3D printing can reduce production time often for a lower cost. Additive manufacturing is often used to print casting molds, create prototype parts and produce components, such as heat exchangers, that are traditionally difficult and expensive to make.
In order to find out how 3D printing can apply to your work and increase work efficiency, you first need to know about its different methods. There are nine different major types of 3D printers and printing technologies, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
SLA uses an ultraviolet laser beam, which solidifies a layer of liquid resin through a method called photopolymerization. SLA builds an object from the bottom up, layer by layer. After the object is made, it is treated with a solvent bath and also often put in a UV oven.
- Efficient prototyping method
- Accuracy and precision; fine details
- Economical option for aerospace and automotive industries
- Can be used with many different types of resin
- May be more expensive than other printers such as FDM printers
- Common Uses: Prototypes, objects that require fine details and smooth surfaces, castable molds in the jewelry and cosmetic dentistry industries
Digital Light Processing (DLP)
DLP uses traditional light sources such as arc lamps to solidify photopolymers. All layers are exposed to the light source at once (note: not layer by layer). This means DLP produces 3D objects faster than SLA.
- Strength of the 3D objects made
- High resolution objects
- Economical: usually cheaper than SLA printers
- Fast printing speed
- Bigger than SLA printers
- May be more expensive than FDM printing due to the cost of photosensitive resin
Common Uses: Prototypes, injection molding patterns, metal casting applications
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM printers use thermal plastic materials. After creating a 3D model using a CAD software, the model needs to be sliced into different layers by a software such as QuickSlice. Then, the printer builds the object from the bottom up, one layer at a time. It may require a supporting structure.
- Great strength to weight ratio
- Easy to use, since it is all controlled by computer
- May not be able to produce very large objects
- Restrictions on the materials that can be used
Commons Uses: Prototypes, manufacturing aids, concept models (especially in mechanical engineering); Small businesses, education
Selective Laster Sintering (SLS)
SLS works by sintering powdered materials, using high power CO2 lasers. Powdered metal materials, ceramics, glass, white nylon powder, steel and silver can be used. Since un-sintered powder acts as protection, SLS does not require other support structures.
- Can utilize a wide range of materials
- Durable 3D objects
- Expensive due to the high-powered lasers that are used
Common Uses: Prototypes, end-use parts, iterative testing, form and fit testing
Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
In SLM printing, a high-powered laser beam is used to melt and fuse metallic powders and convert them into solid 3D objects. Materials such as cobalt chrome, aluminum, stainless steel and titanium are utilized. SLM printing does not require extra support structures, since the excess powder works as protection.
- Very strong and durable 3D objects
- Do not need additional post-processing
- More costly than some other printers
- A little weaker than forged or milled 3D parts
Common Uses: Parts that have more complicated structures, geometries and thin walls; Objects that have internal voids; Energy, aerospace, medical orthopedics industries; Universities
Electronic Beam Melting (EBM)
Just like SLM printing, EBM printing also involves layers of powders being melted to form a three-dimensional object. However, unlike SLM, EBM uses a strong electron beam in a high vacuum. The beam is controlled by a computer and uses its high temperature to melt metallic powders such as titanium.
- Dense and strong 3D objects
- Not many restrictions since it can create objects with complex structures and geometries
- Costly; Can be technically-demanding to create a vacuum chamber
Common Uses: Metal parts, aerospace parts, medical implants, prototypes, support parts, small series parts
Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM)
LOM uses relatively inexpensive materials such as paper and plastic. These paper and plastic laminates are fused under both heat and pressure. Then, a computer-controlled laser or blade shapes the materials. LOM creates objects one layer at a time.
- One of the fastest 3D printing methods
- One of the most affordable 3D printers & low cost materials (e.g. papers and plastics)
- Can create pretty large objects
- Can produce full-color objects
- Not as accurate as SLA or SLS printing, dimension-wise
Common Uses: Often used by product developers, artists and architects
Binder Jetting (BJ)
BJ is also referred to as “powder bed printing,” “inkjet 3D printing” and “drop-on-powder printing.” This printing technology uses a bonding agent as an adhesive to put power-based materials together. Some popular materials include plastics, sand, ceramics and metals.
- Can print objects in full-color if you just add color pigments
- Lower resolution
- Objects not as robust
Common Uses: Rapid prototyping, short-run manufacturing; Aerospace, automotive, medical industries
Material Jetting (MJ)
MJ printing is also called “wax casting,” and it is a technique that has been used by jewelry makers for centuries. However, now there are 3D printers that make wax casting an automated process.
- High resolution
- Great surface finishes
- Can create objects with complex geometries
- Castable wax is fragile and can also deform over time
- A restricted number of wax-like materials that can be used for MJ printing
- Relatively slow build process
Common Uses: High resolution parts for medical and dental industries; Jewelry makers