Additive manufacturing systems range in price from several thousand dollars for hobbyist level systems to nearly $1 million for high-end industrial machines. Both produce objects in a nearly identical fashion, so it can be a challenge to figure out which type of system would best suites and applications needs. To make things more confusing, it’s important to learn the differences between systems marketed as 3D printers and those marketed as 3D production systems.
During the selection process consider these 10 characteristics between these two main systems:
The price is the first method of differentiating between the two different systems. Many professional (as opposed to hobby or market style) industrial 3D printers have a base price of $10,000 to $50,000. Anything priced beyond that range is most often in the category of 3D production. However, unlike in many other industries, low cost does not mean the system is of inferior value. That value is determined by the characteristics of the system and how well those characteristics meet application needs.
In-office 3D printers usually provide a build area no larger than 10 in. x 10 in. x 10 in. This makes them suitable for small to mid-size prints. 3D production systems, on the other hand, have build areas that measure a few feet in any direction.
Capacity is an important characteristic because it can reduce the need to assemble printed parts afterwards, which not only adds time to the production process, but also increases cost and sacrifices quality. A larger capacity provides the capability to produce multiple parts simultaneously, increasing systems efficiency while reducing operational costs.
No matter what the application may be, take into consideration the variety of materials available with each system. 3D printers offer a limited assortment of general-purpose materials to choose from, while 3D production systems offer a wider range of materials with a greater variety of characteristics. The materials offered by 3D production systems make them suitable for functional and field-testing as well as producing tools and final products.
Production speed is an important characteristic between 3D printers and 3D production systems, but it cannot be used reliably to differentiate between the two systems. There are 3D printers that cost a tenth of the cost of a 3D production system yet can produce an object ten times faster. But then there are 3D printers that can take days to print something that a 3D production system could do in a few hours.
5: Ease of use
Another way to tell the difference between 3D printing and 3D production systems is how easily they are used. The ideal 3D printer is one in which the process of printing out an object is as straightforward as printing out a text document, unfortunately the technology has not quite developed to that level yet. Current 3D printers require a little more effort than printing out several two-sided pages on a 2D printer. The higher performance qualities of 3D production systems make much more complicated to use than a desktop 3D printer. These systems require more highly trained operators who can oversee operations at all times.
6: User options
Along with a systems ease of use, the options that the system provides to a user can help tell the difference between the two systems. In exchange for being simple to use, 3D printers sacrifice the number of options available. Instead they are equipped with a few pre-programmed routines and the options that are available must be applied to the entire print. A simple way of looking at it is that a 3D printer is a basic point-and-shoot camera, while a 3D production system is a high-end digital camera complete with swappable lenses and ISO adjustment. Unlike a 3D printer, 3D production systems allow you to set parameters such as one that can make an ornamental feature of a print hollow in order to save material while making functional features solid.
Both 3D printers and 3D production systems can produce objects with a high degree of accuracy, but accuracy is of greater emphasis in 3D production systems. With expanded user options, 3D production allows greater control over the accuracy of the print than 3D printing. This accuracy may at times be difficult to see with the naked eye, but differences do appear when scrutinized by quality control or through testing.
Although 3D printers are envisioned to be in-office essentials, they are not quite ready to take their place next to the office photocopier. Even the most office-friendly 3D printers still require post-production facilities with a water source, good lighting and plenty of storage. Meanwhile, the size of most 3D production systems limits them to being used in workshops and labs. They often require specialized control over humidity and temperature control, vibration dampening and debris containment. Depending on the project, objects created with 3D production systems may require post processing with other shop tools and supplies.
3D printers can work well with a distributed manufacturing method because it gives you the freedom and flexibility to develop prototypes at your own pace. For a centralized operational method, 3D production systems provide a chance for all projects to be managed under one roof and for production costs to be reduced by scheduling multiple parts to be produced simultaneously.
10: Overhead cost
The overhead costs for 3D printers in a distributed network are virtually nonexistent. There is no need for additional staffing as those who need the parts are the same who produce and finish the parts. 3D production systems in a centralized operation do come with some overhead costs, as they require someone to manage day-to-day operations. When applied to advanced tooling and finishing operations they also require skilled technicians to leverage the controls of these systems and perform post processing operations as needed.
Material pulled from Stratasys white paper.