So you have something which you would like to print but you’re afraid of the cost. Before we can estimate the price, we’ll have to decide which printing technology is the best fit for your project.
Binder Jetting (Sandstone)
Binder Jetting is the print method in which an inkjet head selectively deposits a liquid binder to a thin layer of sandstone powder. The layers are stacked up one-by-one until the 3D print is complete.
These prints are inexpensive but brittle. A small print will cost about $15.
SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)
SLS prints are made from a nylon powder which is sintered together by a laser. The nylon gives them some advantages with durability and flexibility but the finish may need post processing. Layer thickness is typically .004 inches (0.10 mm).
A small print will cost about $20.
FDM (Fused Disposition Modeling)
These 3D printers heat and dispense a single string of plastic. The dispensing head moves around to construct each layer. The layers are typically .005 to .013 inches (0.13 to 0.33 mm) thick. ABS plastic is a common material on most printers of this type so the prints are durable. To support overhanging geometry, higher-end printers use a special dissolvable material while lower-end printers incorporate temporary scaffolding.
FDM is ideal for parts which are medium to large and not overly detailed (no threads or intricate internal features). A small print will cost about $50.
SLA machines create prints by curing special resin with a UV light. The layers are typically .002 to .006 inches (0.05 to 0.15 mm) thick. One disadvantage to this method is that sunlight can break down the resin and cause them to become brittle.
SLA is ideal for parts which are intricately detailed, or need to be clear. A small print will cost about $50.
Polyjet is a newer print method in which a print head, with multiple ports, dispenses layers of special photopolymer. This method offers the widest selection of materials, a smooth finish, vibrant colors, and incredible accuracy. Layer thickness is typically .0006 to .004 inches (0.016 to 0.100 mm)! These printers can even print a rubber like material.
PolyJet is the most impressive print method out today. A small print will cost about $50.
SLM (Selective Laser Melting)
SLM works the same way as SLS but the powder is metal. Obviously, you should choose this method if you need a metal 3D print. Prints are usually stainless but can be aluminum or titanium. Some vendors offer plating.
A small print will cost about $100.
Where to Buy
Now that you have a better idea of which method is best for you, it’s time to start shopping.
Ponoko, Shapeways, I.Materialize, and Sculpteo are all examples of online 3D print providers. They offer instant quotes, vast material selections, and quick deliveries. I’m not going to get into which is the best because they all have great reputations. It really comes down to what print method and material you need.
Local Print Providers
You might be surprised to find out how many rapid prototyping facilities are in your area. They will have the highest quality machines as well as the work force to help with design work should you need it. Expect to pay more for this premium service.
Makerspaces & Libraries
As the maker movement continues to grow, makerspaces are popping up all over the world. Find a local makerspace and consider becoming a member. You can start with this directory.
My local library started their own mini-makerspace. They allow you to use their FDM printer at $.05 per gram. Most 3D prints end up costing less than $5! You have to provide models but that’s not a problem if you learn how to use CAD.