Additive Manufacturing: Who’s Who and What’s What in 3D Printing
March 24, 2022
By: Cadalyst Staff
The 3D printing arena includes a variety of players: from small to large well-known companies. Find out which companies are using the technology that will work for you.
Small manufacturers face the same issues as industry titans, but on a different scale. 3D printing (AKA, additive manufacturing) is making its way into businesses of all sizes, as the cost-benefit ratio continues to decline and successful use cases multiply. Read part one of this series for an overview of what additive manufacturing is, how it’s used, and where the technology is leading.
Additive manufacturing (AM) continues to grow as an industry. The field is in a state of constant innovation as established companies and startups discover new ways to not only improve digital manufacturing processes, but also improve the required support ecosystem.
3D printing offers unique opportunities to solve design and production problems. It can be a bit overwhelming at first to say, “Let’s look at 3D printing” and find that there are hundreds of products and thousands of use cases. Beware of any 3D printing company that claims that one printing technology – their own – can solve all manufacturing problems.
One way to get started in 3D printing is to establish performance criteria for your project. A printer for rapid iteration of design prototypes is probably not the same printer you want for creating custom jigs and fixtures or short run parts.
For most potential users, evaluating these seven performance criteria will be the key to narrowing down your choices and making the right choice:
Part finishing time. Each 3D printer has a different speed from file to finished part. Some required significant post-production parts processing, which must be taken into consideration.
Accuracy, precision, repeatability. A part printed for design review has a different standard of accuracy than a part printed for a new fighter aircraft.
Aesthetic. Will the pieces be strictly functional (i.e. ugly is OK), or should they be visually appealing? A major supplier can supply you with hard, functional thermoplastic parts in large quantities in any color you choose, as long as that color is dark gray.
Strength of the game. Each printing method and each material has specific mechanical properties.
Material properties. There is no one type of nylon, not one version of aluminum, that works in all 3D printing environments, so which materials are right for you?
Printing capacity. The print capacity is about larger than the build box size of the printer. Mass production or one-off printing require different processes. A printer can make the exact part you need, but it also needs a lot of time between builds for maintenance.
Initial investment and total cost of operation. Do you want a low cost of entry for your first steps into 3D printing, or are you willing to make a higher initial investment if you know it means a lower total cost of operation?
To help narrow down the choices based on performance criteria, the following is an overview of the major players and promising new entrants in additive manufacturing with some examples of available products.
Chuck Hull launched 3D Systems to commercialize his invention of stereolithography printing. Today it is the largest company in the field and continues to be an innovative player. The company currently offers printers and related equipment for plastic, metal and metal casting, as well as specialty products for the dental and jewelry industries. The company has a large software division (mostly created through acquisition) and prefers to either create its own materials or partner closely with major materials suppliers, including BASF.
The 3D Systems DMP Flex 350 and DMP Flex 350 Dual (above) are high throughput, high repeatability metal 3D printers that generate parts in a wide range of alloys, up to 275 x 275 x 420 mm.
Desktop Metal’s mission is to make metal and carbon fiber 3D printing “accessible to everyone”. It offers three product brands for metal (Production System, Shop System and Studio System) and a fourth brand for fiber, which offers printed composite parts reinforced with industrial and aerospace-grade continuous fiber AFP tape. Of particular interest to Cadalyst readers: Several SOLIDWORKS veterans are part of the development and management teams. Additionally, Desktop Metal recently acquired ExOne, which focuses on sand 3D printers and related products for foundries, tooling and model shops. The company says its binder jetting technology “allows digital foundries to produce previously impossible shapes, consolidate complex cores to reduce assembly, and iterate design changes without the time or investment of traditional tools”. We will see how these two powers begin to collaborate with their technologies.
Desktop Metal’s X-Series range of binder jetting 3D printing systems for metal and ceramic powders prints objects in a wide range of particle sizes. The three X-Series models include (left to right) the InnoventX, an entry-level binder jetting system for academic, R&D, and low-volume production applications; the X25Pro, a mid-size solution suitable for volume production that includes a 400 x 250 x 250 mm build box; and the X160Pro, a large metal binder jetting system, featuring an 800 x 500 x 400mm build box.
Electro-Optical Systems is one of the oldest players in metal printing, but also offers the production of plastics. EOS is focused on production volume printing, including its injection molding alternative, LaserProFusion.
EOS printers use either plastic or metal in production volume.
HP isn’t the only industrial giant with a 3D printer division. GE created its own AM technology for its aviation systems, then outsourced the additive technology to its own division. Two metal technologies, electron beam melting (EBM) and direct metal laser melting (DMLM) are the basis of several specific printers.
GE Additive’s M line uses DMLM technology, an additive manufacturing process that uses lasers to melt ultra-thin layers of metal powder to create three-dimensional objects. It can build products up to 500mm x 500mm x 400mm.
This well-known industrial giant created its own 3D printing division to leverage its many years of 2D digital printing. Its MultiJet Fusion technology controls the printing process voxel by voxel (3D pixel). The process resembles a large format 2D print, with the print bar laying down one layer at a time. HP offers both plastic and metal printing solutions.
HP’s 3D Jet Fusion 4200 is designed for functional prototyping and short-term production using plastics. It can manufacture products up to 380mm x 284mm x 380mm with a maximum layer thickness of 80 microns.
“The Digital Forge” is this company’s description of the ecosystem it has created for both mass production and desktop one-offs for metal and carbon fiber parts. The company claims that its proprietary continuous fiber reinforcement technology using its Onyx carbon microfiber-filled nylon is 11 times stronger than Onyx when printed with older methods and 25 times stronger than ABS plastic. Markforged offers 3D printers for a wide range of users, from desktop computers to industrial units.
Markforged’s Onyx One ($4,990) is a desktop model, designed to produce plastic parts up to 320 x132 x154mm. (Image source: Markforged)
This young listed company specializes in the additive manufacturing of printed electronic and electromechanical subassemblies, which it calls Additively Manufactured Electronics. One early adopter, a satellite manufacturing consortium, said Nano Dimensions “has resulted in cost reductions of $400,000 per small satellite.”
Nano Dimension’s Dragonfly IV can print different types of electromechanical devices, with complex geometries, made possible by 3D printing technology, e.g. sensors, RF devices, complex device packaging, up to 160 mm x 160mm x 3mm.
Today’s Stratasys is the merger of two leading players in the field, the American Stratasys and the Israeli Objet. The company offers a wide variety of printers based on three distinct plastic technologies (Fused Deposition Modeling, PolyJet and Stereolithography) and one metal technology, Layered Powder Metallurgy.
The Stratasys J55 desktop 3D printer uses the company’s PolyJet technology and can print products up to 1174cm2 bed area and 18.7cm high in any Pantone color and with a variety textures, such as wood or fabric.
Velo3D, which is growing, offers an end-to-end metal additive manufacturing solution called Intelligent Fusion. The focus is on part production, including real-time validation and software to prepare CAD models for print production.
Velo3D’s Sapphire family of 3D printers are integrated production systems driven by the company’s SupportFree manufacturing process. These are powder bed metal fusion laser AM printers capable of printing complex geometries including low angle prints down to 0 degrees, high aspect ratio structures up to 6000 : 1, large inside diameters up to 100 mm and supporting free-floating parts.
High Speed Sintering (HSS) is Voxeljet’s “next generation industrial polymer” printing technology. The company focuses on serial production, but also offers desktop units. The company also offers “universal binder jet” printers for sand, plastic and ceramic products. HSS is complemented by the use of heat-reactive binders when printing the product.
Voxeljet’s VX1000 processes plastics, sand and ceramics up to a volume of 1000 x 600 x 500 mm and can manufacture a variety of products ranging from medium-sized molds and cores for metal casting to molding patterns of precision and ceramic components. (Voxeljet image source)
The companies above are not the only players. There are literally dozens of small 3D printing companies, many of which sprang up after the initial patents in the field expired. The best known of them include: