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Industrial 3D Printing Costs | Equipment, Labor, Materials

Industrial 3D printing costs are mainly a function of the equipment that is purchased, the amount of material that is used, and the total manufacturing time that is required. There are also costs that can overlap categories – and costs you can reduce along the way. Whether you plan to buy your own additive manufacturing equipment or outsource 3D printing projects to a service bureau, it’s important to understand the sources of cost so that you can manage them effectively.

In this article, you’ll learn about the three major sources of industrial 3D printing costs.

· Equipment

· Labor

· Materials

The following sections examine each one in detail.

The economics of additive manufacturing start with the capital assets that are used for printing and post-processing. Industrial 3D printers cost more than consumer-grade equipment, but industrial-quality machines range considerably in price. The cost of post-processing equipment also varies, and there are many different types of solutions for secondary tasks such as washing, sanding, and polishing.

Regardless of price, buyers of industrial 3D printers want to achieve a return on investment (ROI) as quickly as possible. If you’re purchased your own equipment, you probably want to recoup your costs in a specific amount of time. As the Prusa Print Blog explains, you can use the following formula to calculate an hourly equipment cost.

printer price / required investment return time (h) * print time (h) = hourly equipment cost

Knowing how much it costs you to run your industrial 3D printer for an hour isn’t just about printer price, however. Installation, electricity usage, maintenance, and machine down-time are also equipment-related costs. Some of these expenses could be categorized as labor instead of equipment, but it’s still important to capture them all.

With additive manufacturing, there are two major sources of labor cost: print preparation and post-processing. These are employee-based costs rather than machine-based costs, and you can use this formula to calculate each of them.

labor rate * labor hours = labor cost

For the labor rate, remember to include not just employee wages, but also the cost of benefits. Service bureaus can apply a markup and pass the total to customers.

Drawing a part to 3D print takes time, but so does slicing the model into individual layers. Some 3D printer models require time-consuming print preparation, especially if manual supports are required. Post-processing can also be labor-intensive. According to an estimate reported in New Equipment Digest (NED), every six hours of 3D printing costs one hour of post-processing.

Some 3D printing technologies require less post-processing than other, however. As HUBS explains in “The Cost of 3D Printing”, stereolithography (SLA) has the lowest cost for post-processing because of “the high surface quality for parts”. Compared to technologies such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) and fused filament fabrication (FFF), SLA also has the lowest part set-up times. Variants of SLA include projection micro stereolithography, or PuSL technology, which allows for the rapid photopolymerization of an entire layer of liquid polymer using a flash of ultraviolet (UV) light at microscale resolution.

3D printed microscrew
Plastic parts cost less than metal parts. Picture above: Glaucoma Stents

“How much does 3D printing cost?” is a question with an answer that always involves materials. Plastics cost less than metals, and smaller parts generally cost less than larger ones because less material is required. Micro 3D printing, the additive manufacturing of very small parts with microscale measurements, uses even less material. Applications for microscale 3D printing include small electrical connectors, cardiovascular stents, microfluidic devices, and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS).

Commodity plastics costs less than engineering plastics, but some 3D printing applications require more expensive materials to meet performance requirements. With ceramic powders, polymer binders may be required to provide stability. The way that 3D printing materials are priced is reflected in their packaging. For example, filaments are priced by the spool and powders are sold in containers and measured in kilograms. 3D printer resins are packaged in bottles and typically solid in grams.

When calculating material costs, it’s important to account for more than just the material that’s used to produce the finished parts. There’s also some amount of waste – and hopefully as little as possible. In addition, some 3D printed parts require support structures. To reduce material costs, designers can reduce or (if possible) eliminate them. Scaling-down the size of a model or using a hollow model instead of a solid one are also ways to reduce material usage and, in turn, your industrial 3D printing costs.

Finally, material costs are related to the specific 3D printing technology that is used. Although SLA can have higher overall material costs than techniques such as powder bed fusion (PBF), SLA can produce more complex part geometries and higher-volume batches. In combination with SLA’s lower post-processing costs, the total cost ownership could be less than you think.

BMF's microArch® S240 printer.

Knowing your true industrial 3D printing costs can help you make better decisions about when to when to switch to subtractive manufacturing methods for higher-volume runs. BMF, the pioneer in microscale 3D printing, is providing a cost-effective alternative to micro machining and micro molding for small parts that need high resolution, accuracy, and precision. Learn more about us.