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UPDATE: we have released our list of the best 3D printers with meta-rating calculated using ratings from reliable sources. Find out which are the 20 top rated 3D printers currently on the market!
Multi-color 3D printing, also called full-color 3D printing, is one of the next frontiers for the 3D printing industry. In 2015, an overwhelming majority of 3D printers still only offer single-color prints, a fact often cited as a limiting factor to a mainstream adoption of this technology.
Because full-color 3D printing involves many technical challenges, only a handful of manufacturers offer full-color 3D printers. Most of these multi-color 3D printers are expensive, industrial-grade machines. Today, multi-color 3D printing is mostly used for the production of 3D figurines (think 3D printed selfies). But there are many more potential applications for 3D printing in full color, from creating beautiful architectural models to making historical artifacts come back to life with their original colors.
We’ve made a list of the options currently available on the market for with some details about the technologies used by each manufacturers and the prices ranges for these multi-color 3D printers .
Note: we categorize as multi-color or full-color the 3D printers capable of using a wide range of colors and combining them to create a full color object. This distinction is important, as sometimes 3D printers with a dual extruders are referred to as multi-color since they can technically extrude 2 filaments of different colors at the same time, thus creating an object in 2 colors. this is NOT what we call multi-color or full-color 3D printers
Now, let’s review the full-color and multi-color 3D printers available on the market (and also some notable fails on the topic and projects currently in development).
1. Objet Connex3 3 printers by Stratasys – from $150,000
Stratasys has developed a proprietary multi-color 3D printing technology called PolyJet. They offer a line of full-color industrial 3D printers called the Connex3 series. The Polyjet process is similar to inkjet printing, but instead of jetting drops of ink onto paper, the 3D printer jets layers of curable liquid photopolymer onto a build tray. The liquid photopolymer is then directly cured by UV rays to obtain a solid, colored layer.
The Connex3 series full-color 3D printers are not only capable of using different colors, they can also combine materials with different physical properties in a single print (soft and hard materials for example), making them perfect for realistic prototypes and mockups. It is even possible to 3D print transparent materials. These full-color 3D printers are expensive, with prices starting around $100k.
More details about the Stratasys 3D printers able to print in color:
Stratasys introduced in April 2016 a new 3D printer capable of producing 3D objects with up to 6 different materials, with 360,000 colors available.
Note: Stratasys 3D printers from the Connex1 and Connex2 series and some other models (such as the Objet24 Pro or Prime) are capable of producing multi-materials and multi-color objects, but the number of colors is limited.
2. Projet 3D printers by 3D SYSTEMS – from $35,000
Z Corporation (also known as Z Corp.) was acquired by 3D Systems on January 3 2012, mainly because their multi-color 3D printing technology was something missing at the time in 3D Systems’ portfolio. Since then, 3D System has been a reference for multi-color 3D printing. The Z Corp technology has been used by 3D Systems to develop their proprietary full-color 3D printing process, called ColorJet Printing (CJP). The ProJet 4500 and the industrial 3D printers of the ProJet X60 line use ColorJet Printing.
ColorJet Printing involves two major elements: a core material (powder) and a binder. The binder is the colored material. It comes in the form of CYMK cardridges (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black), kind of similar to a traditional printer. The powdered core material is spread in thin layers over the build platform. After each layer of core material is spread, the color binder is selectively jetted from the inkjet print heads over the core layer, causing the core to solidify and to get its color. The process is repeated layer by layer. Once the 3D print is complete, an infiltrant is used to finish the part and obtain a sandstone-like object, with a porous surface and a “rough” finish.
The ProJet 4500 and the industrial 3D printers of the ProJet X60 line use ColorJet Printing. The entry-level multi-color 3D printers from 3D Systems cost around than $35,000 while the more advanced models cost up to $200,000.
More details about the 3D Systems 3D printer offering full-color 3D printing:
- 3D Systems Projet 260C
- 3D Systems Projet 460Plus
- 3D Systems Projet 660Pro
- 3D Systems Projet 860Pro
- 3D Systems Projet 4500
3. The 3DPandoras by SKY-TECH – around $12,000
The 3D printing technology used by SKY-TECH with the 3DPandoras is quite similar to the core and binder technology used by 3D Systems. This Taiwanese manufacturer recently launched the 3DPandoras with the goal to make full-color 3D printing more affordable. while not compromising on quality.
The 3DPandoras costs around $10-15k, and the company also boasts that the operating costs are significantly lower than the competition (see comparison chart in the Gallery section at the bottom of this sponsored article). As an example, they claim a 50 cc 3D figurine will cost approximately $2 with the 3DPandoras. The 3D printed objects look like sandstone.
4. The IRIS HD by Mcor – $40,000 – $50,000
The Mcor IRIS HD is a 3D printer that uses paper as the print material, to achieve high quality full-color 3D prints, with more than 1 million colors in full CYMK mode! The multi-color 3D printing technology developed by Mcor is called Selective Deposition Lamination (SDL). First, a classic inkjet printer print the paper sheets in color, following a specific order. Then the 3D printer cuts and glues the sheets of paper on top of each over to build the 3D printed object, which will be fully colored. The systems works with standard paper sheets (A4 or letter size).
The Mcor IRIS HD 3D printer costs between than $40,000 and $50,000. The paper material is the most ecological and cheap 3D printing material of all the 3D printers of this selection.
5. Other interesting solutions related to full-color 3D printing
- X1 by Addwii: a desktop multi-color 3D printer made in Taiwan, around $12,000. Very hard to get users feedback but we thought we’d list it here anyway (if you know this machine, please contact us!)
- The Palette: this successful Kickstarter is designed as an add-on to an existing desktop 3D printer, the $799 device can basically blend up to 4 colored filament to create new colors, feeding the 3D printer. The project is alive (!) and the team is fixing technical issues before releasing the first batch of orders.
- DyeMansion: announced at the 2015 formnext conference, this German start-up also goes around the usual technical roadblocks of full-color 3D printing and offers an innovative high-quality coloring and finishing solution for laser-sintered parts.
- Spectrom3D: this start-up was ambitious and got a lot of press when they announced their “revolution for color 3D printing”. A few months later, we’re not sure they’re still operating. Another casualty on the full-color 3D printers battlefield?
- The CubeJet: this one could be a PR stunt from the slowly dying giant 3D Systems, which announced the CubeJet, the ultimate affordable-high-quality-full-color-desktop 3D printer. No news since the January 2015 announcement and our gut feeling is this 3D printer might not be released anytime soon…
- whiteclouds: this US-based 3D printing service is equipped with an impressive range of industrial-grade 3D printers, including the full range of multi-color 3D Systems machines in order to offer full-color 3D printing to their enterprise customers.
- Apple: the Cupertino giant actually patented a “method and apparatus for three dimensional printing of colored objects” back in 2104. Could Apple release some day the ultimate user-friendly multicolor 3D printer? We think it’s unlikely anytime soon, but within 5-10 years, who know?
Full-color 3D printing for consumers is definitely something like the Holy Grail for many manufacturers. And many of these ambitious companies actually died in this quest for a functional, affordable and performant desktop full-color 3D printer. Pirx, botObjects… very promising brands paid the ultimate price (not to mention the various failed Kickstarters).
Which manufacturer will conquer this 3D printing Everest?
We think maybe Hewlett-Packard (HP): the print/computer giant is about to enter the 3D printing field, with a possibly groundbreaking technology called Multi Jet Fusion (MJF). Their 3D printer could be capable of 3D printing in full color at very high speed. But given the precedents, we’re not ready to bet anything on this and it’ll likely be a few years before we see an actual multi-color consumer-grade 3D printers under $5,000.
Update 12 January 2016
At CES 2016 the Irish company Mcor, one of the few color 3D printer manufacturer, introduced the Mcor ARKe. This professional 3D printer is desktop sized (880 x 593 x 633 mm) and capable of 3D printing on paper. The printed objects are colored and can have a maximum size of 240 x 205 x 125 mm. Mcor announced a price of $5,999 for this innovative machine.
Update 8 April 2016
Stratasys introduces the Stratasys J750, their latest full color multi material 3D printer.
Update 26 September 2016
The X1 by Addwii, now discontinued, has been renamed T10 and is commercialized by ComeTrue, another Taiwanese 3D printer manufacturer.
Note: you can compare all these full-color 3D printers using our 3D printer comparison engine.