I recently received a set of sample parts from one of the large, online, 3d print service providers. I must say, I am impressed. These services, Shapeways, Ponoko, RedEyeOnDemand, etc… offer 3d printing as a service. You upload an STL file, they instantly quote it for you, and send you the part in the mail. They’re quite pricey — but they have almost every technology available. They have laser sintered powder services, to 3d-print plastics, ceramics, and metals. They have modern stratasys machines to do work in ABS. You can get sample kits from them, and see what the outputs look like. I decided to do this.
I’m very impressed with how far laser sintered powder has come. The various sintered powder prints were just amazing. No, “Layer lines” like you see in RepRap style prints. Though, the surface finish is a bit rough. you can sand/polish these parts to a smooth finish, and the 3d print service providers will do it for you for an extra fee. Parts are very strong, with good flex characteristics. The ceramic and steel prints really impressed me. Ceramic not as much — I’ve seen a lot of fired/glazed ceramic 3d prints, and they’re pretty weak/difficult to do. The steel shocked me. It was amazingly strong — and it’s not even the strongest process. They have a titanium process that can produce jewelry grade precision at strengths that make steel look weak. Sintering is really, by and far, the most advanced process at this time. Those of us using other processes are living in the stone age.
I’m also very impressed with Resin prints. I haven’t had a chance to see commercial resin prints — but wow. The resin prints are much weaker — but feel “finished” in hand. Smooth, shiny. They feel like a commercial-grade product. They’re still reasonably strong. You could easily use these in a product, and they’d be strong enough to function. I don’t know about the open source resin prints — I haven’t held/played with those yet. But commercial resin prints — awesome.
The soapstones, aka the ZCorp process, wasn’t as strong or as smooth as the other two processes — but it had the most color, and was far stronger than the open-source powder print research processes that I’ve had a chance to play with.
Lastly, was stratasys’s modern process. I understand why Stratasys is still around now. The samples were far better than I’d seen before. My own 3d printer, EasyMaker, is in the top class of 3d printers. I can easily outperform an ultimaker or replicator — I have parts from each to prove it. Stratasys was better than all those — by surprisingly little –but still ahead. I can see RepRap printers reaching them in the next few years. Smaller nozzles, stiffer machines, improved PLA, sealed spools/feed tubes, sealed support filament, improved software. I’d say open source is 80% of the way there — how to bridge the remaining 20%, I think people are beginning to figure out.
In the home/small business setting, the 3 technologies that are competing are the RepRap, Stratasys, and Resin processes. Stratasys and reprap are both fused filament — but Stratasys has had a long time to perfect the process. They’ve developed their own plastics, have heated build chambers, and integrated, high quality nozzles. Makerbot is beginning to do the R&D in plastics needed to reach Stratasys. The Replicator2, I hear, is almost a match. The 2x may be a match, since the second extruder with soluable support will come into being. I don’t have enough information to have an opinion yet on Resin. I’d like to touch/feel the parts, and know more about toxicity. I think Open Source will be at parity in output quality within the next 5 years. I think Open source will be ahead within 10-15 years. But not in laser sintering. The problem is the laser needed for a home use setting doesn’t exist yet. CO2 lasers are too big and unreliable for long-term use right now.
But wow — the service providers — they really impressed me in their quality, and laser sintering has me blown away. It’s an amazing process.