November 23, 2020
color 3d printing guide full color multi color

The Complete Color 3D Printing Guide (FDM & Industrial Methods)

Affordable color 3D printers have been a goal for makers worldwide for years, and looks to be finally within sight. Though for the last decade full color 3D printing via technologies such as PolyJet and Binder Jetting have been available, these expensive industrial 3D printers are not suited to hobbyists or small businesses.

Nowadays, you can 3D print in color on a desktop 3D printer for under $1,000, with the help of innovative filament splicers. These are not full color 3D printers, but instead can print in 3 or 4 different 3D printer filament colors, allowing for the multi color 3D printing of characters, landscapes or interior designs.

This article will explain:

  • How to 3D print with color on the most accessible FDM 3D printers.
  • The limitations of color 3D printing on desktop 3D printers, and accessories you can purchase to expand your color 3D printing options.
  • The lowest cost recommendations we have for color 3D printing at home.
  • All color 3D printer technologies available currently.
  • The industrial 3D printing technologies, such as PolyJet and Multi Jet Fusion, which allow for full color 3D printing.

Part 1: Color 3D Printing with FDM

The most accessible 3D printing technology is fused deposition modeling, with low cost materials – filaments – that start at just under $20/kg for ABS or PLA, with cheap 3D printers starting at around $200.

There are two ways to print with color on an FDM 3D printer. Firstly, by using multiple extruders and/or a filament splicer to print several different filaments at once, or secondly, by dyeing a previously colorless filament during the 3D printing process based on what color this area of the model will be.

color 3d printing options with fdm

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Single extruder color 3D printing

You can 3D print in color with a single extruder, but it’s a hassle, and very labor intensive.

You’ll need to pause printing at the place where you want a different color (this can be programmed into your 3D slicer settings for more precise color 3D printing), and then switch out your current filament for your preferred color.

This only works well for models that you want to add a few layers in a different color, and is not a good choice for extremely precise color details. For that you’ll need a specialized filament splicer — we’ll explain how these work later in this article.

Dual extruder color 3D printing / Mix color 3D printing

If you have a dual extruder 3D printer, you can print either with two different colored filaments simultaneously, or with two different materials. For multi color 3D printing, this is one of the easiest ways to use two different colors in your print.

Most dual extruder printers are fixed onto one large print head, somewhat restricting the efficiency gains from having two extruders. However, printers such as those made by BCN3D feature independent dual extruders, which are far more efficient for multi material or multi color 3D printing.

Some 3D printers, such as the Geeetech A20M — described more extensively in our best color 3D printer ranking — offer a mix color option to gradually change color gradient from one color to the other. It offers a 2-in-1 feed system which can feed two different colored filaments simultaneously, offering multi color 3D printing without the extra extruders.

geeetech mix color 3D printing
The A20M (left) offers 2-in-1 color mixing, whereas the A20T (right) offers 3-in-1 mix color 3D printing.

Multi color 3D printing

Multi color 3D printing is possible if you use a filament splicer, such as the Palette 2S, which we recommend as the number one option for multi color 3D printing.

Prusa also offer a Multi Material Upgrade kit which performs a very similar function.

These color 3D printing adaptors take up to 4 separate filaments of different colors, at once. These filaments all feed into the filament splicing machine. Prior to printing, you select which parts of your model are to be which color in Palette’s CANVAS 3D CAD software, and as the filaments are fed into the Palette filament splicer, it splices these filaments into one, multicolored spool based on which colors are to be printed in each exact area of your model.

The results are stunning, multi color 3D prints that have many real-world uses. Interior design models can be produced at a fraction of the price, and in record time, as well as video game or film characters, 3D printed miniatures for games like Warhammer, and a huge number of other applications.

You are restricted to four different colors, or three colors and a support material, so bear in mind that these parts are not full color. You do however retain the bold colors of your chosen filaments, which in full color 3D printing can look washed out and less striking.

Full color 3D printing

FDM currently offers one method for full color 3D printing. This involves using a colorless filament, with each area dyed during the melting and extruding process to deposit full color 3D parts.

This method combines elements of 2D inkjet printing with FDM 3D printing, with the same CMYK inks used to color the filament as you use in your color 2D printer at home. These inks can be easily removed and replaced as with 2D ink cartridges, offering a hybrid color 3D printing solution which most will be familiar with from their home printing systems.

An example of this technology sold today is the XYZprinting Da Vinci Color, and the Da Vinci Color Mini 3D printers. They offer full color 3D printing at affordable prices, and are the first accessible venture into full color 3D printable models.

da vinci color and da vinci color mini 3d printers
The Da Vinci Color (left) and Da Vinci Color Mini (right) are the first forays into lower cost color 3D printing.

You can also dye 3D printed parts, such as those printed in Nylon, to create a custom color.

Advantages of color 3D printing with FDM

        Far cheaper & more accessible: previously for multi-colored parts, technologies like PolyJet were the only option, and cost exponentially more to print – either from purchasing an industrial 3D printer that could cost over $200,000, or paying an expensive fee to a 3D printing service to have them print the part for you.

        Shallower learning curve: when color 3D printing was restricted to processes like PolyJet or Laminated Object Manufacturing, these large 3D printers required skilled operators to operate. Now with FDM 3D printers able to print in color, the barriers to entry are far lower.

Disadvantages of color 3D printing with FDM

        Colors can look washed out: if using a full color 3D printer like the Da Vinci Color, prints can look washed out and less bold. Some therefore prefer to stick with a desktop 3D printer like an Ultimaker or Creality or Qidi Tech printer, and set it up with the Palette 2S for multi color 3D printing.

        Slower: some industrial color 3D printing technologies can print exponentially faster than FDM, and print multiple parts simultaneously.

        Less accurate: color 3D printing technologies like Multi Jet Fusion and PolyJet are capable of extreme precision, with color 3D printed parts with incredibly crisp surface finishes and corners possible.

Part 2: Industrial Color 3D Printing Technologies

color 3d printing technologies

Binder Jetting

Also known as ColorJet 3D printing, Binder Jetting 3D printers were first released by ZCorp, which was later acquired by 3D Systems. Binder Jetting 3D printers are now sold under 3D Systems’ ColorJet range.

Binder Jetting involves depositing a layer of powder, and then selectively depositing a binding agent which solidifies the layer. The binder is colored with ink during this process, allowing for full color 3D prints across the entire CMYK color palette range. The process also uses no supports, so color 3D prints come out with no markings from where supports have been removed.

PolyJet / Material Jetting

PolyJet 3D printing was first patented by Objet back in 1999, and more recently merged with Stratasys in a multi-billion-dollar deal, with Stratasys the surviving company. It is the most similar color 3D printing process to traditional 2D inkjet printing, with thousands of tiny photopolymer droplets deposited onto the build tray that can be colored any color, before being cured by a UV light.

Not only can a full range of colors be used in PolyJet, but also a wide range of different materials within a single model. This offers vast and wide customization for rapid prototyping and low-volume part production.

Laminated Object Manufacturing / Selective Deposition Lamination

A less-known 3D printing technology, LOM / SDL 3D printing involves printing and cutting up standard A4 sheets of paper according to the model’s dimensions, and binding each layer together.

Full color 3D printing can be obtained by spraying each layer with the desired color, as is shown by MCor (now known as CleanGreen3D) 3D printers. Full color, durable paper parts can be printed, and do not require supports, with finished parts easily removable from the unused paper which is die-cut during the 3D printing process.

Multi Jet Fusion

Developed and commercialized by American tech giant HP, Multi Jet Fusion is somewhat similar to Binder Jetting in that it uses fusing agent on a powder bed. This fusing agent is deposited on the areas of the part that are to be solidified. The individual areas of the part can also be colored during the process, leading to full color 3D printed parts.

Conclusion

The future of color 3D printing looks very hopeful, with adaptors like the Palette making 3D printing in color far more accessible to hobbyists on an average salary.

With patents for some more industrial 3D printing technologies expiring in the near future, there is also reason to be excited for entrepreneurs looking to make low-cost 3D printer versions of existing technologies.

This has already happened for SLA 3D printers (in the form of low cost LCD 3D printers) as well as FDM — and to a lesser extent, SLS 3D printers — so we look forward to seeing if accessible PolyJet 3D printers start appearing in the next few years.