A cost perspective on 3D printing

Additive Manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, is changing the way we look at manufacturing. From concept models and functional prototypes to end-use parts, 3D printing offers versatile solutions in a wide variety of applications.

Additive Manufacturing (AM), better known as 3D printing, is changing the way we look at manufacturing. From concept models and functional prototypes to end-use parts, 3D printing offers versatile solutions in a wide variety of applications. Over the last few years, 3D printers have become more affordable, easier to use, and more reliable. As a result, the technology is now accessible to more businesses. However, estimating the costs of 3D printing a part or a product is not an easy challenge. In this article, we take a closer look at different factors influencing these costs.


Introduction to 3D printing technologies

In order to understand the costs related to 3D printing, it might be useful to understand how 3D printing works. Contrary to popular belief, the term 3D printing does not stand for just one kind of technology. In reality, it covers several, clearly distinct technologies. Since the start of additive manufacturing, already more than 30 years ago, multiple types of machines have been invented. The main thing all of these have in common is the way in which production is executed: the design of the product is sent to the 3D printer in slices, after which it prints the product layer by layer in an additive process, unlike traditional methods of production which involve subtractive processes. The three most common 3D printing techniques are Stereolithography (SLA), Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) which are compared in the table underneath. Several other techniques exist but often resemble one of these three.




Parts are built layer by layer using a UV laser to solidify liquid photopolymer resins.

The process melts plastic filament, which is placed via a heated extruder onto the solidified model, one layer at a time; each layer hardens and bonds to the previous layer.

A laser sinters a powdered material, after which the platform descends and a roller deposits a smooth layer of fresh powder over the surface of the bed.

Need for support structure YES YES NO


Accurate, excellent surface finish

Fast, user-friendly

Strong, accurate, lightweight


Slow, brittle parts

Lower resolution, lower accuracy, lower surface finish

Porosity, considerable cooling times, moderate surface finish


Mostly prototyping, rarely final products

Functional prototypes, concept models, end-use products

Prototypes, final parts


Photosensitive resins

Standard thermoplastics such as ABS and PLA

Engineering thermoplastics, Nylon

Table 1: Comparison between SLA, FDM and SLS on different characteristics


Production cost breakdown

Cost components

Let’s take a look at the cost structure of an individual 3D printed product which consists of several components, which can be divided into direct and indirect costs:


The two most decisive cost components are, without doubt, material and machine costs. In general, the price per part increases strongly with the scale of the part, as the volume of a product determines the material cost and the amount of time the machine needs to build it. The smaller the product, the more relevant the machine component in the total cost compared to the material cost, and vice versa.

Cost comparison SLA – FDM – SLS

Prices have dropped significantly in recent years, and are expected to drop even further in the coming years, leading to all three technologies being available today in compact and affordable systems, yet there are differences between them. The machine costs are usually higher for SLS as, on average, the purchase price of the machine is higher. Generally, the material costs are cheaper for SLS than the other two since no support structures are needed and the unfused powder can be reused. A lot of labour is needed for FDM compared to the other two technologies since the support structures need to be removed and lengthy post-processing is required to improve the surface finish, leading to a higher labour costs.


Machine costs ⬆⬆⇧ ⬆⇧⇧ ⬆⬆⬆
Material costs ⬆⬆⬆ ⬆⬆⇧ ⬆⇧⇧
Labour costs ⬆⇧⇧ ⬆⬆⬆ ⬆⬆⇧

Table 2: a comparison between SLA, FDM and SLS on several cost components


Cost comparison 3D printing – traditional methods

Although very useful when choosing between 3D printing technologies, looking at the production costs, the labour costs and the complexity of a product are much less relevant when comparing them to traditional production methods. This stems from the fact that the increased complexity of a product does not increase the production costs of AM as is the case for traditional manufacturing methods. Materials are generally more expensive for additive manufacturing, though less material is needed. Machine costs are incomparable. Several cost models have been created over the years combining these costs, with each one adding something to the previous cost model which increases the accuracy of it. Yet, there is still room for improvement.

To consider whether or not implementing 3D printing into your organisation is a good idea, it is relevant to take a look at the comparison of the cost of 3D printing your product or producing it via the current production method, for several production volumes. Conceptually, this trade-off should look like Figure 1. The location of the breakeven point might serve as an indication for the decision. The further the breakeven point is to the right on the production volume axis, the longer 3D printing stays the most interesting option.

Figure 1: Conceptual breakeven point, displayed with a red X (adapted from Costabile et al., 2017, p. 267)

Other relevant costs

If only the production costs are taken into account, very few end-use products are cheaper today when produced by using AM in comparison to traditional methods. However, additional savings can be realised when inventory and logistics costs are taken into account, resulting in impacts throughout the supply chain, visualised in figure 2. Parts can be printed just in time and/or via a PULL system which has a positive impact on inventory costs. Less transportation is needed since multiple parts of one product can be printed at once, eliminating the need for assembly, which positively impacts logistics costs.


Taking a broader perspective, AM can reduce the need for supply chain management since it has the potential to bring the manufacturer closer to the product, thus eliminating links in the supply chain and increasing the customer’s proximity to production. A shorter chain will also result in a reduction of the vulnerability to disasters and disruptions. When calculating the cost of 3D printing, the complete life cycle of a product should be taken into account, including incalculable factors such as improved functionality and increased customer satisfaction. These benefits are difficult to calculate: a cradle to grave analysis would have to be executed. The complexity in measuring these non-production-related benefits likely slows down the adoption of AM. However, the identification of the full business value is very important to estimate the true potential of AM for your business.

Up until now, we have talked about calculating the cost of a 3D printed product. But what about the cost of implementing 3D printing in your organisation?



Complimentary technologies: a new technology can be adopted alongside an older one. Often, the benefits of such an implementation are greater than if the old technology is fully replaced.


  • Significant impact on a firm’s capabilities
  • Requires new knowledge, approaches and designs
  • Might result in the removal of several of the organisations current functions, in order to adopt a radically new production method


A glance at the future

As mentioned above, prices are expected to drop for both machines and materials as patents are expiring and the market is moving into a perfect competition. Machine functionality will improve in terms of speed, autonomy, repeatability, ease of use and the ability to print with multiple materials simultaneously. Material quality is expected to improve as well. This all will lead to 3D printing becoming even more relevant in the general market, thanks to the new possibilities it provides.

Strategy&, the global strategy consulting team at PwC, has calculated an estimate of where the market is going in the next few years, as can be seen on Figure 3. It shows that 3D printing will grow very quickly, most likely around 20% compounded annual growth rate over the next decade.

Looking even further in the future, MIT scientists have unleashed 4D printing, where the fourth dimension is time. A 4D printed part is made of a material that self-assembles over time when it confronts water, heat, light or other simple energy input.




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