Working in engineering and manufacturing, you are bombarded every day with claims about how emerging technologies are going to ‘revolutionise’ the industry. 3D printing (or Additive Manufacturing, for the initiated) is one of these technologies. Knowing when to take the plunge and bring unfamiliar technology ‘in-house’ however, can be extremely difficult to figure out. If your timing is off, it’s very easy to spend a lot of money without much benefit.As a 3D printing specialist, I have seen some businesses adopt the technology very well, and many others adopt it very poorly. If you are considering a purchase, here are some guidelines to follow that will ensure your money is well spent. Make sure you’ve done these five things, before you buy.
1) Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of 3D printing.
Officially, there are seven types of additive manufacturing. Each of these has multiple sub-categorisations, and there are nearly identical acronyms to distinguish between them (FDM, SLS, SLA, DMLS, MJF, DLS, CFF, SLM, DLP…). As each of these types will do an excellent job building certain designs, and an awful job at others, it is critical that you understand the differences.
2) Clearly define the types of parts that you will make.
No one 3D printer can make every kind of part well. Are you making jigs and fixtures for a machine shop? Prototype watch straps for a high-end brand? Aerospace parts? Knowing what the printer/s will be used for is critical when choosing the right machine.
3) Have some parts made on the machine that you are interested in buying.
Never buy a machine without seeing how it deals with a design that you have created. Sales teams will often try to ‘wow’ you with a beautiful part that has been carefully optimised to show-off the best features of the technology in question. The printer might not perform quite as well on your own designs however, and you’re better off knowing this in advance.
4) Ensure the CAD file types that you work with are supported.
There are well over one hundred 3D file formats. The slicer (software that prepares your design for 3D printing) will usually only accept two or three of them, so make sure that you are able to convert from what you have, to what you need.
5) Consider the post-processing that will be needed.
Once the job has finished, the motion stops, and the hardware finally falls silent, most people expect to be able to reach in and extract the finished object. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. Every different type of machine has complex post-processing steps that must be followed to achieve a good quality, and consistent result. This can be simply plunging the part into water to allow support material to dissolve away, or a complex, multi-day procedure involving immersion in hazardous chemicals and precisely controlled furnace operations. In either case, it’s important that you understand the process beforehand.
If you’ve completed these five steps, and you’re happy with what you’ve found out, then it’s likely that you are ready to dive in and start buying. But what if you haven’t, or you’re not? It’s very common for companies to require different types of parts depending on the project. For most firms, change is the only constant, and a need for batches of smooth and glossy presentation models can easily morph into a requirement for strong and robust functional parts in a matter of weeks and months.
If you find yourself in this situation, unless you’re willing to buy many different types of 3D printers and spend huge amounts of money on hardware and training, then it probably doesn’t make sense to bring 3D printing in-house.
That doesn’t mean you should miss out on the benefits though. Specialist firms, including my own company, Printpool, can provide the benefit of a huge 3D printing department without these drawbacks. Getting expert advice on the right technology to create your design is often free, you can easily order occasional 3D prints and prototypes to be dispatched within 1-3 working days, and if you do have a high demand for parts then a 3D printing subscription could be a great alternative option also.