There are three categories of 3D printing machines known as hobby grade, professional, and prosumer. Hobby grade printers typically cost $150-$1,500 such as the Lulzbot Mini and the Monoprice Mini Delta. Professional 3D printing machines cost from $50,000-$250,000 and a few commonly used machines are the Fortis line of FDM printers, Objet polyjet technology from Stratasys, as well as a full line of Stereolithography machines from 3D Systems, such as the Viper Pro. The last, and newest category of 3D printers is known as prosumer machines. These can range between $2,500 and $15,000. Prosumer machines fill the gap between hobbyist machines and printers made for industry. The parts are typically more robust than hobby grade mechanisms, but not as expensive as the assemblies used in professional grade 3D printers. Formlabs, Makerbot and Ultimaker are a few companies that produce a range of prosumer 3D printers.
But before you make a purchase, the bottom line is that there’s a machine for every need and every budget. The key is to choose the machine based on the end goal of what you are making. Depending on the prototype you need, you can choose the machine in the appropriate level to hit properties, time, and cost targets. In the wide spectrum of machine cost, it’s important to consider the following aspects of the machines to compare and contrast performance:
Before we go further, if you are using a 3D printer professionally for product development, I currently recommend you avoid the hobby grade printers. Simply put, they just don’t hit the minimum threshold for resolution.
A low price point can seem tempting, but you may end up with a device that sits in the corner unused due to poor resolution and lower grade components. Hobby grade printers can be unreliable with frequent service issues, and tend to come with clunky software that can turn your project into a nightmare. I would encourage you to use hobby grade printers for home use or educational tools for students, but proceed with caution. One of my coworkers recently purchased a hobby grade FDM machine for $350. It was up and running 30 minutes after he unboxed it. However, as you can see in the pictures, the resolution, even for FDM is rough. PLA tends to run just fine, but ABS is very finicky without building an enclosure to help regulate the temperature. The lower resolution, heat issues and smaller bed size (8” x 8” x 7”) are factors that keep this machine at his home at not at work running parts for clients.
On the other end of the spectrum, professional grade 3D printers are focused on minimizing down time, or the amount of time the machine is unavailable to run parts due to mechanical or software issues. The tradeoff is cost.
These machines have an expensive initial cost and a yearly maintenance contract that is more expensive than buying several lower cost machines. Did I mention that this is an annual recurring cost? Part of the high cost of owning a professional grade 3D printer is that the machines tend to use the best quality off the shelf components, or have high quality internal parts made specifically for the machine. These components, combined with proprietary software and layers of customer support, create a more reliable user experience. With a professional 3D printing service, these companies have a redundancy of machines. If one machine goes down, there are generally other machines to take up the demand.
Another benefit of using pro-grade printers is that the build quality is typically better than either hobby grade or prosumer 3D printers. Many machines claim a theoretical resolution of between 20 and 100 microns, which is a very high resolution. In real world applications, many factors are combined to determine the quality of a build. A high resolution may come with a longer build time. A professional machine such as the Viper Pro SLA machine, can have a larger bed size of roughly 25” x 13” x 11”. When resolution of high-quality prosumer machines is similar, a professional machine may be a better solution for larger parts since professional machines will offer the largest bed size.
Having a professional grade 3D printer (Objet Eden 500V) at work has served our projects well us in many ways. The main benefit we have appreciated is the ability to have parts made overnight. In certain situations, we can have 3D prints the same day, as opposed to waiting the standard 4-6 days from a Service Bureau. Another benefit is the maintenance plan, the machine rarely has issues, but if it does we can get someone on the phone to walk us through troubleshooting the problem and if it requires a field technician to be dispatched, they can usually make it here within 24-48 hours. Once, our machine had stopped printing properly and needed a replacement part to continue working as expected. The company that provides our service contract had a field tech in the area finishing up an install at another company. He was able to stop by, diagnose the problem and repair/replace the needed parts and get our machine running again the same day it stopped running. This is not typical, but when it happens you remember outstanding service.
While the Objet is great for high resolution builds, the material is very expensive and not as strong when compared to other rapid prototyping materials. Professional grade 3D printed parts are ideal for high-quality appearance prototypes. Resolution, reliability, and the ease of operation were the main factors that helped us decide what type of 3D printer to bring into our office.
Finally, our relatively new category of 3D printer, the prosumer machine. These machines bridge the gap between the hobby and professional 3D printers. They typically have a cleaner look and use more robust plastic and metal components than hobby grade printers. If they incorporate 3D printed parts at all, they are usually non-critical components and are used to save cost vs. investing in an injection molded tool. The Prosumer models are generally referred to as “Plug and Play”, meaning you can open the cardboard box, follow the instructions for set up and begin printing.
Similar to the cost, the resolution of these machines falls in between the hobby and professional machines and depending on the printer, it can be surprisingly close to the professional grade. The quality of lower cost prosumer machines is improving rapidly and may serve you well in the initial stages of your design. In early stages of development, you want to “fail fast” and move on to better, more functional designs. This is where a prosumer printer can help out.
Priority Designs has been testing and evaluating machines from the prosumer category to choose a technology that can be brought in house to increase our offerings to clients. We have found that 1-2 people dedicated to learning the nuances of each specific machine can begin to produce reliable, quality prints. The initial takeaway is that these machines require more upkeep and troubleshooting to produce quality prints. But not without some time that has been invested to understand the idiosyncrasies of the specific machines. While they cost significantly less than professional grade 3D printers, you end up spending much more time dialing in the settings and keeping the machines running properly, so you can end up trading your money for time.
We have decided that the learning curve is worth the potential gain that we might experience by using prosumer 3D printers in conjunction with our professional printer. Within hours of unboxing our first desktop FDM printer, we had requests start to come in for builds. The ability to run a variety of production resins on our desktop printer allows us to have the flexibility to meet client needs internally and with open source material options, we will be able to run many new materials as they are developed without the need to wait for the professional machines to eventually start offering them.
While we are still working our way through the details and learning the differences between our prosumer 3D printer versus our professional grade printer, I am confident that the two very different styles of 3D printer will, in time, become a complimentary system.