Printing Big: An Introduction to Large-Format 3D Printing
Want to print an big item? Learn what large-format 3D printing is, which industries use it, and how huge 3D printers can benefit your manufacturing business!
Large-format 3D printing is one of the fastest-developing sectors in the additive manufacturing industry. Advancements in technology and manufacturing practices are rapidly enhancing the cost-effectiveness of large-format printing across industries.
There’s good reason businesses and organisations are embracing large 3D printing. Not only does it enable them to produce huge parts quickly, but it also enables large-batch printing of smaller components and much more.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the basics of large-format printing, how it works, and what benefits it can bring to your business.
What Is Large-Format 3D Printing?
Perhaps the most difficult question to answer about large 3D printing is what it is. There is no defined general standard for what kind of 3D printers count as “large-format.”
In the vaguest sense, large-format additive manufacturing involves printing significantly larger objects or parts than with “standard” 3D printers. This description doesn’t really tell us a whole lot.
In more practical terms, a 3D printer that can produce parts of 300 mm in one dimension often gets called a “large-format” printer. Although there are plenty of machines that produce significantly larger prints on the market, we can use 300 mm as the cutting-off point for our definition.
Types of Large-Format 3D Printing
Virtually any 3D printing technology can be used to create large 3D prints. However, the practicalities of physics or economics limit how far some technologies can be scaled, at least for the time being.
Some of the most common large-format 3D printing technologies include:
Fused filament fabrication (FFF) is the most common 3D printing technology, and the situation is the same with large-format printing. FFF is cost-effective when scaled to large-format dimensions and the technology supports materials that perform well in large sizes, such as PLA, PETG, and high-temperature thermoplastics.
FDM 3D printers can expand to truly huge sizes. BigRep One, for example, can produce parts up to 1,005 mm in any dimension.
Resin-based stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing doesn’t support part sizes as large as FFF, but many machines still break the 300 mm barrier, at least in one dimension. SLA’s most significant strength is its high detail quality, making it a good choice for rapidly producing accurate large-scale prototypes and end-use parts.
Formlabs Form 3L is an example of an SLA printer that can produce much larger components than standard SLA machines.
Selective laser sintering (SLS) is another popular technology for creating large-format prints. This technology requires no support structures and can match injection moulding in strength and accuracy, which makes it a good candidate for producing large parts for demanding industrial applications.
Even compact SLS printers, such as Formlabs Fuse 1, can break the afore mentioned 300 mm line for large-format printing.
What Are the Benefits of Large-Format 3D Printing?
Large-format 3D printing use machines such as BigRep offers significant benefits over traditional manufacturing methods, whether machining or injection moulding. Here are 7 of the most important benefits large-format additive manufacturing offers.
- Faster Product Development: Large-format 3D printers can produce accurate, full-sized prototypes of large products and components in as little as a few hours. This enables faster design iteration and can significantly reduce the time-to-market for new products.
- Cost-Savings: Producing large parts through traditional methods can be prohibitively expensive either due to outsourcing, material, or assembly costs. 3D printing offers a more cost-effective solution to producing one-off or small-volume parts in large sizes by reducing material waster and bringing production in-house.
- Streamlined Supply Chains: Shipping large parts from third-party producers to your company can be slow and costly. Running your own large-format 3D printer eliminates the need for shipping, which can shorten your lead times, save money on shipping costs, and streamline your workflows.
- Increased Design Freedom: 3D printers can produce geometries impossible to create through traditional manufacturing, such as latticed structures, overhangs, or interlocking parts. Large-format 3D printers bring additive manufacturing’s design flexibility to large components.
- Enhanced Part Properties: 3D printing enables techniques such as light weighting, part consolidation, and topography optimisation for large parts. As a result, manufacturers may be able to improve the mechanical and structural performance of their products.
- Batch Production: Large-format 3D printers don’t necessarily have to produce single large prints. Filling the huge print chamber with multiple smaller parts is possible, enabling small-scale in-house batch production, which can open new business opportunities.
- Customisation: Before manufacturing, 3D printable parts exist as easily modifiable 3D and CAD files. Manufacturers can offer their clients customisable large-scale products, parts, and components, which can help them expand their businesses.
Which Industries Use Large-Format 3D Printers?
Although large-format 3D printing (and indeed all other additive manufacturing technologies) is still developing rapidly, multiple industries are actively utilising it. Here are a few examples of how large 3D printers are used across the industrial landscape.
In the automotive industry, large 3D printers allow manufacturers to print customisable life-sized prototypes and even end-use parts, such as body panels and bumpers. Large-format printers also support traditional manufacturing techniques by producing jigs, fixtures, and other components.
3D printing also enables automotive manufacturers to explore new possibilities. For example, BigRep’s innovation team developed the first fully 3D-printed motorcycle.
Aerospace manufacturing greatly benefits from large 3D printing and its ability to produce lighter, topologically optimised components that can improve part performance while lowering weight. Like in the automotive industry, large 3D printers create everything from jigs and fixtures to cabin panels and even advanced engine components.
The energy sector stands to benefit from large-format 3D printing’s ability to produce large parts on-site at remote installations. There are many interesting research and development projects in this sector as well. The University of Maine, for example, is working to 3D print moulds for producing full-sized wind turbine blades.
Large 3D printers can create complex, striking, and easily customisable pieces for advertising companies from materials that can withstand long-term deployment outdoors. Some options in this sector include 3D printing giant replicas of small products or lettering for business building facades.
Large-format 3D printing is used to create props and stage pieces for theatre plays, musical shows, and both indie and Hollywood movies. The machines allow artists and sculptors to quickly and affordably create installation pieces that feature more complex geometries than traditional or manual production methods would allow.
Architects are using large-scale 3D printers to produce big, accurate demonstration models of planned buildings and construction projects. Construction companies themselves can print, for example, panelling for building facades from durable, weather-resistant materials. An emerging application in construction is 3D printing large-scale moulds for concrete pouring.
Furniture designers can print large prototypes and even use-ready pieces of furniture, from chairs to decorations. Large-format 3D printers also allow furniture manufacturers to offer customisable products for discerning customers.
Large-format 3D printing technology is advancing quickly. Not only do these advancements result in higher-quality and ever-larger prints, but they’re also making large-format printers more accessible.
BigRep is an example of a leading manufacturer of large 3D printers. Founded in 2014, the award-winning company is dedicated to making large 3D printing as affordable and simple as possible.
The firm launched the BigRep One 3D printer the same year it was founded and has developed it continuously ever since. Currently in its third generation, BigRep One offers one of the lowest price-to-volume ratios on the market. The machine can rapidly produce parts one cubic metre in volume.
BigRep Pro, launched in 2018, represents a more industrially-oriented machine. Capable of handling engineering-grade materials, such as carbon fibre-reinforced filaments, this large-format printer can manufacture functional prototypes, tooling, or end-use parts for demanding industrial applications.
Large-format printing has much to offer to practically any industry — no matter how large the end products are. With constant development efforts from manufacturers and researchers alike, we can only imagine how large 3D printing can grow in the future.
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