AM Technology in Lighting’s Future

3D Printing is actually a misnomer. In technical terms, we are talking about AM (additive manufacturing.) The process delivers a 3 dimensional object in plastic or metal, layer by layer. Unlike CNC machining, which is technically subtractive in nature (starts as a block of material that is whittled into shape), AM produces no chips or cut-off material, just the finished part.

AM includes acceptable thermoplastics for lighting use, many with UL/ETL yellow cards. AM materials can be opaque, translucent, clear, rigid or flexible. They can be finished structural or decorative parts, or used in tooling, prototyping, or hidden internal components.

AM has been on a long development path, slowly reducing costs and production time.

AM is ready for lighting. The question is, how ready is lighting for AM?

My Path through Professional Machines – a Background

Full disclosure, I am addicted to 3D printing. Since purchasing our first 3D printer, a Dimension bst1200es in 2009, I have printed over a thousand jobs successfully. My latest machine, the Stratasys F370 is even more capable, in both print area capacity and materials available to print.


The Dimension machine was a workhorse, printing job after job, with so virtually no failures and no tinkering. It just printed parts, hour after hour. It’s longest run was a series of parts that took (9) 24 hour days without stopping (except to change build plates and replenish material.)


The F370 is proving to be just as reliable as the Dimension. While the Dimension was limited to just one material (ABS+), the F370 prints ABSM30 (versatile), ASA (Best finish + UV resistance), PC/ABS (strong and rigid), TPU (rubber like), PLA (cheap) and Diran (very strong and slick for tooling). Most of these materials come in a variety of colors. Many are easily glued, sanded and painted. Swapping from one material to another is a simple 10 minute process, making the F370 one of the most versatile machines around.

F370 models costs about 35% less for materials, and is 27% faster than the Dimension. Further, where the Dimension only printed either .010″ or .013″ layer thicknesses, the F370 prints .005″, .007″, .010″ and .013″ layer thicknesses, which produces the benefit of smoother parts and smaller detailing.

Professional machines will cost anywhere from $25,000 to $70,000, so do take some dedication to justify.

Mid Level Machines

This is a rapidly growing market segment, so there are many very good mid-grade machines available. Some can print parts as large as 40″ cubed.

Mid Level printers, costing in the neighborhood of $3,000 t $55,000, can deliver good build qualities, with acceptable reliability. Mid grade printers frequently take a little tinkering to get them just-right, and print failures are higher (10% to 30% depending on manufacturer and material in use.) In this category, be careful. You do indeed get what you pay for.

Raised 3D Pro 2

The Raised3D Pro 2 Plus, is an example of a mid-level machine with a 12″ x 12″ x 23.4″ build area. The cost is low enough (<$6,000) that it could be considered a strong entry level machine for operations that cannot afford the professional products.

BIGREO OneThe BigRep One is an example of a high end mid level machine with a print capacity of 40″ cubed. The cost is roughly the same as a more normal scale commercial unit, like the F370. However, this large scale machine is not as versatile in making smaller parts, so isn’t for everyone. I am intrigued by the potential of printing an entire chair, or floor light, as one piece. Now to find a way to rationalize the cost!

Consumer Grade

Consumer machines are available from as little as $99 to $3,500. I’ve had a few of these and experienced many others. My opinion is that they are not reliable enough for design and production use, require too much time fiddling with settings, have too low reliability (15% to 50% failure), and are too limited in print area and quality to be of use in a commercial setting. I’ve had a few of these, including those from Makerbot and Form Labs. These machines are for the tinkerers and hobbyists on limited budgets, without time constraints or commercial demands for strength and part reliability. They are just not a viable option for lighting manufacturer use. Even when used for prototyping, their need to be attended and fiddled with is too great.

Industrial Machines – the Extreme at the Other End

Industrial machines offer unprecedented output reliability and ease of use when the intent is to use these machines for full part production purposes. Industrial machines are capable of operating continuously for long periods of time, and cost in the range of $85,000 to $900,000. Both pro and industrial machines use software than can translate a CAD file directly into a print file with little fuss. They utilize build chambers that control air and heat, build bases that never fail to hold a warp-free part down, and professional levels of service through a large dealer network. These machines have one mission in mind – deliver a 3D model with no errors, time after time. Print failures are rare (<1%). Stratasys is the king of FDM printers, having invented most of the technology employed, and amassed millions of hours of operation to improve and evolve their machines.


The Stratasys F900 represents the top of the heap for Industrial FDM AM machines, coupled with the company’s 380 and 450 machines. The F900 has a 36 x 24 x 36 build area, while the 380mc Carbon is designed for printing carbon fiber infused nylon material for ultra-light and strong parts. Materials available in these machines ranges from standard ABS to high temperature tolerance materials like Ultem. However, changing from one material to another in these machines is not easy, and can be quite expensive.


The BigRep Pro is an industrial level large scale machine that can print parts as large as 40″x 38″ x 38″. The cost is equally huge.

MakeForged offers professional level metal and composite AM machines for those with needs beyond plastic parts creation.

Hewlett Packard produces a jet-based AM printer that will produce parts as strong as FDM, but the costs for such equipment are significantly higher.

If the intent is to consistently produce high volumes of AM parts, these machines are designed for that purpose and excel at it. However, be prepared for a little sticker shock if you are on a budget.

The Economics of AM Production

Additive Manufacturing will never produce the same cost per part of injection molding for plastic or metal parts. If there is a need for multiples of thousands, repetitively made, AM is not a viable solution beyond the design phase. AM processing is also very slow compared to other molded or extrusion production processes. A 3 cubic inch AM part will cost anywhere from $3.00 to $81 depending on machine and material used. That part will also take from 30 minutes to 3 hours to print, per part. That same part produced in quantity from an injection mold, would run around $.40, and in 3 hours, as many as 2,100 parts can be made. For a run of 20,000 parts at 3 c.i. each could take an AM machine 1,000 hours (10x per tray) to make, and cost anywhere from $60,000 to $160,000. The molded part run, even if a $50,000 tool is disposed of at 20,000 pcs, would cost $2.90 each (tooling amortized over the one run) each, for a total of $58,000 – run off in 10 hours –  plus the 6 to 12 weeks it takes to get the mold and mold base made…..

This is where things get interesting… If the need is for just 250 parts, the time to print is cut to 250 hours (10 days), while the parts remain at $3.00 to $81. The molded parts, with tooling of $50,000 would cost at least $51,250 – $205 per part – and take at least 12 weeks to realize, assuming one could find a molder willing to mess with such a short run. While this is an extreme example, you can see that in smaller runs, AM is a viable option.

As a general rule, for part runs of less than 500, which would otherwise require tooling to achieve in plastic, additive manufacturing has the advantage of faster delivery, and lower total cost. Better still, if, after printing one part run, a design change is required, there is no re-tooling cost involved. Just change the model and print the next set. Changing a tooled part can be very costly and time consuming, making design revisions impractical, leading to compromises or product failure.

This opens the door to made-to-order, high customization products. This could be a real game changer in some industries.

Uses in Lighting

Additive manufacturing has been used for  tooling and fixturing applications by a growing number of lighting manufacturers. Prototyping, whether for visualization, proof of concept, or functional testing is another common and growing use. Physical models are far more effective in communicating an end product than any rendering or CAD drawing.


Going back to 2010, many of the products presented in the 52-in-52 exploration utilized AM processing to create the parts needed quickly.


This included many uses of the process, from whole fixtures to internal components.

Since then, I have produced both custom and standard products from decorative designs, to a hand held UV cure light system, using AM as the primary production method.

Rear-Battery-Side-Web (002)

The cure lights see hard service. They are also an example of how nice parts can be made with minimal sanding and processing to create a smooth finish. These were also coated in chemical resistant urethane that can stand being cleaned with Acetone.

In other products, 3D printing was used to create details, control panels, hinges, driver holders, and other parts that made the product far more usable and cost effective, without investment in tooling.


Over the last ten years, I have found that AM and lighting products are a great fit. I’ve made numerous glare control shields, louvers, baffles and trims, driver and electronic component holders, enclosures, potting dams for water proofing, and simple brackets and connector covers.


I also made and sold many flicker machines, created with AM process on a made to order basis. These small examples are just a taste of the hundreds of parts and finished pieces I’ve made and put in service using AM technology in-house.

Recently, Interplay Lighting began offering a wide range of attractive AM original lamp shades. These attractive designs are made from PLA, a bio-based material that is attractive, low cost, and environmentally friendly. The shades are attractive and well designed.

While there are sites where one can download a file and print a lamp shade on a consumer machine, Interplay products are far superior in quality, and of a scale that most low end printers cannot produce. The uniformity in the AM process, made possible by the machine they have chosen, is critical to the product quality Interplay produces.

Perhaps the first of the major lighting producers now entering the universe of AM production, Signify now offers “3D Printed” shades and lighting details, perhaps the greatest indicator that AM processes are ready for lighting, even if its on the edges of the mainstream.


My Take

I find AM production suits a wide range of needs in both the design and engineering of lighting products, as well as production of specialties that would otherwise not be possible. The tooling costs and related time consumed precludes inclusion of plastic components, while AM processes can deliver shapes and design details that are frequently impossible to produce with any other method. The availability of materials that can serve as structural components, withstand temperatures as high as 210C, carry UL material certification and fire rating, as well as aesthetic characteristics that make them attractive for display and visual interest… all add up to a technology ready to participate in lighting. Metal AM processes for heat sinks and details, is another emerging potential that has a lot of promise.

Meeting the demand for higher production quantities is a matter of adding machines to a line. For some, the cost of adding AM machines, rather than tooling for injection molding, may prove to be the better economic choice. In the aforementioned run of 250 parts in  10 days, adding just three more production machines cuts that run time to just 62 hours, or 2 1/2 days. Keep in mind, those are 2 1/2 days of a machine running, with minimal attendance, not 2 1/2 days of an employee or crew making parts one at a time.

I find that the process of sending a part to the machine – which then does it job of production as I sleep, or do other work – one of the most overlooked advantages of the technology. Another is the absolute tightness of tolerance and extremely high repeatability. When printing 250 parts, the first and last are essentially identical. Other that expensively tooled components, this level of repeatability is rare, especially when making short runs, with no tooling investment.

The opportunity to produce lighting products that can be tailored very specifically to a customers needs and desires, in a universe flooded with commodity and me-too products, is intriguing and exciting.

While the costs and processing time make AM production most suitable for small run products and the high end of the market, the technology is growing and improving rapidly, as are those able and interested in putting it to use.

AM is ready to serve lighting, when lighting is ready to avail itself of its potential. In time, the two will grow closer together, in some market spaces. Just like it was when LEDs first entered lighting, the cost and novelty kept many away. Those who see the advantages, and embrace the challenge, will show the way to others – who will likely wait until it is all cheaper and faster, and more mainstream. There will always be innovators and followers in this business – AM production in lighting will not escape that reality.

Soon, I will offer more designs using our latest AM capacity. The urge to play and create with the technology is irresistible.


Here is a materials properties comparison for those interested (click the image to download the Excel file):

printer comparo

Update – an Example

Let’s look at a very simple example. A very basic 12″ high, x 10″OD (at the base)) shape of 18 cubic inches of translucent blue material. This can be any shape or design, this is an exercise in comparison, not design.

shadeUsing PLA as a material, simple match shows that this will cost $18.00 to produce.

Unfortunately, in a commercial setting, this elemental costing is not useful. The $18.00 cost is only a fraction of the considerations involved.

For a deeper evaluation, we need to consider the capacity of a machine, it’s life, maintenance costs, overhead, related labor, and profit from the sale of such an object.

To that end, let’s assume this is part of an assembly, with additional components (light source), that also needs to be assembled, packaged and shipped – that sells for $325 when complete. Further, we need to consider that selling one of these objects is not business. Rather, let’s consider a very simplified view of what is involved in attaining sales of $1,000,000 of the gadget under consideration, with a gross margin of 50% and an EBITDA of 20%:

Price 3D

To get a general idea of how AM costing might work, I’ve created this comparison backwards, using what is commonly accepted margins and profit. This summary shows that to incorporate the $18 part into produce sales of $1MM at $325 per unit, requires 4 printers running approximately 6,000 hours a year. For that effort, this mini print farm would generate $200,000 in EBITDA per year. Over the 9 year life of the Professional Grade printer, that is $1,800,000, assuming the general mix of products produced are similar. Certainly enough to cover the $160,000 initial cost (recovered in less than 1 year). The mid-grade product would generate at least $600,000 EBITDA over the life of 3 years, recovering the investment of $24,800 inside the first year.

Note that I have put two factors into the mid-grade product. First is expected life of 3 years. Some may do better, but the reality is, their is no professional maintenance available, so more frequent replacement may be necessary to maintain full productivity under hard use. Second, the factor of 0.7 reflects the reality that there will be more print failures and invested effort in maintaining 4 of these machines in continuous operation.

An interesting aspect of AM production is the linearity of scaling up. To double the sales volume, one can just double the number of machines in production. Many print service centers utilize hundreds of AM machines to serve customers for this reason.

Some may ask whether it is viable to invest in AM machines, vs, just sending jobs out to be made. It’s a good question. For some, this may indeed be the best approach. However, a simple cost analysis will show that outsourcing is an expensive option for those who need regular production components.


The cost of service bureau printing includes all of their costs rolled up, plus service costs, handling parts, packing, and prep for shipment, as well as direct and indirect labor. This adds up quickly.

Note that in this example, I had to work to find a service that would even mess with PLA material. Most won’t bother. Service services are geared for a limited range of materials. In this example, the cost of a single print from one center, in ASA material, was $1,008.00.

Even in PLA, for production purposes, the cost savings of printing in-house will pay for multiple printers in a short period of time.

Selecting AM as a method of production leads to several interesting opportunities and questions. Evaluating what is a good fit will likely take a little time to work out. The most critical factor is whether the end-product can be sold at a price, using AM processes to increase value, that will support the costs involved. This generally means either offering a customization value to customers, or unique features that cannot be readily duplicated with other processes.

For those interested, here is a cost comparison spreadsheet for comparing 3D printing to molded processes for part creation. 

Author: kwillmorth

Photographer and Artist

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