(Last updated 25 May 16)
(This article is one of my series of Frequently Asked Questions posts. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)
This list came from an increasing number of people who came to me wanting to know which 3D printers and machines were the best ones to consider for the purposes of setting up their own businesses or getting their pieces made via outsourcing. After some searching on the internet, I noticed nobody had really tried to make a list of all the options for rapid prototyping for jewellery.
Since the 3D printing capabilities we need for jewellery are generally much higher resolution than most other forms of product design, I reckoned I should make a list of available state-of-the-art rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing systems just for jewellers, and clarify how rapid prototyping fits in with jewellery casting and manufacturing.
But before I talk about the various rapid prototyping machines used for jewellery, I reckon I should answer a couple of key questions first:
- The difference between Rapid Prototyping, Rapid Manufacturing, and 3D printing
- How Much do rapid prototyping machines cost?
- Industrial 3D Printers Suitable for Jewellery
- Metal Laser Sintering 3D (MLS) Printers Suitable for Jewellery
- CNC Milling Machines Suitable for Jewellery
- Small Home 3D Printers Suitable for Jewellery
- What about Hobbyist 3D printers or plastic 3D printers? (3Dhubs 3D Printing Trends List)
Before We Start
If you’d like to know how lost wax casting works, and the difference between the terms Rapid Prototyping and 3D printing, go to my Frequently Asked Questions page introducing 3D printing for jewellery making.
What is the Difference Between Rapid Prototyping, Rapid Manufacturing, and 3D Printing?
These terms are often thrown around quite a lot, sometimes interchangeably, but there are some very specific differences, and for the sake of helping people avoid confusion, we should clarify this before we begin:
Rapid Prototyping is the original term for the concept of taking an object out of 3D CAD space and using CAM to create the same exact object to scale in the real world. The goal of rapid prototyping is WSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), to allow designers to get an idea of how they would fit or feel in the real world. Most of the FDM plastic printers and 3D printing machines used be product designers fall into this category, as do the 3D printers which make waxes for casting.
The difference between Rapid Prototyping and Rapid Manufacturing is mainly the type of material being used, and the ultimate purpose of the object being created from CAD. With Rapid Prototyping, the material used only has to be suitable for giving designers the look and feel of the object (hence the term prototype). For manufacturing, however, the CAM-created object is the final goal in and of itself. Often the rapid manufactured item is intended for use or for sale as is, with little or even no post-production work. MLS metal sintering machines and CNC milling machines fall into this category, but sometimes high resolution nylon or rubber 3D printers or CNC textile weaving machines are included here as well.
Of these Rapid Manufacturing can be further divided down into Additive Manufacturing (such as 3D Printing) and Subtractive Manufacturing (such as CNC Milling). Those terms are a bit more self-explanatory, as it’s based around whether the part is being built up from nothing or it is being carved out of a solid block of material.
3D Printing is a specific type of Rapid Prototyping or Rapid Manufacturing machine. While the term is often used as a blanket term for all of the above, it should be the other way around, as 3D Printing refers to one of several specific types of processes which are used in rapid prototyping.
As it happens, Ron Stecher from Stratasys gave a talk a couple years ago where he clarified the difference between 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing.
How Much Do These Rapid Prototyping Machines Cost?
This is the one sticking point on working with industrial rapid prototyping machines. Unlike cheaper FDM home 3D printers (which seem to vary in cost between £250 to £2000), the entry level cost for these machines is around the £22,000 mark (for both printer and setup, but not including materials and consumables), but can easily go up to £150,000 or more for the metal sintering machines. As you can see, these things are not casual hobby machines, but rather intended to be the core work horses of a business.
As with any heavy industrial equipment, they won’t list the prices on their websites, you will have to approach them directly to get the prices.
Available Industrial 3D Printers Suitable For Jewellery
3DSystems are one of the biggest industrial 3D printing developers, providing many different types of machines for many different purposes. For quite some time, they’ve had 3D printers available which can produce parts suitable for the cold moulding process.
The Viper SLA printer has been a mainstay of jewellery mass production for many years, particularly in India. The Viper resin printer focuses on making parts which are used directly as master models for creating cold cure moulds for producing wax copies. This machine is since been replaced by the ProJet 6000 HD.
More recently 3DSystems have developed their own printers for direct casting, based on a specially formulated plastic designed for clean burnout in casting and high detail. Specifically, the ProJet 1200 and 3510 series (particularly the ProJet 3510 CPX) are their direct to casting rapid prototyping machines. These machines now operate using what they call Micro-SLA technology.
Generally with 3DSystems, the larger the number, the larger the build platform and printing capacity. The Project 1200 can print about 1 large ring, whereas the 3510 can print several items at once. Not many people seem to be using them yet, as they are relatively new to the market, but the quality of the parts coming off the machine seems to be excellent, and they seem to cast rather well.
A long time competitor of Solidscape, EnvisionTec specialise in resin SLA resin printers. They offer three levels of machine which are capable of printing jewellery quality parts: Perfactory Micro, Perfactory Desktop, and Perfactory Standard. (There is a fourth category, the Ultra 3SP, but I haven’t heard of it being used for jewellery yet.) Unlike most of the other direct to casting rapid prototyping machines on this list, the envisiontec uses a very different 3D printing process, based on firing a laser at a build plate repeatedly dipped upside down into a resin bath.
The big advantage of this process seems to be the surface finish. Envisiontec has always boasted one of the cleanest surface resolutions of any machine on the market. However, with the process has come two weaknesses: the first has been that the building process requires attaching a complex tree system to the bottom of the object, much like casting sprus but smaller and more numerous. These have to be removed before the part can be used. The other disadvantage has been one of getting the formula right for clean burnout. Up until recently, if pieces were made too thick, burnout would prove a tricky proposition. However, the newest generation of resin on the machine has almost completely eliminated this issue.
Another solution to the problem has been to simply switch to an alternative resin designed for rubber moulding, and make rubber moulds (a bit like the Viper, only less expensive to own and run).
Solidscape were the first 3D printing developer to release a printer which produced castable wax components, and have concentrated all their energy into making wax based 3D printers work.
Previously their Solidscape R-66, T-66, and T-76 machines spread all over the world becoming one of the most common jewellers printers. Their latest generation of machines is the Soliscape MAX2. The biggest difference between the two units is mainly build plate size and cost. The process is based on laying down layer after razor thin layer of two different types of wax on a foam build plate. One wax is the actual final piece, while the other is a red support wax. The support wax has a lower melting point, allowing it to be washed away leaving the final piece.
Due to the material used, their machines have had a longstanding reputation of being some of the easiest parts to cast on the market. As they have been long established, they also have one of the widest user bases for their machines.
Available Metal Laser Sintering (MLS) Printers Suitable For Jewellery
It’s actually very fresh news indeed that metal sintering machines are capable of working at the detail levels required for jewellery. We only saw the first metal printing service bureau for jewellery in the UK in January 2013. Since then, I’ve heard of two different types of machines currently being used for metal sintering. Since both of these printers are so new to the market (they were only unveiled in the beginning of 2013), and they’re more expensive than the other types or rapid manufacturing machines, we’re only starting to see preliminary tests now on how they fare with production in the general commercial marketplace, but it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing these machines more frequently.
EOS is another one of the biggest names in industrial 3D printing (up there with Stratasys and ZCorp). They’ve been experimenting with making metal sintering work for years. About a year ago, they teamed up with Cookson Gold Ltd. In Birmingham UK to develop a 3D metal sintering machine called the EOS Precious M 080.
As of this article’s last update they’re able to run production jobs for 18 carat yellow gold, 18 carat white gold, platinum, and silver.
At the same time, ES Technology have been developing their own 3D metal sintering machine called the Mlab Laser Cusing machine (the term laser cusing being a combination of the C from Concept Laser and Fusing).
As of this article’s last update they’re able to run production jobs for 18 carat yellow gold, silver and bronze.
Available CNC Milling Machines Suitable For Jewellery
Rather than based on 3D printing technology, milling machines are based on the older CNC milling technology. They start out with a solid block and carve out unwanted material with precision cutting bits, leaving the final part. While the technology is limited in terms of where the cutting bits can reach, the machines are often faster than 3D printers and consistently produce parts with a better surface finish.
Regarding which CNC mills are best suited for jewellery, I will publish a later article providing an updated list of the current state-of-the-art CNC milling machines.
Home 3D Printers Suitable for Jewellery
One big area of innovation in recent years has been the proliferation of affordable 3D printing machines. Indeed, it seems like an entirely new machine appears in the marketplace every few months, claiming all sorts of things.
While most of the smaller machines aren’t quite equipped for working at the detail required for jewellery, there is a growing number of machines which are just about up to the quality standards we require to produce professional quality fine jewellery.
The following is a list of 3D printers currently available as of this printing for under £10,000, in alphabetical order. By this price standard, we can also include two printers mentioned above (the Envisiontec Mini and the Projet 1200) on this list. But the lowest cost of these machines can run as low as £1400:
Asiga Freeform Series
A newcomer to the market doing quite well after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the B9 Creator boasts being one of the cheapest 3D SLA printers on the market capable of delivering jewellery quality 3D printed models for casting.
In 2014, Autodesk decided to weigh in with their own 3D printing solution called the Ember resin 3D printer. It’s developed for small castable component work, particularly jewellery. It also features several different colours of resin you can use or mix to set the colour of the 3D printed material as you wish. With a host of excellent improvements in the newest updates recently released for the Ember 3D printer, it makes for a solid choice in the affordable 3D printer market.
(A big thank you to Jennifer Gentrup of Autodesk for the helpful information and links!)
Since I first wrote this article, two readers wrote in and gave suggestions for additional 3D printers for the list. At the time (Aug 2014), they were brand new to the market and had not been tested for producing castable resins. A year on, however, and they both now offer a fully supported castable resin option detailed enough for jewellery.
The first is from Formlabs. The Formlabs 1+ SLA stereolithography printer is a very inexpensive and well-detailed low-cost desktop machine. As of a few months ago they started offering through their site jewellery-quality castable resin.
(Thank you, Harish R!)
Reify Solus DLP 3D Printer
This is the other reader-submitted option (thank you, MongerDesigns!). The Reify Solus DLP 3D Printer is an interesting study in finding the most economical ways and components with which to build a 3D printer. It’s technology is based on DLP (a variant of SLA), which is part of what makes the machine’s cost so reasonable.
What makes it such an interesting option is that it offers some very good performance (and detail) for a very low price.
What About Hobbyist 3D Printers or Plastic 3D Printers?
If you do want to know about the lower end home hobbyist printers, Netherlands-based 3D printing network 3D Hubs maintains a monthly review-based rating board with a list of some of the most popular 3D printers used for product design and hobbyist use. Rather than try to keep up to date on the rapidly changing list of available 3D printers, this serves as a useful alternative for staying current. It is also a great resource for those wanting to know more about what is happening within the 3D printing industry as it relates to general product design. (click on the image for the link).
This list was brought to my attention by 3ders.org. (Thank you, gentlemen.)
The problem with many of these machines is they are trying to make as affordable a machine as possible, so finding a machine which is consistently reliable and which can deliver suitably high quality resolution for jewellery purposes has thus far proven quite a challenge.
As rapid manufacturing is a very active field for research and development, this list of rapid prototyping machines may change quite frequently.
Also, please note this list is intended as an introduction to the machines, to give newcomers an idea of how they work and what is currently being used by industry. While I’ve had successes with using all of these, and can verify they all work well for jewellery manufacturing, I’m not specifically advocating any one machine over the others. I would always advise people do their own comparative shopping or test out the various machines by using them through a 3D printing service bureau before committing to making any investment as big as this.
UPDATE: It seems the MJSA’s CAD/CAM Archive section already has their own comparative list of 3D printers. I’m sure it’s excellent (as their articles always are). However, it seems to be locked away behind their “members only” pay wall, so the world will never know. I guess it’s a good thing I made this list.