Druckern bietet. Der STUDIO G2 mit seinem ansprechenden und platzsparenden Gehäuse eignet sich perfekt zur Produktion großformatiger Teile in jeder Arbeitsumgebung – vom Büro bis zur Werkstatt.

MEHR ERFAHREN

HOW TO: 3 Steps to Hide the Seams and Become Design Leader

Hiding the seams with Marco

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Why is it important?

If one has a good knowledge of slicing software, they can reach a higher quality of the printed object. That naturally influences the general outlook of the one. Important aspect of the final print are the seams. They might spoil the effect of the design. The continuity of the print can be lost at start and end points of every layer. Hiding the seams is important in case of creating a prototype that is true to the final product as possible. Furthermore, it’s especially meaningful if you want to print the ready-to-use objects with important details.

In 3D models a slicing program transforms the model into G-code. The code includes any preferred optimizations and parameter changes. Thanks to that, the person printing the object has much more control of the quality and final outlook of the print. If the software is not set up properly, it automatically generates random starting points in different locations. That can affect the quality of the print. However, when the settings can be changed. It means that user can also change the whole project into one united object. That includes hiding the seams or unwanted curves.

In BigRep we understand the need for the best possible finish effect of the project. That is why we try different slicing methods, to find the perfect one and apply it for the full print height. In our case it is very important due to the large-scale printable quantity.

The tutorial

How To 3D Print: Hiding The Seams

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The tutorial explains how to avoid this problem and how to, using Simplify3D slicing software, step-by-step generate optimal start points. Marco Mattia Cristofori, the Architect and 3D Printing Specialist at BigRep, explains that a few additional modifications of the start and end location of the layers can make it sure that the seam is created in an optimal spot on the print. Often there is a natural groove or corner in a print that is a hiding spot for the seam. For example, on the manifold pictured and printed on Bigrep STUDIO, the curve on the right-hand side covers up the seam nicely. “We can make the seams follow the exact path we want them to follow,” said Cristofori. “So, instead, we can optimize this when we generate the G-code”.

hiding the seams

3 STEPS TO HIDE THE SEAMS

You can hide the seams on your print in 3 easy steps:

1) Import your model on Simplify3D and figure out how many processes you need to split the part in. Make sure the seams follow the path you want.

2) Edit singularly each process on the LAYER section changing the X & Y setting where the seams should be set up closer to.

3) Slice the part generating the G-code and check for possible improvements. Try different variation of the X & Y settings until you achieve the result you need.

However, Siplify3D is not the only possible tool. The list and description of popular slicing software can be found here.

DISCOVER OUR 3D PRINTERS

3D Printing Post Processing

Post Processing 3D Printed Parts

Guide to Post-Processing 3D Printed Parts: 16 Methods

Get more from your 3D prints with smoother surfaces, improved mechanical properties, enhanced aesthetics, and more.

Get an overview of 16 post-processing techniques in this guide or see some real life examples in the ebook and webinar:

Why 3D Print Post Processing Smooth Surface

SMOOTH SURFACES

Reduce the appearance of print layers and refine surfaces

Why 3D Print Post Processing Strengthen Parts

Strengthen Parts

Reinforce prints for added strength and durability

Why 3D Print Post Processing Add Functionality

ADD FUNCTIONALITY

From UV and weather resistance to conductivity and more

Why 3D Print Post Processing Aesthetic Finishing

AESTHETIC FINISHING

Transform the surface appearance for visually striking parts

All 3D prints are produced layer by layer, which results in a notched surface texture that is more pronounced with lower print resolutions. If support structures are needed for your part, it may have additional flaws on their touch points. This guide covers the first step to part finishing, support removal, and the three categories of post-processing: SubtractiveAdditive, and Material Changing.

Support Removal

Unless your print is optimized for supportless 3D printing, you’ll probably be printing with support structures. These are usually easy to snap off, but even well designed supports will leave behind imperfections where they were once attached. To smooth these areas, it is recommended to post-process the entire part by any number of methods outlined below.

With dual extrusion you can print soluble support structures that disintegrate in water and leave no trace on your part. They’re especially useful when post-processing isn’t otherwise necessary.

3D Print Post Processing Support Removal

SUBTRACTIVE

The most common post-processing category, subtractive post-processing is the act of removing material from the part surface to make it more uniform and smoother.

ADDITIVE 

Additive post-processing puts additional material directly onto printed parts. Additive techniques are highly efficient for smoothing parts while adding strength and other mechanical properties.

PROPERTY CHANGING

Neither removing nor adding material, property changing post-processing redistributes molecules of a 3D print. Smoother and stronger parts are achieved with thermal and chemical treatments.

Subtractive Post-Processing Methods

Probably the most common post-processing category, subtractive post-processing is the act of removing some of your part’s material. Usually this is in the form of sanding or polishing a part, but there are a variety of other methods that includes tumbling, milling, abrasive blasting, and chemical abrasive dipping.

Sanding & Polishing

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS  

Both sanding and polishing techniques remove surface layers by rubbing it with an abrasive material. Sanding requires coarser grit sandpaper and sanding tools, while polishing may use finer sandpaper, steel wool, polishing paste, or cloth.

Sanding removes larger blemishes such as support remnants or print irregularities and reduces the visibility of print layers. The sanding process will leave a gritty, although more uniform surface texture, and very course sandpaper will leave surface scratches. Polishing the part after sanding will produce an even smoother surface.

Simplicity and affordability make sanding and polishing the most common methods of post-processing, but both require labor that is time consuming for larger parts and batches. These methods may not be suited for parts with hard to reach cavities.

3d-print-post-processing-sanding-polishing

Tumbling

3D Print Post Processing Tumbling
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

A tumbling machine consists of a vibrating vat containing lubricating fluid and abrasive media, which are specialized stones that wear objects down according to their size, shape, and hardness as they tumble together. A 3D printed part is simply placed into the vat of tumbling abrasive media for specific length of time. Some expertise is required to pair parts with the correct abrasive media and processing time, but when done correctly it is very effective at producing uniform finishes.

Tumbling is largely automated subtractive method that can post-process multiple parts simultaneously, which is useful for smoothing batches of parts. Tumbling vats come in a range of sizes so larger parts can also be processed. Since the abrasive media is constantly in contact with the part, larger pieces do not require longer processing time, but only larger machines with the adequate amount if abrasive media. However, complex shapes may loose detail and sharp edges may become slightly rounded by tumbling.

Abrasive Blasting (Sand Blasting)

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Abrasive blasting, also known as sand blasting, is subtractive post-processing method where abrasive material is blasted onto 3D printed parts at high pressure. For large parts this can be done in an open environment, but smaller parts are typically processed in a containment chamber that collects and reuses the abrasive material. Like other grit-based subtractive methods, there are a range of grits available and grit must be chosen based on part geometry and desired finish. Sand is a frequently used abrasive material, but other small coarse objects such as plastic beads can be used for different results.

Since the abrasive material is smaller than that of tumbling, abrasive blasting is less effective on very rough parts or high layer heights. This method only treats surfaces reachable by the stream of blasted material, so complex geometries and cavities may not be feasible. Additionally, the blasting tool can only treat limited areas at a given time, so this method may be slower and difficult to process multiple parts simultaneously.

3d-print-post-processing-abrasive-blasting-sand-blasting

CNC Machining (Milling)

3d-print-post-processing-cnc-machining-milling
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

CNC milling, also called CNC machining, is the inverse of 3D printing - it uses a computer-programmable drill moving (and sometime rotating) in three axes to carve out geometries. Like 3D printers, the technology uses “G-Code” to program tool movements, in this case a milling bit rather than a filament extruder.

While CNC machining is considered highly accurate from 0.005” to 0.00005”, it cannot produce certain geometries and wastes material, which is often expensive. Conversely, large-format 3D printing cannot achieve the same accuracy, but can achieve much more complex geometries and wastes very little material.

It is typically not time or cost effective to mill the entire surface of a 3D print and it may be difficult to calibrate the milling tool to the print position. But while these two production methods are seemingly at odds, there are some situations where they may be used together. If a portion of a 3D printed part must be extremely smooth or accurate, that specific area can be milled. Alternately, manufacturers can save material by 3D printing a part in a rough finish before milling it to perfection.

Chemical Dipping

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Chemical dipping, also called aid dipping, is the process of submerging parts in a chemical bath that eats away the surface. The process involves caustic materials, such as lye, sodium hydroxide, or dichloromethan, and should only be done by experts in facilities with the requisite safety features. The appropriate chemical choice is entirely dependent on the material of the 3D print, as the chemical must be abrasive to the print material.

Some expertise is required to determine how long parts should remain submerged: too brief and the part will not be sufficiently smooth, too long and it could be ruined entirely. Some care should be taken to avoid air bubbles trapped inside the 3D print as they will prevent the chemical treatment of the surface. Typically the submerged part is gently moved to agitate the chemical bath and release any air bubbles.

The process is ideal for complex geometries as the chemical bath treats all surfaces of submerged parts simultaneously. However, the size of the chemical dipping container determines the limited part dimensions of treatable prints.

3D Print Post Processing Chemical Dipping Acetone

Additive Post-Processing Methods

Additive post processing puts additional material directly onto printed parts and is highly efficient for smoothing parts while adding strength and other mechanical properties. There is a wide spectrum of methods from filling to priming, coating, metal plating, and more.

Filling

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Filling is a surface treatment that uses a thick adhesive compound, typically a paste, to fill in notches like the tiny gaps between layers of a 3D print. It is commonly used as a first step before sanding or additional additive layers. A wide range of fillers from pastes to sprays are available in many materials from light spackle to 2K resins.

Paste fillers, like wood fillers or household spackle, are usually the most accessible option. They are simply spread over the part surface and can be easily smoothed with light sanding. Spray fillers are easy to apply but provide only a thin surface covering, resulting in a rougher coating. More robust, but more advanced options are resin fillers that must be cured by one of two methods: mixing with a hardener or UV exposure. Resins are available with various viscosity, cure speeds, and advanced features like UV and heat resistance. For some UV-cured fillers leaving parts in the sun may be sufficient, but others will require a specialized UV chamber.

When using any kind of resin cover skin, wear gloves, and keep the working space well ventilated. Ensure you’re familiar with the requirements of your filler or coating before applying it to a part as this may drastically change the time or equipment required for post-processing.

villroy-boch-post-processing-filling-plaster

For some UV-cured fillers, leaving parts in the sun may be sufficient but others will require a specialized UV chamber. Ensure you’re familiar with the requirements of your filler or coating before applying it to a part as this may drastically change the time or equipment required for post-processing.

Priming

3D Print Post Processing Priming
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Primers prepare 3D printed parts for the addition of subsequent layers by pre-treating the surface for better adhesion. They are far less viscous than fillers and may only smooth very small surface imperfections, so their main function is adhesive surface preparation. Primers are available in spray or brush form, but spray primer may produce a more even coating.

To prime a part most effectively, the imperfections and layers notches should first be reduced by other post-processing methods such as sanding or filling. Ensure that your primer is made for plastic adhesion and is suitable for additional materials you intend to apply later. Leave the primer to set for 24 hours or as otherwise directed.

Brush Coating

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Liquid coatings vary widely in material such as paint, varnish, resin, or even plastic. While there are several application methods, brush coating is the simplest way to smooth unique or small batches of 3D printed parts. Although the surface smoothness may be inconsistent due to brush strokes, choosing a material with the proper viscosity can avoid these surface irregularities.

For a robust and smooth surface apply a 2K resin, which is a two-component mixture of resin with a hardener. When combined, the mixture created an exothermic chemical reaction that cures the resin over a given amount of time. There is a huge range of resin products for a variety of uses: laminating resins for thin surface applications, casting resins for larger volumes, fast and slow curing resins, and resins with additives (like aluminum, for example) for additional performance enhancement such a temperature, UV, or chemical resistance. To achieve the smoothest surface when brush coating, use a resin with an appropriate “self-leveling” viscosity that will even out brush strokes without material dripping off the part. There are resin products specifically formulated for 3D prints that can achieve very smooth surfaces after one coating.

When brushing other materials such as paint or varnish it may be more difficult to avoid brush strokes, but many coatings can be sanded after drying to achieve a smoother surface. It is also possible to apply an additional coating of another material, 2K resin for example, to achieve a smoother final result.

3D Print Post Processing Brush Coating

Spray Coating

spray-coating-3d-printed-statue-post-processing2
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

A wide-ranging and scalable post-processing technique, spray coating a offers a number of viable methods ranging from DIY projects to robotic automation at an industrial scale. Spray coatings are available in a huge variety of materials such as paint, varnish, resin, plastics, and rubbers, just to name a few.

The simple approach for DIY projects is a spray can of chosen material applied in a ventilated/outdoor space. Since this method typically results in minimal surface smoothing, it is recommended to sand the part first and apply several spray coats. Applying a spray primer may help the spray coating adhere to the part. Spray paint can be used for aesthetic enhancements and spray varnish can protect the surface against chipping, wear, and UV damage.

For large volume or industrial spray coating applications, a robotic arm fitted with a spraying tool head can apply a wide range of coatings to a 3D printed part. The application typically takes place in spray booth with an adequate air filter. This method allows a wider range of materials, including 2K spray coatings, primers, paints, and more, and results in higher application precision and uniformity. A robotic arm will speed up the processing time and make high volume post-processing feasible at an industrial level.

Spray coating is most suitable for finishing large parts, rather than other additive methods such as dipping, foiling, or powder coating. The later methods all require a machine or vat that can contain the entire part, whereas spray coating is only limited by the size of the room in which it is done.

Foiling

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

In foiling, or vinyl wrapping, an adhesive foil made of light metals or plastic is wrapped onto an object, often preceded by priming. Commonly know for wrapping vehicles, vinyl wrapping can also be applied to 3D printed objects with a suitable material. Depending on the material, the foil may increase heat and stress resistance, but is often applied for aesthetic enhancement like smoothing and surface quality.

The difficulty of this post-processing technique varies with the size and complexity of your part. A simple geometry, like the gently curved side panel of a vehicle, is relatively easy to foil, but complex shapes are more difficult with some being impossible to foil.

Wrapping is particularly suitable to apply detailed surface designs to 3D printed parts. Adhesive foils come in a wide range of colors and patterns, as well as custom-printed designs. Foil can be applied by hand, stretching the material over objects to ensure no imperfections like air bubbles remain. Heat guns are often used in the process to make application easier and avoid imperfections. Vacuum foiling will automate the process for faster, precise results to ensure the material wraps around the part as perfectly as possible.

Foiling is usually not suitable for complex parts as the foil will be extremely difficult to apply uniformly and inside cavities.

3D Print Post Processing Foiling

The difficulty of vinyl wrapping varies with the size and complexity of your part. A smooth surface – like the side paneling of a vehicle – should be reasonably simple to foil but complex shapes will become exponentially more difficult.

Dip Coating

3D Print Post Processing Dipping Coating
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

When dip coating, a part is submerged into a vat of material such as paint, resin, rubber, etc. and removed after a specified time, resulting in an even surface distribution. The part can be redipped multiple times for a thicker coating and smoother surface. Dipping can be used for aesthetic finishing and functional enhancement like increased strength and resistance to heat, chemicals, weather, etc.

The typical dipping process is comprised of five stages:

  1. Immersion: The 3D printed part is immersed in a vat of material at a constant speed.
  2. Start-up: The part remains submerged for a specified time for the coating to adhere.
  3. Deposition: The part is removed at a constant rate as a thin layer of the material is deposited.
  4. Drainage: Excess material will drip off of the part surface back into the vat.
  5. Evaporation: As the coating sets the solvent evaporates from the material, leaving a solid film.

Hydro dipping, also known as water transfer printing is a unique method for applying detailed designs onto a 3D print. The part is submerged in a vat of clean water that has a layer of material floating on its surface, typically a water soluble printed film or an oil based paint. As the part passes through the floating layer, the film or paint adheres to the part’s surface. The surface tension of the water ensures that the film curves around any shape. Best results are achieved when parts with gently curving geometries.

Dip coating is suitable for complex geometries and requires some expertise about the coating material used. The size of the vat determines the dimension of treatable parts. Large prints may not be feasible, although batch processing is possible for smaller parts.

Metal Plating

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Metal plating is a chemical process where a layer of metal is bonded to a 3D printed part. It is a highly effective method to create 3D printed objects with high resistances to heat, impact, weather, and chemicals, or to create conductive parts.

The first step in metal coating plastic parts is "electroless plating" that metalizes the surface of the print, priming it for proper metal plating. This process ranges from special metal paints that are simply brushed or sprayed onto the part, to industrial processes involving numerous steps of cleaning, etching, neutralizing, activating, etc. Typically, this first layer is copper or nickel, although silver and gold are also possible.

In the second step in metal plating, the metalized 3D print is submerged in a bath for a specific length of time to deposit a wide range of metals like tin, platinum, palladium, rhodium and even chrome. In electroplating, the part is placed in a galvanic bath that deposits a thin metal layer from 1 - 50 microns thick. Anode and cathode ions pas through the liquid and adhere to part in microscopically fine layers. Additional metal plating processes can build up the metallic surface thickness or deposit a different metal material.

When using a metal-acid solution, parts are submerged in the liquid solution for a specific duration, depending on the desired plating thickness. A chemical reaction attracts and adheres the metal ions to the surface of the part. Once removed from the bath, the part can receive a protective coating to prevent oxidation, corrosion, or tarnishing. A heat treatment may be used to strengthen the metal layer adhesion and prevent brittleness.

Metal plating typically works well for complex parts and can produce a range of surface qualities, smoothness, and mechanical enhancements. However the process requires many stages and expertise.

3D Print Post Processing Metal Plating

Powder Coating

3D Print Post Processing Powder Coating
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

When powder coating, also known as rotational sintering, a part is heated and rotated within a cloud of the powdered plastic. As the powder compound meets the heated part, it is melted to the surface to produce a fine coating. Due to surface tension while spinning, the adhered powder produces a homogeneous, non-porous layer about 400-microns thick. The surface is typically not glossy smooth, but rather has a fine matte texture caused by the plastic cloud particle size, typically 2-50 microns.

Powder coating is a common method for protecting large metal components, but it is difficult to achieve with 3D prints. In traditional powder coating, the metal parts experience temperatures up to 200 °C, but the lower temperature resistance of most 3D printed plastics greatly limits use of this post processing method. When possible, powder coating is highly efficient for batch production with uniform surfaces, although cavities may be difficult to post process.

Property Changing Post-Processing Methods

Neither removing nor adding material, property changing post-processing redistributes molecules of a 3D print. Smoother and stronger parts are achieved with thermal and chemical treatments.

Local Melting

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Local melting is an easy way to reduce the appearance of surface scratches from damage, support removal, or abrasive post-processing like sanding. Rough surfaces are particularly visible on dark colored 3D prints, which appear to be a white-ish color. Using a heat gun set to high heat, quickly pass hot air over the area requiring treatment keeping the heat gun 10-20 cm away from the part. Within seconds, the surface will melt to resemble the original print surface quality. A heat gun can also remove strings from travel moves during printing. Using the same method as described above will melt and shrink the strings. If the strings are large, small remnants may cling to the part, but are often easily removed by brushing or clipping them off.

This method is not suitable for deep scratches as it is only effective for light surface roughness. It also can easily deform the part, so take care to limit the time an area is heated. Best results are achieved by sweeping hot air across the surface for several seconds. Local melting is not recommended for overall surface smoothing, but for easy and effective for smoothing small defects and scratches.

3D Print Post Processing Local Melting

Annealing

3D Print Post Processing Annealing
  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Annealing is the process of heating a print to reorganize its molecular structure, resulting in stronger parts that are less prone to warping.  Untreated 3D prints have an amorphous molecular structure, meaning that the molecules are unorganized and weaker. Being a poor heat conductor, the extruded plastic cools quickly and unevenly during the printing process causing internal stresses, particularly between print layers. These stress points are most prone to breakage.

To strengthen the part at its molecular level, it is heated to its glass transition temperature, but below its melting point. Achieving the glass transition temperature allows the molecules to redistribute into a semi-crystalline structure without melting the part to the point of deforming. Glass transition and melting temperatures vary between materials and some expertise is required to heat parts to the correct temperature for the proper length of time. 3D prints will shrink during the annealing process, which can be corrected by increasing the original printing dimensions accordingly.

Vapor Smoothing

  • DIFFICULTY 
  • SMOOTHNESS 

Vapor smoothing is chemical process of smoothing 3D prints in which parts are exposed to vaporized solvents in an enclosed chamber. Similarly to chemical dipping, the correct solvent must be used in correspondence with the 3D print material. The cloud of solvent dissolves the surface of the print, while its surface tension redistributes the dissolved material resulting in a smoother finish. Unlike chemical dipping, no material is actually removed from the part.

Solvents can either be heated to a gaseous state or vaporized by ultrasonic misting. The 3D print is exposed to the vaporized solvents for a specific length of time: too short and the part is not adequately smoothed, too long and the part can deform and become brittle. Most suitable solvents are caustic and combustible, and therefore require extreme levels of caution, adequate chemical containment and disposal, and should only be handled by qualified persons.

Many vapor smoothing machines are available for use with a variety of solvents suitable for different print materials. These machines make the process automated and much safer, but most can only treat smaller parts due to the chamber's limited dimensions.

3D Print Post Processing Vapor Smoothing

Post-Processing eBook

For real life industrial examples, download our free eBook Post-Processing for FFF Prints and see this webinar about post-processing techniques.

The eBook explores the three types of FFF post-processing techniques: 1) Material Removal, 2) Material Addition and 3) Material Property Change. Also, learn more about how various techniques like high resolution tumbling, resin coating and aluminum plating are transforming 3D printed parts.

3d Printing Post Processing FAQs

What is 3D printing post-processing?

Once the printer has finished printing, there may still be some work to do on the printed piece. For example, many shapes require supports to print properly. Removing those is a post-processing task. Some people might want to sand or put a finish layer onto a piece. Resin, as opposed to filament, based prints need to have any uncured resin washed off and final curing under UV light.

3D printing post processing is used to enhance the surface properties of prints in many aspects to deliver improved mechanical performance and aesthetic appearance. By improving these key surface characteristics, post processing widely extents the range of use cases and applications across all industries. 3 types of post-processing techniques can be applied to fused filament fabrication (FFF) prints:

  1. Material Removal
  2. Material Addition
  3. Material Property Change
How do you post process PLA 3D prints?

Almost every 3D print requires some sort of post-processing after it’s printed.

Usually this involves 3 steps:

  • Removing support structures
  • Sanding or polishing
  • Painting or coating
What is the most critical step in the post processing process of 3D printing FDM parts?

When post processing your 3d printed part, there are 2 steps that are most critical:

  • Removing the part from the print bed
  • Removing the support structures from the part

In both steps you need to be careful, not to break your 3d printed part. To lower these risks, you can try using flexible print beds and water-soluble support material.

How do I complete FDM parts?

When producing your FDM part, often the finished look matters just as much as the functionality. There are 4 ways to complete FDM parts.

  1. Remove any support structures
  2. Smoothing your print
  3. Filling the gaps
  4. Painting your part.

 

Can acetone smooth PLA?

When PLA and acetone smoothing works, it's due to other materials added to the PLA. Most PLAs and similar non-acetone-dissolving 3D printer filaments cannot be smoothed the same way. That's because PLA in its pure form is not reactive to acetone. 

Do I need to cure 3D prints?

It is necessary to cur SLA prints; you don’t have to cure FDM prints. Even though cleaning off any uncured resin is a great start, the step that really brings out the quality of your 3D print is the curing . A high wavelength UV light has the intensity to cure the entire part, it just takes longer for thicker, more solid parts.

Large-Scale Hybrid Parts in Automotive

Three views of a complex exhaust manifold as 3D printed prototypes

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The Automotive industry continues its ongoing race to find ways to accelerate the process of designing and developing new and better vehicles. If we examine a modern car design closely, we see that it contains around 30,000 components, of different sizes and materials, manufactured using a range of techniques. Introducing 3D printing into the process of designing a machine with this number and diversity of parts can make that process of moving from new concept to marketable product much more efficient.

When it comes to the functional testing of large automotive components, any vehicle manufacturer will be happy to have the capacity to produce prototypes with realistic mechanical properties at low cost, and with few limitations on design. The combination of large-scale 3D printing with metal plating is a powerful production solution which can deliver automotive firms this prototyping capacity.

Software render of a complex exhaust manifold design
Rendering of a complex exhaust manifold design

The Manifold

The exhaust manifold plays a leading role in a car or larger vehicle’s exhaust system.
It connects to each exhaust port on the engine's cylinder head and funnels the hot exhaust down to a single exhaust pipe. Manifolds are manufactured by metal casting and have to withstand a high-temperature environment around the engine. Finding a fast, cost-effective way to perform basic fit-form-functional manifold testing can help reduce costs and shorten the product development process.

The Hybrid Concept

As part of the mutual research BigRep and Polymertal are conducting into possible applications for large-scale 3D printing and metal plating, a large manifold was printed to which was then added a thin layer of nickel in a metal plating process. The goal was to significantly improve the mechanical properties of the prototype, bringing them closer to those of a finished, cast metal part.

Exhaust manifold: software render, 3D-printed polymer, and finished nickel-plated part
Render, polymer 3D printed, and metal-plated versions of a simple exhaust manifold

Printing data

  • Printed on the BigRep STUDIO
  • Material - PLA/PRO-HT
  • Printing Time - 15 h
  • Layer thickness - 0.3 mm
  • Nozzle - 0.6 mm
  • Material weight - 450 g
  • Material cost - under 20 Euros

Plating Data

  • Technique - Direct Metalization plating
  • Material - Nickel
  • Plating thickness - 20 microns
Inlet and outlet views of an exhaust manifold
This exhaust manifold has four entry points and two outlets

Benefits of Plating

  • Increased heat resistance
  • Increased chemical resistance
  • Increased part strength

The Result

The new manifold was manufactured quickly and at very low cost. The BigRep STUDIO delivered a precision-print of the design, the plating process improved the part’s mechanical properties making it suitable for real functional testing. The fast process and quality of the part suggest this method can be used for improved and accelerated testing of new automotive component designs. The result is increased confidence that 3D printing, and hybrid parts in particular, can give automotive firms who adopt the technology a lead over their competitors in bringing innovative vehicle designs to market.

Gil-Lavi-115x115

With over 22 years in the printing industry, Gil Lavi is a Sr. 3D-Printing Specialist with vast experience in implementing diverse 3D-printing technologies in design and manufacturing processes.

Connect with Gil on Linkedin HERE.


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