By Cassandra Balentine
Larger build sizes are trending for three-dimensional (3D) printing. While no official measurement classifies a 3D printer as “large,” it is a feature gaining traction in the printer landscape today.
“As suppliers educate customers and engineers on advancements and expansions in greater geometric and material freedoms, solutions that were not possible just a few months ago are being developed and employed,” says Mark Norfolk, president, Fabrisonic. These expanded capabilities motivate designers and engineers to push the boundaries of existing machines, driving innovation. “As AM machine capacities and capabilities increase, engineers are leveraging these larger fabrication platforms to accommodate parts with a larger form factor to address cost and performance objectives.”
In 3D printing, larger sizes generally refer to build size—the maximum size of the object that can be printed in a single run. “This is an important factor for many applications as it determines the size of the objects that can be created and influences the efficiency of the printing process,” explains Max Siebert, co-founder, Replique GmbH.
Beth Wyatt, director of marketing, MELD Manufacturing Corporation, points out that larger size can refer to both print and printer size—but the two aren’t necessarily synonymous. “To print a large size part, the gantry and the print bed will need to increase in size to accommodate the part. But the parts that make the printer work don’t necessarily have to be larger.”
Larger size can also refer to larger volumes. For example, Hanifeh Zarezadeh, 3D product manager, Photocentric Inc., sees an increased demand from digital mass manufacturers, which means lots of small parts made without tooling.
Meeting Industrial Demands
A variety of industries benefit from larger sized AM machines, including aerospace; energy, oil, and gas; automotive; defense; industrial manufacturers; construction and architecture; and medical applications. Many of these industries require larger part production, which is a primary driver of 3D printers with larger build capabilities.
“The technology is maturing,” admits Michael Mignatti, VP, printers, UltiMaker. He says improved reliability, build times, and materials allow more people to think about 3D printing as a solution and larger build volumes help improve the solvable applications.
“When you want to create a certain part of large dimensions, but you only have a ‘small’ printer, you need to assemble the various prints, resulting in significant extra work, but also all kinds of secondary issues derive from the assembly,” shares Jasper Bouwmeester, CEO, Fiberneering.
“Larger parts are driven by companies who wish to make single large items as opposed to assembling them from numerous separately made parts with all the extra time, potential error, and costs that brings,” states Zarezadeh.
Larger sized 3D printers allow for the creation of larger objects that may not be possible with smaller printers—at least not without following with a post-processing step like gluing or welding. “This is particularly important in industries such as aerospace or automotive, where large components are in need. Most importantly, larger sized printers can increase the efficiency of the printing process, as they allow for more objects to be printed in a single run. This results in lower base and labor cost. Also, it eliminates the need for assembly of smaller parts, as you can fuse/unite together many parts to a single unit, which reduces total cost of parts significantly,” points out Siebert.
Blake Teipel, Ph.D., CEO, Essentium Inc., sees increased demand to manufacture large scale, complex components and prototypes. In fact, he cites independent global research conducted by Essentium on the current and future use of industrial 3D printing, which revealed that 81 percent of manufacturing companies have increased their use of AM by more than half in the last year. The survey results showed that AM use has evolved from simple prototyping to manufacturing aids and tooling—74 percent; complex and integrated prototyping—52 percent; and full production runs—44 percent.
Dr. Kartik Rao, strategic marketing director, Additive Industries, notes a clear interest from AM system manufacturers to keep growing the size of the build chambers to increase the application size, and says that overall, the total build envelopes for AM are increasing. “Previously, powder bed fusion (PBF) was limited to roughly 300 millimeter (mm) cubes as build envelopes. Current market reports indicate that the PBF build envelopes that have the largest market size are now in the range of 300 to 600 mm,” he explains.
Larger volumes are also possible with bigger build capacities. “Productivity goes up quite significantly as the batch wise nature of the printing process is divided over a much larger number of parts,” states Bouwmeester.
Automation is another consideration, according to Doris Logtenberg, marketing and communication, CEAD Group. “This is due to the complex, labor intensive, and time-consuming nature associated with traditional manufacturing methods for producing large composite parts. These traditional manufacturing methods typically require an around-the-clock, skilled workforce that is increasingly challenging to find.”
As a result, companies often choose to outsource part of their production to different regions around the world. However, there is a growing trend to bring production processes back in house. “Implementing large-scale 3D printing into the production process enables automation of the workflow and simplifies the production of complex parts. By replacing traditional manufacturing methods with large-scale 3D printing, manufacturers can streamline their operations and decrease the reliance on manual labor, reducing costs and lead times. It also allows companies to switch from large stock inventories to local, on demand production strategies. Besides the above, one other reason for the growing interest in large-scale 3D printing is the heightened emphasis on reducing environmental impact. By bringing production processes back in house, carbon emissions can be reduced. Moreover, the materials employed in large-scale 3D printing, such as thermoplastics, can be recycled and repurposed,” offers Logtenberg.
Kyle McNulty, SLA product lead, Formlabs, points out that creating large prototypes and parts was once a very expensive endeavor, but as 3D printing—and now large format 3D printing—is more accessible and affordable it helps companies print bigger prototypes and parts directly in house, significantly reducing the costs and turnaround times associated with outsourced production. “Investing in a large format 3D printer can more quickly have a positive return on investment due to the high cost of outsourcing large parts. Users eventually create prints that exceed the build volume of a desktop 3D printer.”
Waste reduction is another driver. “Traditional manufacturing often involves subtractive processes. This leads to significant waste, especially when producing large parts. AM adds material only where needed. This reduces material waste, resulting in cost and time savings along with environmental benefits,” comments Wyatt.
Norfolk says designers, design engineers, product engineers, and product managers have fully realized the benefits of printing smaller parts using AM. Those who understand the extensive geometric and material freedom that ultrasonic AM (UAM) offers are driving industry innovation to build machines that can accommodate parts and devices with larger form factors. As these geometric and material freedoms are leveraged, 3D printing is seen across a wider range of parts, devices, and components, often combining several parts into one continuous part and flattening the bill of materials (BOM). Innovation leaders that leverage the ability to bond dissimilar metals without creating brittle intermetallics while each metal retains its original physical properties are seeing the ability to combine parts made of different materials, further reducing the part count and BOM. This ability to form one part from many smaller parts without the restriction of a homogeneous metal composition will see form factors grow and, therefore, require larger fabrication machines.”
All the above factors contribute to increased efficiency, freedom in design, cost savings, reduced environmental footprint, and improved competitiveness for businesses, adds Logtenberg.
When it comes to defining what larger means, it is a bit complicated as there is no official measurement to help categorize build sizes.
It really depends on the application and purpose of the particular part, notes Jeffrey DeGrange, CCO, Impossible Objects. “We consider our technology capable of printing large parts, but there are also 3D printers available today printing houses, shipping vessels, and more.”
Giorgio Olivieri, applications manager, Meltio, says each manufacturer generally refers to internal benchmarks when talking about builds. For example, at Meltio, larger is anything that exceeds the build envelope of its Meltio M450 unit—or 145x168x390 mm.
Mignatti suggests large format 3D printers refer to industrial-sized printers with a build volume of 400×400 mm or more.
“I would consider anything above 400 mm to be ‘larger’ in size for PBF machines for metal. Typical starter printers are in the range of 300 mm build plate size,” advises Rao.
Bouwmeester considers anything with a build volume of 0.2 cubic meters and up as a large printer. “Traditional-sized printers typically have dimensions up to 20 centimeters (cm) and resulting volumes are significantly less,” he states.
“The definition of a larger 3D printer varies based on industry requirements and specific applications,” agrees Teipel. However, a typical measurement for larger printers may include a build volume exceeding 200×200 mm in any axis. This contrasts with more traditional-sized printers, which often have smaller build volumes.”
Siebert points out that with 3D printers, you can print up to 2000x1000x1000 mm. “However this depends on the technology and material. In comparison, traditional industrial 3D printers’ build envelopes are typically about the size of a microwave.”
Build size is tied to the type of 3D printing technology. For example, 3DCeram offers stereolithography technology (SLA) with UV lasers. “What sets our approach apart is the utilization of top-down printing, which grants us the freedom to achieve large printing platforms without size limitations,” offers Kareen Malsallez, marketing manager, 3DCeram.
“Unlike other technologies such as digital light processing, which is restricted by the size of the printing platform due to its inherent limitations, our top-down SLA method enables us to overcome these constraints. This means we can offer customers the advantage of printing larger parts without compromising on size or scale,” notes Malsallez.
Similarly, Zarezadeh shares the unique feature of liquid crystal display-based 3D printers is that they cure the whole build area simultaneously. “This means customers can fit and print as many parts as possible on the platform, and they print at the same time. Mass manufacturing for Photocentric certainly starts in the thousands of single items, but we see the sweet spot as being achieved in the tens and even hundreds of thousands of each part. In practice a lot of parts are the same size, in printing terms.”
While specific terminology and measurements of build sizes may vary within the industry, Logtenberg says larger sizes are generally defined by build volumes exceeding 15 to 20 cm. “However, at CEAD, we categorize larger sizes as an industrial-sized 3D printer. In the AM industry, industrial large-scale 3D printing is typically referred to when the print volume is around one cubic meter. It is possible to print both smaller and larger parts, depending on the part design and the specific system being used. As a general guideline, we consider a minimum part size of 40 cm in either the x or y direction (width or depth), but we always assess the feasibility of each print individually.”
Since there is no standard measurement, it’s difficult to compare and contrast pricing.
“Large format 3D printers are significantly more expensive than desktop or even professional level printers. Factors to consider in the cost not only include the size, but the cost of the materials and the need for dedicated staff to operate and maintain,” comments Mignatti.
Olivieri says most manufacturers scale price with size, as in some technologies an increase in size means an increase in complexity and number of critical components—such as laser sources and related equipment.
Rao adds that price does not scale linearly with build plate size. “The reason for this is that the challenges with larger platforms, such as consistent gas flow across the bed, laser coverage across the build plates, and laser redundancy aren’t easy to scale with size.”
Teipel admits that the price of a larger sized 3D printer may vary depending on factors such as build volume, technology, and additional features. “Generally, larger sized printers tend to have a higher price point due to increased material and equipment costs. However, the return on investment is justified by the ability to produce larger parts, often at high temperature and faster printing speeds, and streamline manufacturing processes.”
While the investment in a large printer is typically bigger, Bouwmeester stresses that productivity also significantly increases. “The cost per unit volume produced over time is probably the most significant parameter when someone considers a larger printer.”
“After the initial investment, large format printers eliminate the time and cost associated with outsourcing large format prints or using traditional manufacturing methods. Outsourcing a large format print greatly increases both the costs of the project and timeline to complete. The ability to print in one large print has decreased costs associated with the manual labor required for printing smaller parts and constructing them together to create the final product,” explains McNulty.
Another factor to consider is that in production environments, cost of labor involved in changing and cleaning printers is a significant contributor to the total product expense. “Larger printers allow more parts to be produced at once and hence reduce the labor cost,” adds Bouwmeester.
Material costs are also a factor. “When it comes to large or small parts, we see no major difference in price. Material costs per part are still too high compared to injection molding, so as adoption increases, we anticipate lower costs,” suggests DeGrange.
There is increased demand for larger build sizes amongst 3D printer manufacturers. This is largely driven by the need for bigger components, but also higher volumes.
“Because AM has surpassed the realm of mere prototyping, manufacturers are now seriously considering 3D printing as a true production tool. It should be noted that we, as manufacturers, have worked diligently and made significant progress, particularly in making production costs more compelling. Industrial professionals are well aware of the advantages of producing through 3D printing, and as they witness the expansion of printing platforms, they naturally consider the production of large parts,” shares Malsallez. “They make a simple calculation regarding their investment and choose tools that offer them the most possibilities, allowing the production of both large parts and large series of small parts. They also benefit in terms of maintenance costs, as it is more cost effective to have a high-capacity machine than numerous small machines.”
While there is no standard definition that classifies a 3D printer as larger, the trend is clear and predicted to continue.
Sep2023, Industrial Print Magazine