How 3-D Printing Works

Costs of 3-D Printing

Historically, 3-D printing has been an expensive technology. PTCAM's SLA, described earlier in the article, cost in excess of $250,000; the liquid plastic cost about $800 per gallon. Organizations that owned this type of equipment might sell stereolithography services to others or allow companies to purchase blocks of time to use the equipment.

Today, many large industrial AM machines are still pricey, though less so than before. For example, in February 2011, 3D Systems' ProJet CPX 3000was selling for $79,999 and it could produce highly-detailed models up to 11.75 inches by 7.3 inches by 8 inches (298 millimeters by 185 millimeters by 203 millimeters) [sources: Rapid Direction, "ProJet", 3D Systems, "ProJet"]. That price doesn't include the required VisiJet CPX200 Wax Build Material, which costs $975 for a 4-cartridge case [source: Rapid Direction, "VisiJet"].

Dimension 3-D printers from Stratasys, Inc., demonstrate how 3-D printing can be even less expensive. The Dimension Elite printer, for example, can create production-grade plastic models up to 8 inches by 8 inches by 12 inches (203 millimeters by 203 millimeters by 305 millimeters) starting at $29,900 [source: Stratasys, "Elite"]. In addition, the ABS Plus plastic printing material, required for use in the Dimension Elite, comes in nine different colors and can be used even in Stratasys' desktop-sized uPrint printers, priced from $14,900 [source: Stratasys, "uPrint"].

Not only is 3-D printing getting cheaper within its own category, it's also a more cost-effective way to produce products previously made using other technologies. For example, Solidscape targets dental labs for some of its small 3-D printers [source: Solidscape]. These models cost $30,000 to $60,000, and build and support materials cost a few hundred dollars more [source: Esslinger]. These and other types of 3-D printers can craft molds for crowns, bridges and dentures faster and with greater accuracy than older methods, increasing a dental lab's productivity [source:].