Many 3D printer manufacturers use a proprietary system for materials.
That is to say, the only materials that can be used in a machine must be purchased from that manufacturer or their agents. The benefit is that the machine can be tuned precisely to match the chemistry of the materials, and thus high-quality, reliable results may be obtained.
On the other hand, the lack of alternatives usually means premium prices for the proprietary materials. In many cases in 3D printing that is still a reasonable proposition. In the past when 3D printing was often used for prototyping, a client would face enormous costs to prepare a prototype using conventional approaches (milling, etc.), whereas an “expensive” 3D print was actually less expensive.
Still, there is a lot of money going out the door for proprietary materials.
Enforcing Proprietary 3D Print Materials
3D Systems is a company that often uses proprietary materials in their equipment for the reasons stated above. They’ve built a large business with this model, and it’s likely to continue. Every time they sell a machine, there is a more-or-less guaranteed revenue stream from the materials used by that machine for years to come.
Other 3D printer manufacturers have used proprietary materials, notably Stratasys in their FDM equipment. These precisely-tuned canisters of filament provide excellent results, but are expensive when compared to third party filaments.
However, you can’t often use third party filaments in a device designed to only accept proprietary materials. This is usually enforced with a chip embedded in the material container, which is read by the machine to authorize printing.
In the FDM world, several inventive companies have developed ways to create chips that are able to be read and authorized by Stratasys equipment. This allows them to sell “clone” materials at somewhat lower costs. The costs are still above the open materials market, but savings nonetheless.
Plempire 3D Systems Materials
Now I see there is at least one provider of alternative materials for some of 3D Systems equipment. Plempire, a Shenzhen-based company that produces wax 3D printers for the jewelry market, now seems to be selling compatible materials for certain 3D Systems machines.
They say their materials are compatible with the following 3D Systems machines:
These are all wax machines, as you might guess. They are used to print wax representations of jewelry designs. The wax print is then used to create a mold for casting metal using the lost wax method.
Above is one of their products: YHK-601. It’s compatible with the 3D Systems ProJet 2500W, and is said to be an alternative to VisiJet M2 Cast. They say:
“Replacement security TAG compatible with 3DSystems® machines included.”
Should You Use Alternative 3D Print Materials?
It depends on the situation. If the end product is to be used in a regulated environment where an audit trail of the material chemistry is required, then probably you should stick with the original manufacturer’s materials. On the other hand, for wax that is literally melted away after printing before casting, there should not be regulatory issues.
One caution might be print quality. The machines are tuned to expect a very specific material, and if a slightly different material is encountered, then slightly different results may occur. These may or may not be within the required tolerances for a specific application.
In other words, it’s up to you to decide whether you could make effective use of alternative materials. But in this case, at least there is a choice.
[UPDATE] We’ve been contacted by 3D Systems, who inform us that use of these materials on 3D Systems equipment is “not authorized”. I believe this means that if you were to do so, your warranties would likely be invalidated, as they would be if using any third party material. Therefore, use at your own risk.