3D Printers

Desktop 3D Printers for CAD Professionals

24 Jun, 2015 By: Robert Green

Cadalyst Labs Report: This evaluation of three compact, affordable, office-friendly models can help you determine which solution is right for your workplace.

View Individual Reviews of the Models Included in This Roundup:
 3D Systems CubePro Trio
 Flashforge Dreamer
 Formlabs Form 1+

Interest in 3D printing has exploded in recent years, and has even grown into a hobbyist movement with companies such as MakerBot — and now Autodesk — vying to get a 3D printer in every home. But beyond the curious early adopters, is there really a use for 3D printing on a CAD user's desktop? And if there is such a need, what characteristics, costs, and features should be taken into account during the selection process? In this review, Cadalyst Labs takes a look at three 3D printers that are designed for in-office use.

Do You Need a 3D Printer?

Rather than starting out by asking which 3D printer your company should buy, first determine whether you need a 3D printer at all. Some diagnostic questions that can make that clear include:

  • Do we need to create our own mechanical prototypes?
  • Do we need to produce scale models of buildings?
  • Do we need to analyze fit and tactile properties of products?
  • Do we need to represent specific colors or textures in the things we design?

If you answered yes to any of these, then ask how often the need arises. The more often your company experiences these needs, the more likely it is that you could perform the tasks more quickly and less expensively by using 3D printing — but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to own a printer. If your needs are infrequent, you're probably better off outsourcing the work to a 3D printing bureau instead of purchasing your own machine. And if your needs are frequent but extend to making large parts, crafting with metals, or achieving extremely fast throughput, your company will likely need to invest in (and find the space for) a large professional unit, as those capabilities are beyond what a desktop model can offer.

What to Look For

Once you've decided you'll pursue a desktop 3D printing solution, you'll need to start comparing available models based on a few key variables:

  • Type of Material: Plastics, nylon, rubberlike materials, etc.
  • Multimaterial: The capability to incorporate more than one material in a single print job.
  • Multicolor: Printing in multiple colors in a single print job.
  • Build envelope: The maximum size object you can print.
  • Resolution: The smallest feature size you can print (the smaller the value, the smoother and more finely detailed your printed items will be).
  • Speed: How quickly a given part can be produced.
  • Cost: How much the printer costs initially, plus the annual cost of consumable materials and upkeep.

Generally speaking, the larger the build envelope, the more colors needed, the finer the resolution, and the faster the speed, the more expensive a printer will be. All these specifications, except for speed, are typically available on the manufacturer's web site. Speed varies because it is dependent on how a printed model is oriented and which materials and resolutions are used, so manufacturers often don't quote values, but many times the utility software included with the printer can make good estimates of print times.

Of course, the typical object size you'll need to print is easy to quantify, with a 5" cube representing the smaller end of the spectrum and a 10" cube representing the upper end of what desktop-size printers can produce. Print quality is somewhat subjective; you'll want to see samples to personally evaluate the look and feel of various materials and print resolutions, and determine which will meet your needs.

The Desktop Sweet Spot

Somewhere above the hobbyist-level 3D printers and far below the huge, high-volume solutions has emerged a mid-priced category of desktop-sized 3D printers in the $1,250 to $5,000 range. These printers offer a good range of materials and build envelopes, with resolutions and production speeds that produce great-looking prints without being hugely expensive. This desktop "sweet spot" is of increasing interest and has attracted startup companies and established vendors alike to flood the space with products — a sampling of which we reviewed for this roundup.

In fact, many recent product entries in this mid-price category are now embracing Wi-Fi connectivity and increasingly easy-to-use printing software that allows CAD users to manipulate their own 3D printing jobs. Taken together, these trends mean more users can access 3D printers without needing product-specific training to do so — thus lowering the cost of implementation and raising the return on investment for any solution implemented. If you design your project using a CAD program, it is easy to save it as a stereolithography (STL) file and print it yourself — and that means you can do it today, rather than waiting days or weeks for someone else to do it for you.

Testing Procedures

Now that we've defined what 3D printers do and how they can help you do your job, it's time to look at the actual printers and how each work. Each printer was evaluated from unpackaging through setup and printing just as any customer would experience those tasks — no special support, briefings, or tutoring were utilized. Evaluations are based on setting up the printer itself, loading print materials, using the interface software, creating prints from 3D geometry files, cleaning up the printed output, and generally observing the end-to-end process from a CAD user's perspective.

Along the way I noted any unique features, quirks, or problems that potential users considering these tools might need to be aware of. The goal was to give a comprehensive overview of the various models so you can gauge what type and size of desktop 3D printer might be appropriate for your company's needs.

When evaluating the three models, I focused on the following factors:

  • ease of setup,
  • maximum print envelope size,
  • type and variety of supported materials,
  • ease of materials management,
  • initial and recurring costs,
  • utility and user-friendliness of printer software , and
  • interface between the printer and the user's computer.

I hope the following reviews help you better understand and make decisions about desktop 3D printing technologies.

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About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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