It has been in the making for almost four years, since the original patent expired in February 2014, now the time seems to have arrived for low-cost SLS systems to take over the benchtop and the prosumer 3D printing market. Four years seems to be the necessary time period to bring a new technology to market: it took about this long to HP for its multijet fusion and for low cost filament extrusion (FFF) to go from a few scattered maker’s projects to a young industry.
The transition seems to be occurring in a way that is similar to how laser 2D printer took over the professional market offering higher speeds and lower costs. The advantages that SLS 3D printers can offer over extrusion and photopolymerization 3D printers, however, are more centered on complete geometric freedom while working with nylon and nylon-chopped fiber composites, which can be considered durable end-use materials. In terms of speed and production the real advantage is that SLS offers the possibility to print stacked parts without requiring supports.
Four is also the number of major players that will be initially fighting for market dominance in this blooming segment, each with their own different business model and approach. These include Polish company Sinterit, Swiss company Sintratec, Italian company Sharebot and US-based Formlabs.
Sinterit appears to be the farthest ahead at this time as their SLS system, the Sinterit Lisa, has been on the market for quite some time and has continuously been improved. Founded in Krakow, Poland, by Konrad Glowaki, in 2014, Sinterit’s mission has always been to build a professional and affordable SLS 3D printer in SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) technology.
Its Lisa 3D printer can 3D print in nylon (PA12) and in flexaBlack (fexible) materials. The maximum build size for nylon is 90 x 110 x 130 mm while it goes up to 110 x 130 x 150 for flexa. Prices are very competitive and start at around $12,500, depending on which offers are running and include a free powder sieve for a full end-to-end solution. Over these past few years Sinterit has build a distribution network and made significant improvement’s to Lisa’ repeatability and reliability.
Switzerland’s Sintratec was also founded in 2014. The company specialized in the development, production and distribution of desktop laser sintering 3D printers. After a successfully completed crowdfunding campaign in 2014 the first Sintratec Kit was financed within a month. The company still offers its 3D printer as kit for €4,999 and also as a benchtop ready system, the Sintratec S1.
Sintratec can also leverage the support from EOS, the market leader for industrial grade SLS systems, which has invested in the company thorugh its venture capital division AM Ventures. EOS is using the Sintratec S1 as part of its Academia Program to expand and promote research on powder 3D printing.
The Sintratec S1 uses a high precision diode laser and runs on standard 230V power connection. Build volume is 130 x 130 x 180 mm. The primary print material is a high performance industrial grade polyamide (Nylon). It allows to print strong, temperature resistant, precise and durable work pieces. The printed parts can be used for functional prototypes in mechanically demanding applications and end products.
Sharebot was, together with WASP, the first company to build a serious low-cost 3D printer in Italy. After its first extrusion systems the company went on to develop DLP, SLA and one of the very first benchtop SLS systems, the SnowWhite, in 2014. Sharebot refers to its technology as DLS (Direct Laser Sintering).
SnowWhite has been installed in a number of universities and R&D deparments worldwide. It uses a 2.200 mm/s CO2 laser which allows printing speed of 35 mm/h. Supported materials include different thermoplastic powders like PA12 or PA11: all the printing setting can be set and modified through the touch screen display, where the printer also shows the parameters during the printing process.
With a build volume of 100 x 100 x 100 mm, it is meant to be the ideal laboratory tool to test new powders because it can start working with just 300g of material; the company says it is also possibile to recover all unused powders. The machine can start printing in just few minutes and it has a low energy consumption while the powder doesn’t suffer any thermal stresses.
The Fuse 1 is the last benchtop system to arrive on the market (it is expected to launch at the end of 2017) but it is the one that has definitively set the market off. The Fuse 1 will be able to leverage the strength of Formlabs, a company which has almost single handedly build the market for low-cost benchtop SLA systems (with its Form 1 and Form 2 series) and is now dominating it.
Formlabs intends to market its first SLS 3D printer starting at $12,900. The system, intended to enable production of stacked end-use parts and components in nylon (PA11 and PA12), has a build volume of 165 x 165 x 320 mm. It also features a removable build chamber which enables continuous printing and reduces downtime. Formlabs says that it is possible to print with up to 50% recycled powder.
The time for low-cost SLS on the benchtop is upon us and it is likely to be one of the main themes that will offer us headlines for the 2017/2018 3D printing business season.