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3D Printing: Expanding Your Reach

(August 2017) posted on Wed Aug 09, 2017

Why today’s print service providers should consider breaking into the 3D printing market.

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By Tim Greene

This forecast builds in a lot of assumptions; one of the biggest is the launch of new systems with substantially lower initial investment points, even as the performance of the technology improves. There are some real game-changing technologies on the horizon that will dramatically increase production capabilities while still allowing prices and operating costs to come down. A good example of this is Desktop Metal’s production 3D printing system, which is expected to hit the market in 2018. The value proposition of that system is the ability to print the same materials used in metal injection molding (MIM) today. Those MIM metal powders are much less expensive than the metals used in most of today’s 3D metal printing systems, which are based on sintering and melting technologies.

Technology Review
Today’s 3D printing technologies have their strengths and weaknesses. About 80 percent of 3D printers sold are based on FDM (fused deposition modeling) technology. One of the strengths of FDM technology is that it’s fairly well-proven and rugged. Many customers accept FDM-level quality, and there’s an ever-increasing array of materials, including composite materials, that can be extruded. While the technology platform is established, the capabilities of FDM-based printers continue to expand. Printers are getting faster, build sizes are getting larger, and more suppliers offer multiple extrusion head printers that have multi-material and multicolor printing capabilities.

Another interesting printer technology was shown by Mimaki at the ISA Sign Expo this year. Mimaki’s 3D printer, based on UV-LED technology, is unlike many of the other solutions available on the market because it’s a full-color printer. At the tradeshow, Mimaki illustrated how 3D printing could be integrated into a typical business, in this case a sporting goods shop. Mimaki showed a number of samples of custom bicycle parts and accessories that were produced on the 3D printer.

One of the fastest-growing technology segments is stereolithography (SLA), which IDC expects to grow, in shipment terms, at a rate of over 25 percent from 2016 to 2021. SLA printers are getting faster, prices are coming down, more of the thermoplastics they consume are being developed, and systems are being automated to match production requirements.