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3D printing is a newer technology that uses additive manufacturing to create an incredible range of three-dimensional items — from delicate jewelry to large-scale industrial machine parts — using a 3D digital model. 3D printers run the gamut in size, precision, materials used for printing, and price.

Additive manufacturing is the layering process of 3D printing. The most common form of 3D printing is extrusion. Controlled by computer, the printer heats a polymer filament (basically a plastic thread), and forces the heated filament out of the printer head (extruder), layer by layer, to create the designed object. By contrast, traditional manufacturing uses subtractive methods such as casting or molding to create objects.

There are many types of 3D printers specific to different materials and industry needs. With all 3D printers, the dimensions of each layer are dictated by a 3D computer design, so a microscopic level of precision is possible. 3D printing is used across industries from medical devices to jewelry design, car manufacturing or consumer electronics.

Have a 3D model made if you’re an entrepreneur marketing a product idea to investors, a dentist making molds, an architect creating a model home for clients, or so much more. The options are almost limitless. You don’t need to have computer-aided designs (CAD) already prepared before hiring a 3D printing company; many also offer software and CAD services to take your idea from concept to design to creation. Here are the cost factors of 3D printing.

Type and size of 3D printer

The item you want to create will dictate the kind of 3D printer you will need to print it. Home enthusiasts can buy a desktop 3D printer for small-scale productions and personal creations for under $500, although more reliable desktop printers start around $600 or $700. For small businesses, purchasing a reliable 3D printer might cost $2,000-$3,500. Large manufacturers with industrial needs might pay from $50,000 up to $1 million or more.

Generally speaking, the larger your build envelope, the larger the 3D printer must be. The term "build envelope" refers to the size of the build plate (where your creation will sit during production) and the range of motion of the printer head in terms of height, width and depth. The build envelope dictates the maximum size of an item that printer can create. Printers with larger build envelopes are generally more expensive, which may mean higher printing fees for you.

Design rates

Many 3D printing companies also offer design services to help you translate your idea of what you want printed (such as a 3D model of a new car you’re designing) into a 3D digital model on a computer. Designers will use CAD to render your paper sketch or idea into a 3D design using precise specifications. You will be able to see how your item will look and function before it is printed. Design services usually cost extra to account for the skills, time and resources required. Design may be listed as a separate line item with an hourly rate, or may be included in the total quote for 3D printing. You can also work with a designer before contracting a printer; here are some example of 3D design costs:

  • National average hourly rate for 3D designers: $25-$55.

    • Most 3D designs take a minimum of half a day to create.
  • Flat project fees can range from $300-$2,000 or more.

Volume and orientation

As with many industries, the higher the production volume, the lower the price per unit. If you use the same material to produce multiple versions of one design, the printing company will have less setup and overhead to manage than for multiple designs, and can usually offer you a better rate on the materials. A jewelry designer will be charged a lower rate per pendant to print 50 pendants at one time than to print a single pendant.

Material

The type of material you want your 3D design printed in will impact your total project cost. A 3.75 x 2.1 x 0.7 inch item printed with natural plastic might cost approximately $20, while the same item printed with titanium might cost approximately $440. According to 3D Printing Industry, an industry association, materials for 3D printing include:

  • Plastic: The most common material for 3D printing, it typically comes in white but can be colored by request.

  • Metal: Titanium, aluminum, stainless steel, gold and silver are just some of the metals available. Uses range from industrial production to jewelry design.

  • Ceramics: Printing with ceramics is a recent development; after printing, the ceramic object must be fired and glazed.

  • Paper: Markedly lower production costs and recyclability make paper an attractive option for models and items with shorter-term use.

  • Biomaterials: Still in research and development, 3D printed biomaterials may one day be used for medical purposes such as organ or limb transplants.

  • Food: Food is the new horizon for 3D printing, says 3D Printing Industry. Chocolate and sweets are the primary focus now, but many innovators have a long-term vision of machines capable of printing entire meals.
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