Seven Questions to Identify the Best 3D Printing Technology

The differences between 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, technologies can influence parts significantly. There isn’t a single process well-suited for every application, and there isn’t always a clear-cut solution for a customer’s specific needs. Often multiple options could work, each with a different set of pros and cons. The following seven questions will help you identify the best process and material for your unique project:

1. What is the Application of the Part?

From non-cosmetic prototypes for product development to production parts, 3D printed objects can represent any point in the product life-cycle. The requirements for each individual application are unique and require careful examination and planning in order to identify the best 3D printing process and corresponding material to meet its needs. Some application requirements to consider include cosmetic and finishing needs, dimensions and overall performance requirements. The subsequent questions dive into some considerations for determining application requirements.

2. What Does the Part Need to Do?

Depending on the performance needs of the 3D printed part, the build style and material used will vary. The part may need to look cosmetically similar to a final product or simply hold shape as a static model. In this case, PolyJet, with its quick turn-arounds and smooth natural finish may be the best process. Or Stereolithography (SL), capable of building light-weight pieces with a smoother finish is the ideal process.

Parts that need to resist impact and/or high temperatures in testing are best when printed with the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process, capable of producing strong and durable parts by drawing cross-sectional slices of parts one upon another and utilizing a host of high-performance materials.

Technologies that utilize laser sintering Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) is an ideal process for an intricate, consolidated metal component due to the technologies ability to creating complex geometries out of metals. If the part’s design calls for a complicated undercut for airflow or a durable living hinge, thermoplastics with Laser Sintering (LS) may be the ideal material and process.

3. In What Environment Does the Part Need to Function?

Many 3D printed parts need to function in higher temperatures or humid environments. Some 3D printing processes and materials are quickly ruled out by those parameters. Outdoor applications require a UV-stable material, but photopolymers with PolyJet or SL will not work because they react when exposed to UV light. Moisture can also adversely affect some materials and cause a part to warp, curl or lose dimensional accuracy. If your part is exposed to outdoor elements, FDM ASA material would be a good choice.

In some applications, the part may have to function in a medical or food environment and require biocompatibility. In these instances, metals like Titanium Ti64 with DMLS or thermoplastics like ABS-M30i or ULTEM™ 1010 resin used in FDM would be the most applicable.

4. Does the Part Need to Last?

The number of use cycles a part will go through can eliminate some processes and materials. For example, a 3D printed jig and fixture may go through hundreds of cycles and withstand a significant amount of stress, while a fit test prototype may only need to function once. Engineering-grade thermoplastics from FDM or LS can withstand significant amounts of stress and pressure, making it ideal for functional prototypes or production parts. Photopolymer materials, on the other hand, are more effective for short-term, low-stress applications.

5. How Does the Part Need to Look?

Parts from Polyjet and SL are smoother and have a higher resolution right off the machine and are more easily hand-finished to the desired cosmetic state. Plastic parts off of LS and FDM machines are harder to cosmetically finish, and require more labor and skill to achieve a smooth surface, leading to higher costs and increased lead time. The metals and alloys of DMLS take even more time, effort and expertise to become a polished product.

We offer a variety of finishing options, including media blasting, sealing, bonding, dying, painting, electroplating, clear coating and EMI/RFI shielding. Knowing your needs and priorities will help us accelerate your delivery date.

6. What is Your Budget, Timeline and Quality Expectation?

With a tight budget, the decision may be on price. Similarly with a fast deadline, time may be the deciding factor. Quality and cost can be in competition; quick turnarounds and a need for cosmetic finishing can be mutually exclusive. Our highly trained staff are vigilantly searching for workarounds to reduce lead times and costs while maintaining our high quality standards. By efficiently maintaining systems and creatively finding solutions to reduce machine time, we will help find the balance to deliver your products quickly, cost-efficiently and with great quality.

7. Of the Factors Above, which is the Most Important?

Ultimately, you should consider all of these factors and decide which are the most important to your project goals. Sometimes there are several competing requirements, but your main priorities should drive your decision on which are the most compatible 3D printing technologies and material selections.

The “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t apply to 3D printing. Considering the pros, cons, and nuances of the available processes, materials, and finishing options can help you identify the best approach to your project. There are informative resources on thoroughly expanding on those nuances, and our expert project engineering staff are always available to provide guidance.™

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