A reader recently asked us how much it would cost to print an item in metal. We said, “Lots”, but there’s more to the story.
It is true that metal 3D printing can be quite expensive. The machinery to 3D print metal reliably and accurately ranges in prices of USD$500K and up, with more costs for installation, environmentals, finishing equipment and of course, the materials themselves.
Because of this, very few people have direct access to metal-capable 3D printers. Instead, most people simply use a 3D print service to do the expensive work of 3D metal printing.
While our reader laboriously investigated several 3D print service offerings, it became clear there is a lot more to the story than just “printing metal”. Some things to consider:
- What is the shipping cost of the print? In some cases, the shipment may have to traverse whole continents, and in the case of heavy metal objects, that can be very expensive
- What is the production time? Some services have different equipment, capacities, throughput and projects waiting. These can all affect the amount of time to receive a print
- Materials are not always consistent between service vendors, leading to differences in print quality or characteristics
- Which finishing options are available/required and what might they cost?
- Selection of metals is important, as each metal has very different properties – and pricing
- Services sometimes use different methods to calculate pricing, thus you can get a different price for the same part from each service
One quick way of comparing prices is to use 3DPrintPriceCheck, who accept a 3D model (in STL format) and provide a price estimate based on the formulas used by eight popular 3D print services. However, in this case, the service doesn’t show all possible options for metals.
For our test, we chose a goofy piece being worked on in our lab to be our test item. Here’s the results from several popular services for a stainless steel print:
- i.Materialise: $25.06 (12-16 days)
- Shapeways $14.67
- Kraftwurx (Damascus Steel) $33.00 (19 days)
- Ponoko $30.79
As you can see, there can be significant differences in pricing, so shopping around is highly recommended. Availability of metal 3D print services varies considerably between vendors as well, with some offering varying forms of finishing services, plating or different grades of metals.