How to Choose a Large Format 3D Printer
Large format 3D printers is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the 3D printing market. While some might think large format 3D printers are inaccessible—only a few years ago, prices would start around $100,000—the truth is that today’s large format 3D printing options are much more accessible.
There are three different 3D printing processes on the market today in an accessible, benchtop format, ranging from $5,000 to less than $20,000. Given the high cost of outsourcing large parts and prototypes, this means that investing in a large 3D printer can have a positive return on investment in months.
As the options for large format 3D printers are constantly expanding, how can businesses choose the right one?
This buyer's guide will explain how to choose the best large format 3D printer that’s right for any price point and application.
What is a Large Format 3D Printer?
In essence, large format 3D printing today means build volumes beyond the 15-20 cm (5.9-7.9 in) cube dimensions common in desktop 3D printers.
The sweet spot for most large 3D printers today is around 30 cm (11.8 in) in one of the dimensions and around 15-30 cm (5.9-11.8 in) in the remaining two. These accessible benchtop large format 3D printing can create full-scale prototypes, models, and production parts for a wide variety of applications, including consumer products, healthcare, manufacturing, and more.
There are also 3D printers on the market that go well beyond this size and can print 50-100 cm (19.5-39 in) parts, but this often means that options are limited to industrial 3D printers, where prices skyrocket, complexity increases, and facility requirements become stringent.
Types of Large Format 3D Printers
The three large format 3D printing processes available at accessible prices are the following: fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography (SLA), and selective laser sintering (SLS). Let’s take a closer look at each technology.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
Fused deposition modeling (FDM), also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF), builds parts by melting and extruding thermoplastic filament, which a printer nozzle deposits layer by layer in the build area. FDM is the most widely used form of 3D printing at the consumer level, fueled by the emergence of hobbyist 3D printers.
Mid-range large format FDM printers are available from $4,000 and can typically print objects up to about 30 x 25 x 30 cm in size, while larger systems that can create up to 60 cm tall parts start around $6,000.
FDM works with a range of standard thermoplastics, such as ABS, PLA, and their various blends. The technique is well suited for basic proof-of-concept models, as well as low-cost prototyping of simple parts, such as parts that might typically be machined.
Disadvantages of FDM
FDM has the lowest resolution and accuracy when compared to SLA or SLS and is not the best option for printing complex designs or parts with intricate features. Higher-quality finishes require labor-intensive and lengthy chemical and mechanical polishing processes. Some large-format FDM 3D printers use soluble supports to mitigate some of these issues and offer a wider range of engineering thermoplastics, but they also come at a steep price. With large parts, FDM printing also tends to be slower than SLA or SLS.
Stereolithography (SLA) printers use a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization. SLA is one of the most popular processes among professionals due to its high resolution, precision, and material versatility.
While SLA used to be available only in smaller desktop printers or large industrial printers that cost more than $200,000, with Formlabs’s Form 3L printer, businesses now have access to industrial-quality SLA for just $11,000, offering a large build volume of 30 x 33.5 x 20 cm.
SLA parts have the highest resolution and accuracy, the clearest details, and the smoothest surface finish of all plastic 3D printing technologies, but the main benefit of SLA lies in its versatility. SLA resin formulations offer a wide range of optical, mechanical, and thermal properties to match those of standard, engineering, and industrial thermoplastics.
SLA is a great option for large, highly detailed prototypes requiring tight tolerances and smooth surfaces, as well as molds, tooling, patterns, medical models, and functional parts. It also offers the material with the highest heat deflection temperature of 238 degrees Celsius—which makes it an ideal choice for certain engineering and manufacturing applications—as well as the widest selection of biocompatible materials for dental and medical applications. With Draft Resin, the Form 3L is also the fastest option for 3D printing large parts, up to 10X faster than FDM.
Disadvantages of SLA
SLA’s wide versatility comes with a slightly higher price tag. SLA resin parts also require post-processing after printing, which includes washing the parts and post-curing.
Here are some examples of large 3D printed parts manufactured on the Form 3L:
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective laser sintering (SLS) printers use a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of polymer powder. The unfused powder supports the part during printing and eliminates the need for dedicated support structures, which makes SLS an especially effective choice for complex mechanical parts.
Because of its ability to produce parts with excellent mechanical capabilities, SLS is the most common additive manufacturing technology for industrial applications.
Just like SLA, SLS used to be only available in industrial machines starting at about $200,000. With Formlabs’s Fuse 1 SLS printer, businesses can now access industrial SLS starting from $16,500 with a 30 x 16.5 x 16.5 cm build volume.
Since SLS printing doesn’t require dedicated support structures, it’s ideal for complex geometries, including interior features, undercuts, thin walls, and negative features. Parts produced with SLS printing have excellent mechanical characteristics, with strength resembling that of injection-molded parts.
The most common material for SLS is nylon, a popular engineering thermoplastic with excellent mechanical properties. Nylon is lightweight, strong, and flexible, as well as stable against impact, chemicals, heat, UV light, water, and dirt.
The combination of low cost per part, high productivity, and established materials make SLS a popular choice among engineers for functional prototyping, and a cost-effective alternative to injection molding for limited-run or bridge manufacturing.
Disadvantages of SLS
SLS has the highest entry price of the three technologies. While nylon is a great all-rounder material, material selection for SLS is more limited than for FDM and SLA. Parts come out of the printer with a slightly rough surface finish and require media blasting for a smooth finish.
Compare Large Format FDM, SLA, and SLS Printing
Large format 3D printing technologies aren’t interchangeable—the technologies all have distinct advantages and disadvantages that make them suitable for different applications.
|Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)||Stereolithography (SLA)||Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)|
|Ease of Use||★★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★☆|
|Build Volume||30 x 25 x 30 cm (12 x 9,8 x 11.8 in) and larger||30 x 33.5 x 20 cm (13.2 × 7.9 × 11.8 in)||32 x 16.5 x 16.5 x cm (12.6 × 6.3 × 6.3 in)|
|Price range||Starting from $4,000||Starting from $11,000||Starting from $16,500|
|Materials||Standard thermoplastics, such as ABS, PLA, and their various blends.||Varieties of resin (thermosetting plastics). Standard, engineering (ABS-like, PP-like, silicone-like, flexible, heat-resistant, rigid), castable, dental, and medical (biocompatible).||Engineering thermoplastics, typically nylon and its composites.|
|Ideal applications||Basic proof-of-concept models, low-cost prototyping of simple parts.||Highly detailed prototypes requiring tight tolerances and smooth surfaces, molds, tooling, patterns, medical models, and functional parts.||Complex geometries, functional prototypes, short-run or bridge manufacturing.|
|Disadvantages||Lowest resolution and accuracy; not ideal for complex designs or parts with intricate features. The slowest form of large format 3D printing.||Parts require post-processing after printing.||Material selection is limited; parts require media blasting for a smooth surface finish.|
How to Choose a 3D Printing Technology
Having trouble finding the best 3D printing technology for your needs? In this video guide, we compare FDM, SLA, and SLS technologies across popular buying considerations.
Large Format 3D Printing: Outsourcing vs. In-House Production
A large format 3D printer represents a significant initial investment, but it can often recoup the initial investment even faster than smaller machines.
Outsourcing production to service bureaus is recommended when your business requires 3D printing only occasionally. Bureaus generally have several 3D printing processes in-house such as SLA, SLS, FDM, and metal 3D printers. They can also provide advice on various materials and offer value-added services such as design or advanced finishing.
The main downsides of outsourcing are cost and lead time. One of the greatest benefits of 3D printing is its speed compared to traditional manufacturing methods, which quickly diminishes when an outsourced part takes a week or even multiple weeks to arrive.
Outsourcing large 3D printed parts is also often very expensive. Depending on the number of parts and printing volume, investing in a large format 3D printer can break even within merely a few months.
For example, climbing and skiing gear manufacturer Black Diamond added a large format Form 3L SLA printer to their fleet to create full-scale prototypes in-house.
“We have reduced our costs on full-size prototypes from $425 a print to $70 a print. With that savings, Form 3L would pay for itself in only three months, said R&D technician Matt Tetzl.
|Time||7 Days||3 Days|
Harnessing the Power of Large Format 3D Printing
The latest generation of large format 3D printers have made manufacturing large prototypes and parts faster and much more affordable, opening the doors for almost any company to use 3D printing to improve product development and production.
With the Form 3L and the Fuse 1, the first accessible large format SLA and SLS 3D printers, Formlabs strives to revolutionize professional 3D printing. If you’re ready to leverage 3D printing in your business, find the right Formlabs 3D printer for your needs today.