We have seen the future and it is 3D printing! 

Not quite…in reality, the first commercially available 3D printer was actually released in 1984. So, if you indulged in the 80’s bomber jacket and big hair, but you didn’t end up purchasing a 3D printer, you were not alone. Few 3D printers were sold at that time. It’s only been in the last ten years that 3D printers have become more common in all types of industry.

So, what’s the best 3D printer for your manufacturing purposes? Here’s a breakdown of some of the more popular choices.

The Stereolithography or SLA printer, is the Grand Pappy of all 3D printers. This was also the first commercially available 3D printer. The SLA uses a UV laser to trace resin one layer at a time. The UV light further cures the resin as additional layers are added. The use of a laser makes this process incredibly accurate and some machines even use multiple lasers to speed up this process and maintain accuracy. However, you can guess the downside to this style of printer-it’s not nearly as fast as other types of 3D printers. Also, if you increase the number of lasers, it can increase the overall price tag of the unit as well as increase the current draw from the wall. 

Up next, the Digital Light Processing printer or DLP. If SLA is the Grand Pappy of the 3D printing world, this is the quick and agile whippersnapper. In the same vein as the SLA this printing process uses UV light to cure layers of resin. However, the difference is that instead of a laser this uses an LCD screen to cure an entire layer at one time. Curing an entire layer at once drastically increases the speed of the 3D print. The limiting factor on this style of printer is the resolution. Just like on a TV, the resolution on the screen makes a massive difference in the image clarity. Looking at a 4K screen, you get a clear, crisp picture. By contrast, looking at a 720p screen is bound to be pretty blurry. Depending on the resolution you prefer, more post process work like sanding or polishing, may be required. On the up side, this style of printer is very reasonable priced. FYI-the higher resolution screens will cost you a bit more.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the Direct Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS. Now, to introduce the big boy of the printer world (we prefer to say he’s just big-boned) – the DMLS! Physically these units are much bigger, have a lot more moving parts and are truly able to be used in end product manufacturing. While the other 2 types of printers are used primarily for prototyping or one-offs, the DMLS can be scaled up to produce many parts at once. Just like the SLA, the DMLS uses lasers to create the forms. A thin layer of metal is deposited as the laser creates the forms, then the part is moved down and another layer of metal is deposited to be set in place by the laser again. As you can guess, the cost of this large-and-in-charge printer will set you back a bit, but if you’re looking for a highly specialized or large quantity manufacturing printer, can justify the purchase of the DMLS.

Here at PWI, we use the Fused Filament Fabricator or FFF. When customers need prototypes or we engineers need a design brought to life, the FFF gets the job done. The FFF can use a variety of filaments, but we prefer polyethylene terephthalate filament (PET) or poly lactic acid (PLA) filament because they’re nontoxic and fairly versatile. These filaments work great for when customers need a quick prototype or when we engineers need to truly visualize our concepts. 

3D printing offers limitless opportunities for all types of companies. You never know when a 3D prototype will be helpful to close a deal or take your presentation to the next level. Let’s face it, you’ll also have a bit of a cool factor when you can casually say, “Let me fire up my 3D printer and I’ll get you a prototype, ASAP”.