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Guide to Color 3D Printers

Are you looking to 3D print parts in color or to create vibrant, multi-color parts? Over the last few years, multiple new methods have emerged to 3D print in color, and newer 3D printers have become more accessible, empowering any designer, model maker, or hobbyist to create objects in a range of hues.

In this guide, we dive into the several techniques you can use to produce colored 3D printed parts, as well as the technologies and applications of color 3D printing.

Options for Color 3D Printing

There are several options to produce colored 3D printed parts, from color mixing to color matching, full color 3D printing, painting 3D printed parts, and hydrographics. 

Direct Color and Color Mixing 3D Printing

Direct color, also known as multicolor 3D printing is the most basic way to create 3D printed parts in various colors. It involves loading colored raw material into the printer. The most common way is using colored filaments with 3D printers that use fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology, which melts and deposits the filament onto the printer bed.

FDM 3D printing in color. (source: 3Dnatives)

FDM 3D printing in color. (source: 3Dnatives)

FDM 3D printers can print in a single color, using colored filament, in two colors, using a dual extruder, or in multiple colors and gradients using color mixing, depending on how many filaments feed through the printer simultaneously.

The benefit of direct color 3D printing is that it is easy to use and affordable. However, the disadvantages are that it’s not possible to achieve a specific color tone, and the final part will likely have visible layer lines. Also, the more extruders an FDM printer has, the bigger the chance of print errors.

Color Matching 3D Printing

While direct color printing only offers off-the-shelf color options, color matching allows you to create 3D printed parts in almost any custom color. 

SLA 3D printed parts in various custom colors.

SLA 3D printed parts in various custom colors.

As the first integrated color-mixing solution for stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing, Formlabs Color Kit mixes color pigments into the base material to create a full cartridge of customized color resin. SLA 3D printing then uses a laser to solidify the colored resin and create parts with a smooth surface finish and almost imperceptible layer lines.

Color Kit, the first integrated color-mixing solution for SLA 3D printing.

Color Kit, the first integrated color-mixing solution for SLA 3D printing.

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Full Color 3D Printing

Full-color 3D printing is the most versatile color 3D printing method, as it produces objects in multiple colors at the same time, matching any tone and making realistic parts.

Unlike colored filaments or resin, the material used in full color printing is not pre-colored—the color is added to the base material during the printing process, similar to a color 2D printer.

Full-colored 3D printed part with binder jetting. (source: Hubs)

Full-colored 3D printed part with binder jetting. (source: Hubs)

Technologies such as binder jetting and material jetting are able to produce full-color 3D prints. However, these processes have a high entry price, making them inaccessible to most users, while only one manufacturer offers a more affordable full color FDM 3D printer.

Painting 3D Printed Parts

In certain cases, colored 3D prints may lack the detail or the vivid colors that an artist or designer aims for. Painting monochromatic 3D printed parts with acrylic, oil, or spray paint, while more time-consuming, offers an inexpensive and fully custom solution. 

Side by side comparison on the before and after painting a dinosaur 3D printed SLA miniature.

Side by side comparison on the before and after painting a dinosaur 3D printed SLA miniature.

Models that need a perfectly smooth finish or very fine features may require post-processing techniques, such as sanding, priming, or using a solvent prior to painting.

Sanding reduces imperfections in the surface, and primer fills in small cracks and holes. Additionally, some 3D printed parts may need an undercoat to diminish the neutral color of the primer before the paint application.

Hydrographics for 3D Printed Parts

Hydrographics, also known as hydroprinting, water printing, or water transfer printing, is a common method for applying printed designs to three-dimensional surfaces. The process uses an inkjet printer to print an image on a polyvinyl alcohol film. The film gets submerged in water and receives an activator chemical spray. The color film then stretches over and adheres to the object as it’s slowly dipped through the floating film.

Color 3D Printing Processes

The most used technologies in color printing are FDM, SLA, SLS/MJF, binder jetting, and material jetting. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each process.

FDM

FDM, or fused deposition modeling, is one of the most common and least expensive technologies in consumer 3D printing. FDM 3D printers build parts by melting and extruding thermoplastic filament, which a printer nozzle deposits layer by layer in the build area.

Filaments for FDM printing in various colors. (source: All3DP.com)

Filaments for FDM printing in various colors. (source: All3DP.com)

FDM is mostly used for direct color printing, with single extruder printers, or for color mixing 3D printing, with dual or multiple extruder printers.

FDM can now also be used for full color 3D printing with the da Vinci Color 3D printer. With a colorless filament that is dyed using CMYK inkjet cartridges right before being extruded, it produces colored parts in a similar way to a color 2D printer.

SLA

SLA, or stereolithography 3D printing, uses a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization. SLA parts have the highest resolution and accuracy, the clearest details, and the smoothest surface finish of all plastic 3D printing technologies.

Colored SLA parts, 3D printed with Formlabs Color Kit and Standard Resins.

Colored SLA parts, 3D printed with Formlabs Color Kit and Standard Resins.

SLA offers the possibility for color matching almost any custom color using Formlabs Color Kit, the first integrated color-mixing solution for SLA 3D printing. Thanks to their smooth surface finish, SLA printed parts can also easily be post-processed, painted, and used for applying hydrographics. 

Stereolithography
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SLS/MJF

Selective laser sintering is the most common additive manufacturing technology for industrial applications, trusted by engineers and manufacturers across different industries for its ability to produce strong, functional parts.

Dyed SLS 3D printed parts. (source: Hubs)

Dyed SLS 3D printed parts. (source: Hubs)

SLS 3D printers use white, grey, or black nylon powder as a raw material. While the parts cannot be directly printed in color, they can be dyed or painted in post-processing. 

One exception to this is Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), which works similarly to SLS printers, but some MJF printers can also selectively apply color ink on the powder layer, making it possible to print strong full colored 3D printed parts. However, the entry price for this technology is significantly higher.

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Binder Jetting

The binder jetting 3D printing technology is similar to SLS and MJF printing but uses a colored binding agent to bond powdered sandstone material instead of heat. 

Parts produced with binder jetting have a porous surface and are very brittle, which means that this process is recommended only for static applications, such as creating full-color figurines and concept models.

Figurines printed with binder jetting. (source: Shapeways)

Figurines printed with binder jetting. (source: Shapeways)

Material Jetting

Material jetting 3D printers combine traditional inkjet printing with the use of photopolymer resins, by depositing droplets of the material on a build tray similar to 2D printers, which then gets hardened by UV light.

This process offers a myriad of color possibilities and can create photorealistic parts with vibrant colors. However, the parts have poor mechanical properties, are heat-sensitive, and the entry price for this technology is the highest of all color 3D printing options.

Color 3D printing with material jetting. (source: Hubs)

Color 3D printing with material jetting. (source: Hubs)

Color 3D Printing Processes Comparison

FDMSLASLS / MJFBinder Jetting
Resolution★★☆☆☆★★★★★★★★★☆★★★☆☆
Accuracy★★★★☆★★★★★★★★★★★★★☆☆
Surface Finish★★☆☆☆★★★★★★★★★☆★★★☆☆
Ease of Use★★★★★★★★★★★★★★☆★★★★☆
Complex Designs★★★☆☆★★★★☆★★★★★★★★☆☆
DescriptionThe print head melts and extrudes thermoplastic filamentA laser solidifies liquid resinA laser or light source sinters nylon powderA binding agent bonds sandstone powder
MaterialsThermoplastic filamentsVarieties of liquid resinVarieties of polymer powderSandstone
Color 3D printing optionsDirect color, color mixing, or full colorColor matchingNone / Full colorFull color
Post-processing with colorsPainting (requires a lot of post-processing)
Hydrographic printing
Painting
Hydrographic printing
Dyeing
Painting
Hydrographic printing
Painting
Hydrographic printing
ApplicationsBasic modelmakingRapid prototyping, miniatures and models, medical modelsRapid prototyping, end-use partsMiniatures and models
FDM vs SLA vs SLS video guide
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Applications for Color 3D Printing

Color 3D printing empowers engineers and designers to save money and time with looks-like prototypes, movie makers to turn digital models into props, model makers to create vibrant miniatures, medical professionals to produce accurate anatomical models, and more. 

Prototyping

Rapid prototyping helps companies turn ideas into realistic proofs of concept, advances these concepts to high-fidelity prototypes that look and work like final products, and guides products through a series of validation stages toward mass production.

The development team at birdkids used SLA 3D printing to create prototypes in color.

The development team at birdkids used SLA 3D printing to create prototypes in color.

Concept models in color can demonstrate an idea to stakeholders, create discussion, and drive acceptance or rejection using low-risk concept explorations.

At later stages, realistic looks-like prototypes in color can give a better idea of what an end product will look like and how the end-user will interact with it. Ergonomics, user interfaces, and overall user experience can be validated with 3D printed looks-like prototypes before spending significant design and engineering time to fully build out product features. 

Color matching 3D printing or full color 3D printing also allows product development teams to experiment with different color options and run studies with customers before moving into production.

Entertainment

In the entertainment industry, 3D printed props and models are blurring the line between physical models and digital effects. Artists create realistic, detailed models using 3D modeling software and then bring them to life in a matter of hours using 3D printing. High-resolution 3D printing processes, like SLA, can reproduce even the most complex parameters of a design, such as skin texture.

A behind-the-scenes look at visual effects (VFX) and design studio Aaron Sims Creative’s process to design of Stranger Things’ Demogorgon.

Props masters, such as Russell Bobbitt for Marvel movies and Jaco Snyman for the Raised by Wolves series, as well as visual effects (VFX) and design studio Aaron Sims Creative for Stranger Things, have adopted the technology, as it significantly saves time in prop making and fuels creativity in the design process. The creation becomes more flexible and fluid, and props and models can be created in an efficient manner. 

Miniatures and Models

Without a doubt, 3D printing has revolutionized the creation of custom miniatures and figurines, whether for model making, tabletop games, collectibles, or other hobbies. 

As full-color 3D printers are often out of budget for hobbyists and model makers traditionally hand-paint models anyway, the most popular way to create colorful models is to paint them after 3D printing.

For example, artists at Modern Life Workshop combine 3D modeling design with SLA 3D printing to create hyper-realistic celebrity portraits. The artists use the digital freehand sculpting software ZBrush to create detailed models on the computer. Then, they 3D print the designs on an SLA 3D printer and paint the parts by hand.

The artists from Modern Life Workshop create hyper-realistic sculptures with ZBrush and 3D printing.

The artists from Modern Life Workshop create hyper-realistic sculptures with ZBrush and 3D printing.

In gaming, online communities have sprung up around tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, for which gamers use 3D printers to create one-of-a-kind D&D 3D printed miniatures, figurines, terrains, landscapes, and other board game accessories.

Professional model-making companies, like DM-Toys, also use 3D printing to accelerate prototyping and production cycles of custom models.

Medical Models

In healthcare, radiologists, surgeons, and biomedical professionals are increasingly turning to 3D printing to create accurate 3D models of anatomical features that can be used as reference tools for preoperative planning, intraoperative visualization, and education. 

3D printing empowers medical professionals to create complex models with intricate details that would be impossible to produce with other technologies.

A fully colored pancreas model that was produced with SLA 3D printing and then painted with acrylic.

A fully colored pancreas model that was produced with SLA 3D printing and then painted with acrylic.

High-detailed color models are excellent in resident education programs, where each blood vessel or organ can be directly 3D printed or painted in different colors for easy classroom viewing.

Furthermore, patient-specific surgical models that are based on patient scan data are becoming increasingly useful tools in today’s practice of personalized, precision medicine.

Create Models in Color with SLA 3D Printing

Whether it is color matching to create 3D printed parts in almost any custom color, or printing high-resolution parts that can be painted to create hyper-realistic models, SLA 3D printing delivers incredible detail and seamless performance at an affordable price point.

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