The term 3D printing encompasses several manufacturing technologies that build parts layer-by-layer. Each vary in the way they form plastic and metal parts and can differ in material selection, surface finish, durability, and manufacturing speed and cost.
Selecting the right 3D printing technology for your application requires an understanding of each process’ strengths and weaknesses and mapping those attributes to your product development needs. Let’s first discuss how 3D printing fits within the product development cycle and then take a look at common 3D printing technologies and the advantages of each.
3D Printing for Prototyping and Beyond
It’s safe to say 3D printing is most often used for prototyping. Its ability to quickly manufacture a single part enables product developers to validate and share ideas in a cost-effective manner. Determining the purpose of your prototype will inform which 3D printing technology will be the most beneficial. Additive manufacturing can be suitable for a range of prototypes that span from simple physical models to parts used for functional testing.
Despite 3D printing being nearly synonymous with rapid prototyping, there are scenarios when it’s a viable production process. Typically these applications involve low-volumes and complex geometries. Often, components for aerospace and medical applications are ideal candidates for production 3D printing as they frequently match the criteria previously described.
Five 3D Printing Considerations
Like most things in life, there’s rarely a simple answer when selecting a 3D printing process. When we assist customers evaluating their 3D printing options, we typically point to five key criteria to determine what technology will meet their needs:
- Mechanical requirements
- Cosmetic appearance
- Material selection
Industrial 3D Printing Technologies
Let’s outline some common 3D printing technologies and discuss when each provides the most value to product developers, engineers, and designers.
Stereolithography (SL) is the original industrial-grade 3D printing process. It excels at producing parts with high levels of detail, smooth surface finishes, and tight tolerances. The quality surface finishes on SL parts, not only look nice, but can aid in the part’s function—testing the fit of an assembly, for example. It’s widely used in the medical industry and common applications include anatomical models and microfluidics.
Selective laser sintering (SLS) melts together nylon-based powders into solid plastic. Since SLS parts are made from real thermoplastic material, they are durable, suitable for functional testing, and can support living hinges and snap-fits. In comparison to SL, parts are stronger, but have rougher surface finishes. SLS doesn’t require support structures so the whole build platform can be utilized to nest multiple parts into a single build—making it suitable for part quantities higher than other 3D printing processes. Many SLS parts are used to prototype designs that will one day be injection-molded.
PolyJet is another plastic 3D printing process, but there’s a twist. It can fabricate parts with multiple properties such as colors and materials. Designers can leverage the technology for prototyping elastomeric or overmolded parts. If your design is a single, rigid plastic, we recommend sticking with SL or SLS—it’s more economical. But if you’re prototyping an overmolding or silicone rubber design, PolyJet can save you from the need to invest in tooling early in the development cycle. This can help you iterate and validate your design faster and save you money.
Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is a common desktop 3D printing technology for plastic parts. An FDM printer functions by extruding a plastic filament layer-by-layer onto the build platform. It’s a cost-effective and quick method for producing physical models. There are some instances when FDM can be used for functional testing but the technology is limited due to parts having relatively rough surface finishes and lacking strength.
Metal 3D printing opens up new possibilities for metal part design. The process we use at Proto Labs to 3D print metal parts is direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). It’s often used to reduce metal, multi-part assemblies into a single component or lightweight parts with internal channels or hollowed out features. DMLS is viable for both prototyping and production since parts are as dense as those produced with traditional metal manufacturing methods like machining or casting. Creating metal components with complex geometries also makes it suitable for medical applications where a part design must mimic an organic structure.
When to Play the 3D Printing Card
As stated earlier, there are a couple common denominators among 3D printing applications. If your part quantities are relatively low, 3D printing can be optimal—our guidance is usually 1 to 50 parts. As volumes start to near the hundreds, it’s worth exploring other manufacturing processes. If your design features complex geometry that is critical to your part’s function, like an aluminum component with an internal cooling channel, 3D printing might be your only option.
Selecting the right process comes down to aligning the advantages and limitations of each technology to your application’s most important requirements. In the early stages when ideas are being thrown around and all you need is a model to share with a colleague, those stair-stepping surface finishes on your part aren’t of much concern. But once you hit the point where you need to conduct user testing, factors like cosmetics and durability start to matter. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, properly utilizing 3D printing technology throughout product development will reduce design risk and, ultimately, result in better products.