June 17, 2019
Maybe it was the promise of a shorter prototyping cycle; maybe it was the latest hype surrounding 3D printed weaponry. Whatever brought the technology to your attention, you’re thinking about bringing 3D printing into your company’s operations. Hype of yesteryear led many to believe that 3D printers were essentially real-life Star Trek replicators, basically microwaves for production where you’d be able to hit ‘print’ and just wait for the ding to retrieve your brand new part. Today’s realities place the technology more squarely in the realm of manufacturing operations than in the home… or the Holodeck.
Where is 3D printing now and what do you need to know about it before bringing it into your company’s operations?
Launching any new technology requires a strong foundation to be laid, with a thorough understanding of the rationale in changing operations up. 3D printing offers a multitude of benefits for a variety of businesses, but new users need to understand the whats and whys behind the intrigue before they adopt.
Among the primary considerations to take into account -- before looking to the right-fit machinery or service provider, and well before installation day -- are:
- Why additive?
- In-house installation versus service bureau
- Materials needs
- Physical footprint
- DfAM / software
- Vendor/distributor relationship
- Updates for hardware/software/firmware
- Specialized training needs
- Competitive versus complementary positioning for traditional technologies
1. Why additive?
The first question to ask before adopting additive manufacturing is why you want it in your operations. What new benefits does the technology add that existing installations don’t meet? What additional capabilities are you looking to bring in? 3D printing -- for its myriad savings in terms of cost, time, materials, and weight; for all its unique geometries; for all the bragging rights that come with, “I have a 3D printer!” -- is not always the answer. In many applications, like high-volume serial production, injection molding remains a more cost-effective, proven option. Sometimes the need for additional training can be a sticking point; sometimes it’s down to the physical footprint available for new machinery. Consider, carefully, whether 3D printing is a good fit: do your research, think about what you hope to accomplish.
If it is a fit, think next about what it is you’d like your 3D printing system to accomplish: are you making prototypes? Structural components? Art?
Finding the best system for your applications necessitates full clarity about exactly what those applications are and the needs they have. Creating highly visual architectural models may require full-color sandstone 3D printing, while fabricating functional jigs and fixtures would be a better fit for a desktop extrusion-based 3D printer that can handle reinforced plastics.
3. in-house installation versus service bureau
In addition to investing in and bringing in-house 3D printing capabilities, many businesses choose to work with service bureaus. These service companies often offer a variety of additive manufacturing options with strong portfolios of materials and systems available for use, often with free or low-cost sample parts to physically handle different materials and see different colors offered. Service bureaus have already invested in various technologies and employ experienced designers and technicians already well-versed in DfAM and 3D printing operation, allowing for immediate access to expertise.
Service bureaus, in many cases, represent a point of entry into business 3D printing, through which organizations can test the waters of new technologies. Low-volume orders or specific parts can be run through service bureaus, shipping to either the company or its customers directly. Upon review of the use of 3D printing on a job basis, it may prove to be more beneficial in the long term to invest in in-house additive manufacturing systems, while in other cases with more occasional use of the technology, service bureaus may prove to be the better long-term option.
For the sake of examining questions of best fit, we’ll assume in-house 3D printing is an option and continue to look into more questions that need to be asked.
4. Materials needs
What materials are you using? The two biggest materials segments are polymers (plastics) and metals; other materials are possible as well, including food, biomaterials, and cement, with specialized tool heads and/or systems. If working with polymers, what material capabilities do you need -- the structural integrity of engineering-grade plastics or the more eco-friendly benefits of low-cost PLA?
Understanding the materials needs will inform the type of system that will work best with them, such as consideration of SLA versus SLS versus FDM 3D printing for polymers, or DED versus EBM for metals. Work with commodity plastics may be a good fit for systems that can work with pelletized plastics, for example, rather than extruded filament.
5. Physical footprint
How big of a machine are you looking to bring in to operations? While desktop systems can often accurately be referred to by the footprint they require -- able to fit onto an actual desk or a workbench space -- industrial systems require space for the 3D printer as well as supplemental equipment, which may take up just as much, if not more, floor space.
Many industrial systems include the 3D printer and post-processing system and need a special area as well for finishing work, which may include breaking prints out from powder, cleaning them, curing resins in UV chambers, removing supports, smoothing and polishing, painting, and any number of other after-the-print steps.
All 3D printing and associated activity must be undertaken in a well-ventilated area. An increasing number of systems are safe to operate in office environments, but precautions still must be taken. Because of the relatively nascent stage of the industry, long-term health effects of various technologies are still not fully understood; studies from such organizations as UL continue to examine the safety of operation.
Powder-based systems, metals in particular, require additional attention be paid to material handling concerns.
7. DfAM / software
Bringing additive manufacturing into traditionally subtractive manufacturing environments is not so simple as a drop-in replacement setup; in addition to typically requiring different types of materials and operations setups, design files must be rethought. In addition to simply updating the output type for a CAD file (typically .stl), often the designs themselves must be reconfigured.
A rapidly-growing focus area for 3D printing centers around design for additive manufacturing (DfAM), which allows designers to take advantage of the unique geometries and capabilities of 3D printing. New suites of software specially tailored for use in additive manufacturing, often incorporating generative design, topology optimization, and other advanced capabilities, are available for use, many of them from software companies that are already mainstays in traditional design. Several 3D printers also operate with proprietary software.
In each case, designers and operators will best be able to employ the additive manufacturing system following dedicated training for each software suite and machine in use. Such education and training currently stands as one of the most significant barriers to adoption of additive manufacturing.
8. Vendor/distributor relationship
Once a system has been selected, terms of purchase come into focus. Will you be acquiring the system directly from its manufacturer? From a certified distribution partner? From a second-hand reseller?
Purchase through a manufacturer-approved channel will ensure the best options for support in terms of installation, training, system warranty, and ongoing updates. Many of the best channel partners and distribution companies maintain close relationships with each manufacturer of portfolio systems, adding credibility and expertise to their offerings. Integrating 3D printing into operations represents an investment more than a one-time purchase, and building a strong relationship is an important pillar of this investment.
9. Updates for hardware/software/firmware
Once installed, how will your 3D printer receive updates? Via the cloud? Physical installations of new parts or capabilities from supplier representatives? Some cloud-connected systems will see updates every few weeks, while others not connected to the cloud will see less frequent updates. Be aware of the updates to the latest operating systems, bug fixes, and more, as well as how they will be implemented.
10. Specialized training needs
What will your team need to know about 3D printing? Who from the team will need to know it? How will they receive training?
Online training courses -- from introductions to 3D printing to advanced DfAM -- are increasingly available from a variety of qualified instructors, often presented in webinar format for on-demand viewing. Many allow for direct communication with course instructors and other participants for immediate feedback and understanding.
Also available are on-site training, often from the suppliers of purchased product suites, and in-person courses, which are typically offered through universities and/or industry organizations.
11. Competitive versus complementary positioning for traditional technologies
3D printing will, in most cases, not replace the need for traditional subtractive manufacturing technologies. In many areas, the offerings are simply not viable from a competitive standpoint. Structural integrity, tensile strength, and isotropic properties tend to be more consistent from established technologies, which also largely outperform additive manufacturing in terms of volume production. Where 3D printing tends to show competitive advantage is in prototyping, short-run and one-off production (e.g., small product runs, customized products, replacement parts), and complex geometries.
In many cases, the manufacturing floor can benefit significantly from the incorporation of 3D printing into the existing workflow, working alongside traditional machinery for a complementary production process. Finding the best applications and areas of best fit for new technology is key for its successful integration.
Bringing 3D printing into business operations is an involved process that must be well thought through before any investment is made. Identifying best-fit technology that will meet your business’ needs is critical to the strategic integration of additive manufacturing systems into an existing company. Workflow will change, employees’ duties will be impacted, and total cost of operation must be taken into account.
Asking the right questions -- indeed, knowing which questions to ask -- is an important first step in investing into 3D printing for your business.
In considering certain capabilities, such as speed, the capacity to 3D print at scale, and isotropic strength, extrusion-based technology has made significant advances. Many of these desirable qualities come together in offerings from Essentium:
- The High Speed Extrusion (HSE) 3D Printer offers performance up to 10x faster than the competition’s to offer 3D printing at scale, sacrificing neither accuracy nor speed
- Engineering-grade materials bring together expertise from Essentium and chemical partner BASF to offer professional quality in a variety of high-strength filaments
Asking the right questions is important, and so is knowing who to ask. Contact Essentium today for more information.