Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The rise and fall of the ZPrinter?

One outcome of ZCorporation's acquisition by 3D Systems is that we are no longer quite sure what to call the technology we use.

In the beginning, ZCorp's printers were 3 digit numbers prefixed with Z. So Z402, Z406, Z810 began the series and then in 2003 the ZPrinter 310 was released and the ZPrinter was born.

Strangely the next machine to be announced was the Spectrum 510 in 2005. Despite the Spectrum non sequitur, the next machine was the ZPrinter 450 in 2007 followed by the ZPrinter 650 in 2008, precipitating a minor avalanche of ZPrinters in the next couple of years as the increasingly small ZPrinter 350, 250 & 150 arrived.

Then in January 2012 ZCorporation was no more. 3D Systems bought the company and began to absorb it into the 3D Systems brand.  

Despite this and just months after the take over, the last and biggest ZPrinter arrived, the mammoth ZPrinter 850. Almost immediately news came through that the entire range of ZPrinters was to be rebranded as the ProJet x60 range.

What is a ZPrinter?

Briefly ZCorp made 3D printers that printed binding fluid using HP printheads on to a bed of powder.

ZPrinter 310

In the early days ZCorp experimented with different powders for different applications. The early printers like the ZPrinter 310 shown above were flexible, hands on machines. 

Powders for flexible parts and for casting etc. lost out in time to what the company referred to as high performance composite. Essentially plaster of Paris with some modifiers to improve flow, part strength and finish. 

With the 450 the ZPrinter became a more complex machine but one that requires less user intervention.  They made it easier to use, with automated powder handling and a built in post processing unit. The result was that it was a machine optimised for general purpose plaster printing which was what the majority of the users actually wanted.

ZPrinter 450

The automated powder handling of the later ZPrinter range was a great success from a users point of view. While it slowed down various aspects of the 3D printing process, not having plaster powder blowing up in your face when reloading the machines meant this was a small price to pay.

Some of the later ZPrinters have an automatic de-powdering feature. This proved to be something of a gimmick and must have added a significant cost to the price of the machines that featured it for no significant gain except for the marketing brochure. 

So what is the point of all this?

The question remains what do we call this technology? Bringing the ZPrinter into ProJet range and calling it ProJet x60 is really not very helpful for the average user. If I say that I am running ZPrinters most customers know what I am talking about. If I say we are running Projet x60s mostly customers are just baffled. 

Officially the technology used by the Projet x60 printers (ZPrinters) is Color Jet Printing or CJP. This brings the product in line with 3D Systems preoccupation with ProJets "Jetting" stuff. Again no one can remember what CJP stands for and the acronym blends into a background of stand-back jargon.

The thing is the full ProJet range has some great machines and some proper clankers. With a fistful of completely different print engines that are suitable for completely different applications.

Since the explosion in interest in 3D printing and the following blizzard of silly stories what we want most in this industry is clarity.

ZPrinter had brand power

Yup, that is the bottom line. The ZPrinter brand was distinctive and effective.

The ProJet brand is just confusing. It makes sense for the 3500 range where the material is all jetted to build the part. At both the top of the Projet range the 7000 is an SLA machine and again at the bottom of the range the 1200 is a kind of miniature SLA - the funny thing is that the SLA process cannot be described as jetting - there ain't nothing jetted there!

The ZPrinter really is a 3D printer. It uses HP inkjet printheads and prints in layers to build depth - that is in the Z axis. It was a good name, a good brand, now it is history, so this is an attempt to record its passing.

RIP ZPrinter.

ZCorp/3D Systems machine release timeline

1997 - Z402
2000 - Z402c (colour)
2001 - Z606
2002 - Z810
2003 - ZPrinter 310
2005 - Spectrum 510
2007 - ZPrinter 450
2008 - ZPrinter 650 
2009 - ZPrinter 350
2010 - ZPrinter 150, 250
2012 - ZPrinter 850

For more information about ZPrinting please visit