Photo by Tom Claes on Unsplash

4 types of 3D printing

3D printing is absolutely changing the way we are able to prototype. For a couple hundred dollars, you can equip your studio with a 3Dprinter that prints plastic parts with pretty incredible accuracy. There are many different types of 3D printing within the industry, I’ll focus on the four that are most popular within the confines of product development.

FFF/FDM 3D printers

These are those desktop 3D printers you see melting plastic filament layer by layer to form a shape from the ground up. These printers are great for parts that are small (handheld size) and where fitment isn’t too critical (yet).

So where is an FFF printer handy:

  • Smaller plastic parts
  • Early stages of development
  • Testing multiple different shapes, ergonomics   
  • If the fitment doesn’t matter too much or you can get away with it
  • Surface finish is not too critical  
  • Low budget

SLS 3D printers, use lazers to sinter (bond) the shape together.

The shape starts out as a powder that is placed into the machine. The lazer will move around where necessary to sinter the powder into a solid form. This technology is used with plastics and metals and is growing at phenomenal rates.

These machines are a couple thousand dollars and normally studios don’t have these in house as they are big and expensive. Luckily, with the advancement in this technology. Some manufactures can now produce accurate, strong parts for a fair price.

Where should I use SLS 3D printing:

  • Later stage prototypes that need fitment checked
  • Plastic parts that need to be tested physically(dropped)
  • Any snap fits, bending parts, thin walls
  • Highly accurate parts

Stereolithography 3D printing is the use of resin and a UV light to cure wherever the form is needed.

Traditionally this technology is used for very fine detailed products. The accuracy on a quality machine is so detailed you might need a magnifier glass to check the quality. There are two big industries that use these3D printers. Jewellery, dentistry, as you can imagine, it’s very fine work and details are of great importance. These printers are also used for making the first shape to make a silicone mould from. Because of it’s accuracy, manufactures print the positive shape, then cast a silicone mould around the positive. This allows them to remove the 3D printed positive part and now re-create multiple of those shapes in the plastic of their choice.

The biggest down fall to Stereolithography, is the parts are fragile and none forgiving. So they are not best used for parts that need to bend or snap fit together or structural integrity.

  • Where fitment comes down to 0.05mm (no moving parts)
  • Parts do not need to move
  • You need to make a mould
  • Incredible fine small parts


Mass production 3D printing.

Lately there’s been some great mass production 3D printers coming out that are starting to compete with low volume mouldings and CNC’ing. These use a powder and a laser to sinter there forms. There are also companies starting 3D print farms with cheap 3D printers. Depending on the application, 3D printing could be useful for your low volume production run.  3D printing can be used for low volume orders  

Just because 3D printing is the latest cool topic, doesn’t mean you should use it for your product. At the moment there are extremely specific parts that could take advantage of 3D printing for production.

  • When the volumes needed are too small for an injection mould
  • If it’s a once off order
  • Parts are small (less than 30cm cube)
  • Surface finish is not too important
  • Fitment is not critical, or can be designed with the particular 3D printing process in mind