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Buying a New 3D Printer? Two Publications Can Be Your Guide

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media
The “2017 3D Printer Guide” from 3D Hubs includes an industrial category for the first time. The top industrial printer is the EOS P 396. Image courtesy EOS.

If a new 3D printer is on your shopping list for 2017, you may find two recent publications quite interesting. One is an academic paper, the first to comprehensively evaluate bioprinters. The other is a third annual guide to printers that, for the first time, includes industrial technology.

In “Evaluation of Bioprinter Technologies,” published in the January edition of the Additive Manufacturing journal, Ibrahim Tarik Ozbolat and doctoral students Kazim K. Moncal and Hemanth Gudapati discuss the limitations of current bioprinter technologies as well as the future prospects of bioprinters, and offer a brief history of bioprinting. They trace its origin to the late 1980s, when a Texas biology professor patented an “apparatus for the precise positioning of cells.”

“This will be a unique source for researchers from academia and engineers/technical experts from industry in a sense that they can refer to the article before they make a decision to acquire a bioprinter,” said lead author Ozbolat, who continues his 10-year-old bioprinting career at The Pennsylvania State University, where he is associate professor of engineering. “The article classifies the bioprinters according to three major working mechanisms and then evaluates different bioprinters from various manufacturers.”

Those major working mechanisms include extrusion (17 printers reviewed), droplet (33 printers reviewed) and laser-based (eight printers reviewed) technologies. Each printer is evaluated on 10 factors: freedom in motion; resolution and accuracy; speed of motion; simultaneous bioink dispensation; ease of use; size; ease of sterilization; degree of automation; versatility; and affordability.

The authors also compare bioprinters assembled in-house vs. commercially available printers.

“Overall, in-house assembled bioprinters using commercially available components are economical and offer greater freedom; however, their design is time consuming at times and requires specialized skills and knowledge in the areas of electrical and computer engineering, pertaining to system integration,” they wrote.

Conversely, commercially available, complete bioprinting systems have well-integrated subsystems and save the user development time. However, they’re pricey and customization may be limited.

Other limitations of commercially available bioprinters include their limited variety; cartridge and nozzle design; printer size and speed; limited motion capabilities; lack of full automation; low process resolution; and lack of compatible bioink materials.

“Such issues need to be addressed in order to make bioprinting a robust and affordable option for functional tissue fabrication and future clinical applications,” the authors wrote.

3rd Guide from Airbnb of 3D Printing

The printer-for-hire site 3D Hubs – with 7,300 online printing services in 150+ countries in its network – also has a guide to printers, but this technology prints plastics and other non-biologic materials.

The Amsterdam-based Hubs touts its “2017 3D Printer Guide” as the most comprehensive such guide available. This crowd-sourced publication is based on more than 8,624 verified 3D printer owners’ reviews, coupled with 1.14 million prints made on 513 different models.

“Together with our community, we investigated the following parameters to help measure the user experience of a range of 3D printers: print quality, build quality, reliability, ease of use, print failure rate, customer service, community, running cost, software, and value,” Hubs wrote on its web site.

This figure depicts a representative bioprinting system along with its components. Image courtesy Ibrahim Tarik Ozbolat.

Repeated requests for an interview went unanswered.

The site breaks down printers into five categories: Prosumer, Workhorse, Plug ‘n’ Play, Budget, and SLS (selective laser sintering).

As in previous yearly guides, the 2017 edition details the machines’ print quality and speed, reliability, ease of use, support and cost (of the printer itself and of its operation). Each entry also includes nuts-and-bolts details like the maximum build area, minimum layer height and material(s) the machine can use. Really helpful is the guide’s inclusion of every review 3D Hubs has received on the printer.

“In total, 14 models made it on our Top 3D Printers list for 2017, and each of these printers has an average of 50 in-depth reviews from experienced 3D printer owners that contributed to their standing on this list,” Hubs wrote.

The top industrial printer is the EOS P 396.

3D Hubs also collects and uses data from the print orders it facilitates every month and turns it into a monthly trends report.

If a new printer is on your shopping list in 2017, either or both of these guides may help you decide on which make and model is best for your application.

Note to readers: The hotlink to the Ozbolat paper offers free access only until Feb. 10, 2017.

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