“How much is a 3D printer?” you ask. Well, the answer is that the price range you should expect to land in depends on what you want your 3D printer for -- which in turn determines how it works, and which of the different types of 3D printers are potential matches.
If you are a home hobbyist with low-end requirements in terms of object size, colors, materials, resolution (level of detail), printing speed and other features, you might be satisfied with a printer in the $200-$1,000 range.
But for schools, libraries, maker labs, product design groups, and companies making parts and products, be ready to invest more -- anywhere from a few thousand dollars to well over a million.
Here's a quick sense of how much a 3D printer costs, grouped into three categories based on use and price:
- Desktop & Office Friendly 3D Printers, for students/classrooms, makerspaces, etc., for smallish, low-end pieces ($2,000 to $25,000)
- Office-environment printers, for product design and prototyping and short production runs ($5,000-$400,000+)
- Industrial printers, for larger pieces and mass production runs. ($350,000 to millions).
Note: Costs of printers here are estimations. Now, let’s get into the details below.
Desktop and Office Friendly 3D Printers
Perfect for hobbyist, students/classrooms and makerspaces
These 3D printers run off wall current in your home or office, and should not require special cooling or ventilation. While you can find desktop 3D printers starting around $100, these will be very limited in build size, speed, and capability.
If you are planning to support a group of on-going users (students, library or maker-space patrons), plan to spend more; anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 or $15,000.
Jesse Roitenberg, Americas Education Manager at Stratasys says that the key features to look for in a desktop 3D printer, include:
- Enclosed chamber, particulate filter -- for safety
- Heated, flexible buildplate, for easy removal of finished objects
- Uses non-toxic materials
- Low-noise operation.
Here's some representative 3D printers in this category:
- Makerbot Sketch Classroom: This includes two printers that use PLA -- plus access to interactive content, lesson plans, quizzes, exams and more. Good for in-classroom printing. Price starting at $1,999.
- MakerBot Replicator+: This uses PLA and TOUGH materials. Classroom-safe materials, flexible buildplate. Good for product designers, engineers, serious hobbyists. Price starting at $1,999.
Advanced Use Cases
If your proposed 3D printer is intended for engineering students, industrial designers, and the like, you'll want additional features such as:
- More materials choices
- More flexibility
- Larger build size
- Faster print speed
For example, MakerBot's METHOD series includes models that print with carbon-fiber-reinforced nylon that's optimized for heat resistance and high strength, allowing users to print strong, accurate metal parts, suitable for manufacturing tools, jigs and fixtures, replacement parts, for end-use production. Pricing starts around $5,000.
Moving up in price to the $10,000-$25,00 range gets you 3D printers suitable for larger classrooms and numbers of students, and for in-house labs. "These can do prototyping, concept models, and more," says Tony Castillo, Senior Sales Development Rep at Stratasys.
For example, the Stratasys F120 desktop 3D printer can use true thermoplastic materials like ABS and ASA.
Design 3D Printers for Prototyping and Innovators
These 3D printers are intended for printing out product designs and prototypes; although some can work with high-strength materials and make usable parts.
Roitenberg suggests that the design and prototyping 3D printer features to look for include:
- Build volume for extra-large and very tall prototypes and concept models
- Fast print speed, so you can iterate through model changes more quickly
- Multiple colors and textures, for full CMF (Color, Materials, Finish) capability -- you can get as close to the look and feel of the final object
- Can print with harder materials for a usable prototype.
"The Stratasys J55 can jet up to five materials at once, for a range of hundreds of thousands of colors,” explains Roitenberg. “It can simulate clear rigid materials, and textures like wood grain, granite and stone," according to Roitenberg.
The Stratasys J55 is a part of the Stratasys' PolyJet series, which uses curable liquid photopolymer resin materials. Pricing for the Stratasys J55 starts around $99,000.
"This lets designers 3D print smooth, detailed prototypes that convey final-product aesthetics, as well as make accurate molds, jigs, fixtures and other manufacturing tools," Roitenberg adds.
Going up in Stratasys' PolyJet family, the Stratasys J850, can load and print with seven materials concurrently -- including rubber-like ones as well as rigid -- and has a much bigger build volume than the J55.
If you need metal prototypes and one-off parts, Stratasys partner Desktop Metal's Studio System is office-friendly, with turnkey pricing beginning around $200,000.
Industrial 3D Printers
Industrial 3D printers are for high-end engineering requirements like:
- Bigger build volume for larger part size or quantity batches of smaller parts. (You can fill a 36-inch-square volume with a lot of small parts.)
- Using higher-end materials with better durability, heat and chemical resistance, etc. needed for functional engineering-grade end-use parts. (These high-performance plastic materials may be suitable replacements for metal, in some cases -- and faster and less expensive to make.)
- High-volume mass production runs of thousands-to-millions of copies.
Here's some representative industrial 3D printers reflecting different requirements:
- For high-detail plastic-resin parts, Stratasys PolyJet J850
- For functional prototypes and functional parts, like jigs and fixtures, look to large-build-volume systems using large-scale FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling, aka FFF, fused filament fabrication (FFF), like the Stratasys Fortus F900 .
- For scalable, continuous production, automated 3D printers like Stratasys' Continuous Build 3D printer and Continuous Build Demonstrator .
- For metal 3D printing, Desktop Metal offers its Shop System for batch production of fully-dense customer-ready metal parts; and for high-speed mass production of fully-sintered metal parts, its factory-floor-oriented Production System. (Desktop Metal's Production System prices are based on each customer's specific configuration. According to the company, you can expect to invest more than $1 million for full configuration of the Production System.)
Advice on Buying a 3D Printer for Your Needs
3D printing is not an "I'm going to buy one and build things," says Stratasys' Tony Castillo. "You need to know what I'm building before you buy the printer. So most of my conversations revolve around understanding the customer's intended application. That answer identifies the material, and the material identifies the appropriate printing technology. From there, parts size and quantity narrows down which printer best fits that requirement."
Lastly, "Don't feel you have to be able to accommodate all requests," Jesse Roitenberg notes. "For bigger parts, you can go to a service bureau -- or also employ other manufacturing methods like bonding, drilling, and assembling."
Saving Money with the Printers You Have
If you find that you have what you need from a printer standpoint but still need ways to save on spending, its also worth looking towards things like work order management software! Such solution can aid in the monitoring of not just the printers but all assets of your entire model shop or service bureau as a whole.