When it comes to extrusion 3D printing, the market is currently experiencing an interesting evolution in which the niche between hobbyist 3D printers and more expensive, industrial-grade machines is starting to be filled by a new breed of more affordable, high-quality printers.

The A2 and A4 3D printers from 3ntr and Plural AM. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

The A2 and A4 3D printers from 3ntr and Plural AM. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

For instance, 3ntr is an Italian company that has recently introduced highly engineered systems to the North American market through the Portland-based firm Plural AM. What sets 3ntr’s A2 and A4 3D printers apart from both entry-level and more sophisticated machines is the fact that the A2 and A4 are capable of reliably 3D printing quality parts without the machine and material cost of high-end systems.

As a result of the quality of the parts produced by 3ntr machines, U.S. contract manufacturer Sof-Tek replaced its existing 3D printer with a 3ntr A4 from Plural AM. In an interview with ENGINEERING.com, Dan Morrow, CEO of Sof-Tek, explained that not only is Sof-Tek planning to purchase more 3ntr machines, but the firm also plans to build an entire business around them.

Contract Manufacturing at Sof-Tek

Based in Redding, Calif., Sof-Tek Integrators, Inc. has spent the past 16 years manufacturing complex components for a range of customers, including many from the semiconductor industry. With a Class 10,000 cleanroom, the company implements automated tools to strip and crimp wires, populate circuit boards and build assemblies to spec.

Additionally, through the firm’s Op-Test brand, Sof-Tek measures and tests high-brightness light emitting diodes (LEDs). With products like the Cube 7010, Op-Test is able to analyze LEDs with a built-in spectroradiometer for reading optical output, while Op-Test C-Parameters software is able to translate colors from an LED into quantifiable metrics.

About this technology, CEO Dan Morrow said, “I can put math to color, how about that? I can do full-tilt calculations on color with as many digits of accuracy as you want.”

For these businesses, Morrow said, 3D printing seemed like a potentially powerful technology that would enable Sof-Tek to produce prototypes and even explore the manufacturing of end parts.

“Customers come to us with needs, and our ability to turn on a dime and get things engineered and into use really, really quickly and easily is very important to us,” Morrow explained. “We had been having enclosures and other components machined for us. Then, we started outsourcing to have them printed. It was cheaper than having them milled, but it was still expensive, so we considered bringing a 3D printer in-house.”

When Sof-Tek went to purchase a system a few years ago, the choice for Morrow was between “really expensive, high-dollar machines” and “hobbyist-level” 3D printers. “We weren’t prepared to spend the huge dollars for one of the expensive systems,” Morrow said. “The machine that we went with was a high-end hobbyist-level machine. It was sufficient for doing prototypes. You could kind of get a feel for what things would look like, but the quality of what came off that machine just wasn’t what we needed for our customers.”

In fact, to even get the printer producing the prototypes Sof-Tek wanted, Morrow and his team had to modify the system almost completely.

“We ‘Frankensteined’ it, so there’s not much left of the original machine. We’re test and measurement guys; this is what we do,” Morrow explained. “When it started laying down parts, the parts warped because of the temperature extremes, so we dropped it into a heat box. Then we didn’t like the way the thing fed, so we changed the feeders. We didn’t like the gearing, so we changed the gearing. We didn’t like this and we didn’t like that. So, there’s not much left of the original machine.”

Enter 3ntr

The team at Sof-Tek, however, stays abreast of developments within the manufacturing industry, including news within 3D printing. As a result, Morrow became aware of what he described as “next-generation” 3D printers, such as those from 3ntr.

“The quality of the stuff we saw coming off that 3ntr machine was such that that it plugged that hole that we needed to fill—that capacity to be really agile to make these custom components and parts and to be able to do it quickly and efficiently,” Morrow explained. In turn, Sof-Tek purchased the 3ntr A4 from Plural AM. “Really, it was a no-brainer for us.”

The A4 3D printer from 3ntr. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

The A4 3D printer from 3ntr. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

The experience with the A4 was the complete opposite from the previous machine, according to Morrow. “Literally, when that thing came in the door, we pulled it out of the box and we had it up and running within a couple of hours. I don’t think we’ve done anything on the old system since,” Morrow said.

With the A4, Sof-Tek is now printing enclosures, optical assemblies, specialty mechanical mounting brackets and other components for its clients. According to Morrow, the return on investment (ROI) is such that “the system lays down material much faster and more efficiently than a lot of the other systems. When we did our trial prints, there was a clean ROI for us. That was part of the justification.”

3D Printing as a Service

Morrow explained that he is so satisfied with the results of the 3ntr machine that he has collaborated with Indigo Manufacturing Inc. to open a 3D printing service bureau in the next two months. The service bureau will eventually use multiple 3ntr machines, including the larger A2 model, which has a substantial build volume of 24.4 in x 13.7 in x 19.2 in.

Indigo Manufacturing will complement Sof-Tek’s existing business, which already has the setup for a variety of manufacturing processes. In addition to 3D printing parts for clients, the company will be able to perform value-added services, such as post-processing parts through painting, plating and more.

Of the new 3D printing service, Morrow said, “What sets Indigo Manufacturing apart is the ability to service high volume additive manufacturing projects for approximately 30 percent to 50 percent less than its competitors. This makes it the first service bureau capable of directly competing with other manufacturing processes, such as CNC machining. The online quoting platform makes it easy for customers to order and track prototypes, small and large production runs, and JIT direct manufactured parts.”

What Morrow’s story seems to demonstrate is that 3D printers like those from 3ntr can be used to reduce the costs of prototyping and even end production due to the fact that this “next generation” system is industrial-grade, but does not have the same price tag as more expensive machines.

The Features of the 3ntr 3D Printers

The 3ntr A2 and A4 are able to fill the niche between hobby-level and high-priced industrial systems due to a number of features that enable the printers to use a wide variety of materials, achieve good thermal stability, and print large-sized objects, among other things.

Three liquid-cooled hotends allow for precise temperature control and multimaterial printing. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

Three liquid-cooled hotends allow for precise temperature control and multimaterial printing. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

Three water-cooled, high-temperature hotends (up to 770 °F or 410 °C) allow 3ntr 3D printers to handle engineering-grade materials, such as high-impact polystyrene, polycarbonate, carbon composites, self-lubricating plastics and soluble support filament for printing intricate geometries. The 3ntr printers have a range of certified materials available with the printer, but are also open to 3rd party materials. The prices for both are comparable, making the cost per end use part much lower-priced than those associated with other industrial-grade brands.

Parts 3D-printed on a 3ntr machine. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

Parts 3D-printed on a 3ntr machine. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

At the same time, a powder-coated steel enclosure ensures the thermal stability necessary to print quality parts. For the North American market, Plural AM also adds features like Wi-Fi and webcam standard to its 3ntr machines.

If you’re interested in learning more about 3ntr printers, visit the Plural AM website here.

Engineering.com  Michael Molitch-Hou posted on July 19, 2016