Key Considerations For Any Company Buying a 3D Printer

As a tidal wave of 3D Printing news has crashed across the headlines of news outlets, corporate leadership has taken notice.  Whether a company has a pressing need or application for 3D Printing, it has become an increasingly common Chief Officer mandate to “take stock of what 3D Printing is, how it can/will impact our company, and come up with a strategy of what to do about it.”

Because 3D Printing already provides a fundamentally more efficient way to prototype most products and increasing ability to print end-use parts on-demand, most companies find that there is a place for 3D Printing in their strategic plans.  Often, the decision boils down to buying a 3D Printer (or several), utilizing a service provider or providers, or some hybrid of the two.

In this three-part series “3D Printing – Buy Then Build vs. Buy Built,” we set out to provide a framework to consider purchasing printers and utilizing service providers to fill your needs.

In this first post, we set out to discuss the topic of buying a printer and then building parts in-house.  Below are some of the considerations companies should take into account when assessing whether they should buy a 3D Printer.


Hard Costs

This is the most obvious one.  While the most basic desktop printers can be had for a few hundred bucks, industrial grade equipment starts in the tens of thousands of dollars.  For top of the line plastics equipment, you’re looking at several hundred thousand dollars.  Investigating metal printing?  Regularly those machines cost in excess of a million.

You might be thinking, why such a broad range of prices?  It comes down to functionality, reliability, speed, and size.  Industrial printers are capable of printing in a broader range of materials, more accurately and reliably, faster and often with bigger build trays.

But do those differences matter to you?  Can you get what you need or want out of a desktop printer?  Or some percentage of what you need/want out of a desktop printer and the rest from a service provider?  Beyond the hard cost of purchasing, there are also the costs of feedstock and maintenance, so weigh them all.

Get a sense of the hard dollars you have to spend first to make sure you’re looking in the right ballpark of options.


Soft Costs

Once you’ve got an operating budget, consider the human impacts within your organization of making a purchase.

Do you have the people to operate and maintain a machine effectively?  Do you have a culture that supports CAD design and will keep that printer humming?

It’s important that you can either carve out time from existing personnel’s schedule to develop expertise on the system, or to hire new staff that can take ownership of making the most out of your 3D Printing investment.  Realize that there is both art and science to operating a machine – we’re not to push button parts yet – and there’s a significant learning curve that comes along with a printer purchase.

Make sure you have the manpower and organizational commitment to support your investment.  The last thing you want is a high-dollar investment growing cobwebs in the corner of the shop floor.


Once you’ve got a sense of what you can spend and how much staffing up will bite out of your budget, then consider how you’d like to use your equipment.  Different machines are capable of different types of printing, and no single printer can do it all.

First, are you looking to print in metal or plastic?  If metal, there are powder bed and blown powder options to consider.  All are capable of end use parts, but different machines and processes lend themselves to different applications.

If plastic, do your prints need to be functional?  Or are you simply looking for accurate models?

If you need functional models with some durability, a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machine might be best for you.  Those machines offer a range of thermoplastics, some of which are quite durable.  Ultem 9085, for instance, is an FDM thermoplastic that has received FAA certifications for its high resistance to heat and fire.

If your models don’t need to be durable, PolyJet or Stereolithography might be a better fit.  Those printer types use resin as the “ink” to build their 3D Printed parts.  As a result of this, they are incredibly accurate – PolyJet can print in 16 micron layers – but not especially durable over time.

Also, what sort of geometries are you trying to achieve?  SLS, for instance, has virtually no limitations on design freedom.  That process works by laying down one layer of fine powder at a time, selectively fusing together those particles in the layer that it wants solid, and leaves the rest of the layer alone.  Then another layer of powder, another run of the laser, again and again, until the part is made.  Because the “extra powder” still sits in the bed, it serves as a support to whatever is being built above.  This extra powder can also be recycled for future parts.

PolyJet can achieve something near this level of freedom, as some machines are capable of  printing both end material and dissolvable support material.  Meanwhile, stereolithography machines require supports for overhanging areas, and FDM parts do as well.  These supports require manual removal.

Do you need color in your prints?  How big do your prints need to be?  Do you need to produce in a very specific material?  All are worth considering.

Build out a list of “need to haves” and “want to haves” (and possibly “can’t haves”), then figure out whether there’s a machine or collection of machines in your budget that fit the bill.



We call out some of the capabilities and limitations of different technologies in the previous paragraph with a hint of hesitation.  That’s because the market is evolving so fast.  Market fixtures like Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS, SLM Solutions, and Arcam AB who’ve put those products into market may introduce new functions or features to next generation models to refine existing processes.  After all, the list of potential innovators and competitors in the space is growing.  We’ve seen traditional names like Dremel, Renishaw, Mitsubishi, and Cincinnati recently enter the ranks of the 3D Printing world.  As of Wohlers and Associates last count, there are more than 300 “FDM Knockoffs” that utilize plastic extrusion.  Beyond those who’ve already entered the market, every couple weeks we’re also hearing about another “breakthrough innovation” that claims it will soon render existing equipment obsolete.  Many of these innovations are currently still in development, but HP, Carbon3D, and Gizmo3D have all offered compelling prototype videos to announce technologies that may massively accelerate the speed of printing, especially in plastics.

Now, it remains to be seen whether any company’s innovation renders your printer obsolete in the truest sense of the word.  Printers will continue printing as long as the manufacturer continues providing technical support, and probably a good while longer depending on the model.  Consider the implications of this for you and your business.  If a printer with markedly faster speed, accuracy, material breadth, or build size hit the market, would you need it, or could you keep getting by with this investment without being put at a competitive disadvantage?  If you would want or need that new printer, how quickly do you need to recoup your investment vs. utilizing a service provider during that time?

Make sure that you’re going to be comfortable with your purchase when the “next big thing” hits the market.

Consider Alternatives

So you’ve considered cost, printer options, and obsolescence risks.  And now you have a plan reflecting the fixed and variable costs of your investment, a few target printers in the right range, an estimate of the time/resources required to staff the printer(s), and a degree of comfort with the state of that machine on the obsolescence curve.

If you didn’t hit any snags along the way, you’ve got yourself a viable option.  You could call it the Buy Then Build Option.

But is it necessarily the right option?  Better take a second to consider alternatives.  You could do some core printing in-house and outsource the rest.  Or you could outsource all of it as you wait for the market to mature.

An exploration of the “Hybrid” and “Buy Everything Built” options will appear in our next posts.


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, the Sourcing Solution for Industrial Grade Rapid Manufacturing. He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting. For more information about 3D Printing and to access 3Diligent’s marketplace of 3D Printing vendors, visit