3-D printing becomes more accessible, efficient

Nov. 10, 2019
Analyst says costs are falling for machines and materials, but more skilled designers are needed.
As printer prices fall and more resins become available, manufacturing companies of all sizes can take advantage of 3-D printing’s benefits, according to an industry analyst.

“The technology itself is developing to be a lot faster and more affordable for making parts,” said Ray Huff, associate engineer for Wohlers Associates, an additive manufacturing consulting firm. “Those are the two big things for serial production.”

In recent years, 3-D printing has gotten significantly faster. For example, in a case study, HP concluded that its Jet Fusion 3D 4210 printer can produce a small gear, measuring about 5 cubic centimeters, at a lower cost than an injection molding machine, Huff said.

“They could print over 100,000 of them and still beat the cost for injection molding the same part,” Huff said. “It’s just a matter of them getting their material costs down.”


Material costs for 3-D printing typically have been 10 to 100 times higher than the costs for injection molding, he said. However, the costs are starting to come down, due mostly to competition.

“It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg thing where the more people that use the material, the cheaper it will get because production volumes of the material will go up, but many people can’t justify using the material until costs come down,” he said.

The current selection of materials for 3-D printing is “pretty limited,” Huff said, but that is changing.

“I feel like every week I’m learning about a company that’s either developing a new material or optimizing a process for a new material,” he said.

Until recently, resin manufacturers have been slow to develop materials for 3-D printing. But with some big companies like Adidas adopting 3-D printing, an increasing number of material producers are interested in the 3-D printing market.

Wohlers Associates’ consultants have heard from polymer producers interested in expanding into the 3-D printing market. Some of these companies produce dozens of materials that currently aren’t available for 3-D printing, Huff said.

“Everybody’s trying to decide whether to dip their toe in or just cannonball into the pool,” Huff said.

Some resin suppliers are partnering with specific printer manufacturers to produce materials that meet their specific needs. For example, BASF is teaming up with HP.

Other resin suppliers are partnering with consumer product manufacturers to produce custom polymers.

“It’s a big opportunity for materials companies,” Huff said. “The more of them that jump in, the more the competition will drive those costs down.”


One of the benefits of 3-D printing is that parts can often outperform those made via injection molding. However, the key is designing parts specifically for 3-D printers.

“3-D printing is an entirely different process from injection molding, or machining, or stamping or casting,” Huff said. “Each of them has unique benefits, and each of them has unique limitations.”

With 3-D printing, one of the benefits is that parts can be complex, but one of the limitations is the length of time it takes to print a part. A knowledgeable designer can take advantage of 3-D printing’s benefits while reducing printing times. For example, a designer might want to incorporate lattice structures into a part or employ topology optimization or other kinds of design tools that generally aren’t used when designing for injection molding.

“There’s an additional set of design tools and design thinking that needs to be learned,” Huff said. “There’s just not nearly enough people with the skills to design parts for it. … There needs to be a lot more training. There needs to be a lot more education and awareness, which I think is happening, especially since 2012 with low-cost 3-D printing becoming a big, powerful tool.”

Students in high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools are being exposed to 3-D printers in the classroom. The schools also give them access to CAD software to start designing.

They are learning about 3-D design from the get-go, without all the preconceptions that a traditional manufacturing engineer might have, Huff said.

Wohlers Associates, meanwhile, offers its own Design for Additive Manufacturing courses for engineers, designers, managers and executives.

“Unlocking the vast potential of [additive manufacturing] requires a broad understanding of both the opportunities and challenges,” Huff said.


3-D printers and their materials have been coming down in price, but there is still a perception that additive manufacturing is only for large companies with lots of money to invest. However, it is feasible for small and medium-sized companies to take advantage of 3-D printing.

“Yes, they definitely can,” Huff said. “I hear a lot more about the larger companies adopting it because they go out … and buy a couple of half-million-dollar machines, set up a production facility and go for it. In the meantime, there are a lot of companies that are saying, 'We’re too small for that.' ”

For smaller companies, or larger ones hesitant to invest in their own 3-D printing equipment, contract printers can be an option. Numerous companies provide 3-D printing services for both prototype and production parts on a contract basis.

“For example, there’s a service provider here in Loveland, Colo., that I visited recently and worked with a bit in the past called Avid Product Development. They have two HP Multi Jet Fusion machines and they have some other machines from other suppliers. They’re just cranking out parts all day long, and they get orders from all kinds of companies that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the machine. … It’s really a win-win. The companies don’t have to put that huge upfront investment in machines and people to run them and software.”

Instead, a service provider already has the 3-D printing equipment and expertise.

“I think that is one way that small companies, even the smallest startup, can start using 3-D printing in a production way,” Huff said. 

Bruce Geiselman, senior reporter

[email protected]

Wohlers Associates Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., 970-225-0086, www.wohlersassociates.com

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.