Few innovations in recent years have been as much a bearer of radical change across major industries as this particular technology. Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process that involves fashioning 3D objects based on a CAD model by adding material one layer at a time. This technology has been useful for generating custom parts, often for items with complex geometric structures. From custom prosthetics for patients to consumer items like eyewear and furniture to even confectionery products like chocolate bars, 3D printing has a bevy of useful applications. For instance, it can be used to make medical equipment when shortages occur such as face shields, respirator masks, and nasal swabs. In addition, making a PCB with a 3D printer for electronic equipment is also a possibility, potentially resulting in reduced costs, faster turnaround times, and purpose-built designs.
But despite the obvious benefits of 3D printing technology, many companies still balk at the idea of investing in it due to reasons chiefly related to cost and maintenance concerns. After all, 3D printers aren’t cheap. Basic models may cost $600 to $6,000 while industrial models can cost up to $750,000 for higher-spec units. When it comes to more cost-effective desktop printers like fused deposition modeling (FDM) machines, these can cost upwards of $1,000 depending on the build.
Pictured: an industrial selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer from EOS costs hundreds of thousands of dollars
Maintaining 3D printers can also be costly. Machine time and material costs are the primary cost drivers of all additive platforms. According to a 2015 study published by the International Cost Estimating and Analysis Association, material costs for additive manufacturing tend to be higher than traditional manufacturing materials.
Just like with any technical device, replacement parts may require you to shell out thousands of dollars. To make sure your 3D printers remain in tip-top shape, you have to perform basic maintenance tasks on a regular basis, such as cleaning the surface, calibration and offset adjustment, updating to the latest firmware, carrying out in-depth cleaning, and much more. These costs, and the fact that even preventative maintenance measures demand some technological know-how, make the prospect of investing in 3D printers very intimidating.
If the 3D printer is used in highly technical industries, like the medical field, time and costs related to training may be prohibitive. As highlighted by 3D Heals, printers like the Resin SLA involve careful material handling and post-processing to reduce toxicity risks for patients, physicians, and engineers. What’s more, the more complex the hardware is, the more engineers would be required to carry out material handling and pre-operative planning. It could result in a clash between the stakeholders and the engineers due to the difference in preferred methods for approaching a problem.
Despite these downsides, the benefits far outweigh the cons. Businesses who wish to boost efficiency, develop prototypes faster, and gain a competitive advantage over their competitors would benefit from integrating 3D printing technology into their operations. Doing so can help you learn how to design a CAD file for printing, zeroing in on best orientation, infill, support structure, and geometry for your parts. And the end result of investing in your own 3D printer is getting parts that are completely customized to your needs. One great example is seen in how BMW used 3D printing technology to manufacture alignment tools for their automobiles. The tools were, on average, 25-50% lighter than the original tools, thereby decreasing worker fatigue caused by lifting heavy equipment multiple times a day.
Pictured: 3D printing parts in-process in an industrial FDM machine
Unfortunately, 3D printing with desktop printers is limited. Commercial desktop printers only offer extrusion (FDM or FFF) and SLA-style printers, limiting the material and final form of the part. A great workaround is outsourcing and collaborating with an expert service like Xometry. Instead of having to learn how to design and adjust a printer for every material and printing method you want to try, you can outsource rapid prototypes to a manufacturing network. Xometry has seven 3D printing processes, giving you access to a vast selection of materials and post-production options. With industrial machines, there’s high repeatability between parts because industrial machines follow standardized printing parameters set by the equipment manufacturer. Simply put, there’s less room for error. And when you can create parts with durable materials, high repeatability between parts, and at a low cost, you can move beyond rapid prototyping to print end-use parts for your project.
Another draw to outsourcing 3D printing to a service like Xometry is you have access to a team that is composed of expert engineers who have extensive 3D printing experience, eliminating the need to hire a contractor or 3D printing technician onsite. You also get to control your production capacity, scaling up or scaling back depending on the current needs of your business. When you invest in a 3D printer, you invest significant capital that could otherwise be rerouted to other business needs.
With the business landscape evolving at a breakneck pace and disruptive innovations continue to emerge, companies hoping to create high-quality products, become more efficient, and increase their revenue must learn how to adopt technologies like 3D printing. Business owners and managers must understand when new technology is a fit for the work they do, and if it's worth the investment.
3D printing's ability to supercharge operations alone is already an impetus for investment. Businesses will be able to create early prototypes for prospective products, making the process of testing ideas and designs faster than usual. Then, when you're ready to achieve high-resolution 3D prints with high repeatability and with vast selection of materials and finishes, you can outsource to a 3D printing network like Xometry.