Key Considerations For Any Company Buying a 3D Printer

As a tidal wave of 3D Printing news has crashed across the headlines of news outlets, corporate leadership has taken notice.  Whether a company has a pressing need or application for 3D Printing, it has become an increasingly common Chief Officer mandate to “take stock of what 3D Printing is, how it can/will impact our company, and come up with a strategy of what to do about it.”

Because 3D Printing already provides a fundamentally more efficient way to prototype most products and increasing ability to print end-use parts on-demand, most companies find that there is a place for 3D Printing in their strategic plans.  Often, the decision boils down to buying a 3D Printer (or several), utilizing a service provider or providers, or some hybrid of the two.

In this three-part series “3D Printing – Buy Then Build vs. Buy Built,” we set out to provide a framework to consider purchasing printers and utilizing service providers to fill your needs.

In this first post, we set out to discuss the topic of buying a printer and then building parts in-house.  Below are some of the considerations companies should take into account when assessing whether they should buy a 3D Printer.


Hard Costs

This is the most obvious one.  While the most basic desktop printers can be had for a few hundred bucks, industrial grade equipment starts in the tens of thousands of dollars.  For top of the line plastics equipment, you’re looking at several hundred thousand dollars.  Investigating metal printing?  Regularly those machines cost in excess of a million.

You might be thinking, why such a broad range of prices?  It comes down to functionality, reliability, speed, and size.  Industrial printers are capable of printing in a broader range of materials, more accurately and reliably, faster and often with bigger build trays.

But do those differences matter to you?  Can you get what you need or want out of a desktop printer?  Or some percentage of what you need/want out of a desktop printer and the rest from a service provider?  Beyond the hard cost of purchasing, there are also the costs of feedstock and maintenance, so weigh them all.

Get a sense of the hard dollars you have to spend first to make sure you’re looking in the right ballpark of options.


Soft Costs

Once you’ve got an operating budget, consider the human impacts within your organization of making a purchase.

Do you have the people to operate and maintain a machine effectively?  Do you have a culture that supports CAD design and will keep that printer humming?

It’s important that you can either carve out time from existing personnel’s schedule to develop expertise on the system, or to hire new staff that can take ownership of making the most out of your 3D Printing investment.  Realize that there is both art and science to operating a machine – we’re not to push button parts yet – and there’s a significant learning curve that comes along with a printer purchase.

Make sure you have the manpower and organizational commitment to support your investment.  The last thing you want is a high-dollar investment growing cobwebs in the corner of the shop floor.


Once you’ve got a sense of what you can spend and how much staffing up will bite out of your budget, then consider how you’d like to use your equipment.  Different machines are capable of different types of printing, and no single printer can do it all.

First, are you looking to print in metal or plastic?  If metal, there are powder bed and blown powder options to consider.  All are capable of end use parts, but different machines and processes lend themselves to different applications.

If plastic, do your prints need to be functional?  Or are you simply looking for accurate models?

If you need functional models with some durability, a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machine might be best for you.  Those machines offer a range of thermoplastics, some of which are quite durable.  Ultem 9085, for instance, is an FDM thermoplastic that has received FAA certifications for its high resistance to heat and fire.

If your models don’t need to be durable, PolyJet or Stereolithography might be a better fit.  Those printer types use resin as the “ink” to build their 3D Printed parts.  As a result of this, they are incredibly accurate – PolyJet can print in 16 micron layers – but not especially durable over time.

Also, what sort of geometries are you trying to achieve?  SLS, for instance, has virtually no limitations on design freedom.  That process works by laying down one layer of fine powder at a time, selectively fusing together those particles in the layer that it wants solid, and leaves the rest of the layer alone.  Then another layer of powder, another run of the laser, again and again, until the part is made.  Because the “extra powder” still sits in the bed, it serves as a support to whatever is being built above.  This extra powder can also be recycled for future parts.

PolyJet can achieve something near this level of freedom, as some machines are capable of  printing both end material and dissolvable support material.  Meanwhile, stereolithography machines require supports for overhanging areas, and FDM parts do as well.  These supports require manual removal.

Do you need color in your prints?  How big do your prints need to be?  Do you need to produce in a very specific material?  All are worth considering.

Build out a list of “need to haves” and “want to haves” (and possibly “can’t haves”), then figure out whether there’s a machine or collection of machines in your budget that fit the bill.



We call out some of the capabilities and limitations of different technologies in the previous paragraph with a hint of hesitation.  That’s because the market is evolving so fast.  Market fixtures like Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS, SLM Solutions, and Arcam AB who’ve put those products into market may introduce new functions or features to next generation models to refine existing processes.  After all, the list of potential innovators and competitors in the space is growing.  We’ve seen traditional names like Dremel, Renishaw, Mitsubishi, and Cincinnati recently enter the ranks of the 3D Printing world.  As of Wohlers and Associates last count, there are more than 300 “FDM Knockoffs” that utilize plastic extrusion.  Beyond those who’ve already entered the market, every couple weeks we’re also hearing about another “breakthrough innovation” that claims it will soon render existing equipment obsolete.  Many of these innovations are currently still in development, but HP, Carbon3D, and Gizmo3D have all offered compelling prototype videos to announce technologies that may massively accelerate the speed of printing, especially in plastics.

Now, it remains to be seen whether any company’s innovation renders your printer obsolete in the truest sense of the word.  Printers will continue printing as long as the manufacturer continues providing technical support, and probably a good while longer depending on the model.  Consider the implications of this for you and your business.  If a printer with markedly faster speed, accuracy, material breadth, or build size hit the market, would you need it, or could you keep getting by with this investment without being put at a competitive disadvantage?  If you would want or need that new printer, how quickly do you need to recoup your investment vs. utilizing a service provider during that time?

Make sure that you’re going to be comfortable with your purchase when the “next big thing” hits the market.

Consider Alternatives

So you’ve considered cost, printer options, and obsolescence risks.  And now you have a plan reflecting the fixed and variable costs of your investment, a few target printers in the right range, an estimate of the time/resources required to staff the printer(s), and a degree of comfort with the state of that machine on the obsolescence curve.

If you didn’t hit any snags along the way, you’ve got yourself a viable option.  You could call it the Buy Then Build Option.

But is it necessarily the right option?  Better take a second to consider alternatives.  You could do some core printing in-house and outsource the rest.  Or you could outsource all of it as you wait for the market to mature.

An exploration of the “Hybrid” and “Buy Everything Built” options will appear in our next posts.


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, the Sourcing Solution for Industrial Grade Rapid Manufacturing. He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting. For more information about 3D Printing and to access 3Diligent’s marketplace of 3D Printing vendors, visit

Submitting an RFQ For 3D Printing Using The 3Diligent Platform

In this week’s post we will go over the steps to submit an RFQ for 3D printing and Rapid Manufacturing using the 3Diligent platform.  An RFQ is a Request For Quote and serves as a blueprint of your project for our Vendors.  This is what you will utilize on the platform and what Vendors will reference to create their bid.  You can watch our walkthrough in the video below and read the rest of this post for a step-by-step breakdown of the process.

Log In / Sign Up

The first step is to log in to the secure 3Diligent portal or sign up if you don’t have an account yet.  You will be directed to your dashboard where you can see the production overview and lifecycle of your projects at the top, tutorial videos at the bottom, and access to different tools like the knowledge center, order history, orders and RFQs in process.  When you click the “Create RFQ” button, you will be taken inside the tool to the project basics.


Project Basics 

Once inside the “Create RFQ” tool you first need to enter the name and description of your project.  This is very useful within the 3Diligent interface to get your project matched to the right set of Vendors.  It’s also useful for our Vendors to know how this part fits in to a broader project, so they can offer up any expertise they may have straight away.  Next is the confidentiality provision, if you want to opt into it.  3Diligent Vendors are always expected to exercise discretion with customer RFQs, but the provision provides additional protection.

Next, you will need to upload the files for your different parts.  You are able to upload different types of CAD (computer-aided design) files, among them .stl, .igs, and .stp formats.  You then need to specify which unit of measurement the files were designed in.  This is particularly important for our Vendors to 3D print or manufacture the parts in the correct size.  Then, there is a box to choose whether there is one single part to the RFQ (one file) or multiple distinct parts (more than one file); this makes it easier for our Vendors to know what they’re working with.

The next step is to choose the quantity that you need for the parts you have uploaded and set up the delivery date.  Setting the delivery date allows you to choose when you want your parts in hand, not necessarily when the parts are going to be produced.  Keep in mind that we have Vendors all over the U.S. who will be bidding for your job, so the delivery date allows them to plan for your project.  Next, you choose your material and the process you want our Vendors to use.  One feature we have on our site is the option to “let vendor choose” for material and process.  With rapid manufacturing, a lot of times it’s hard to tell exactly which material/process is needed.  Our Vendors can provide you with an opinion as to whether 3D printing, CNC machining, or Injection Molding would be best.  The beauty of 3Diligent is that you can get quotes using different processes and you can choose one that is best suited to your needs.


Project Specifics

Now we get into more specifics for the project.  First, specify what type of surface finish you would like, be it smooth (which may need further processing) or rough.  The next step is submitting the specifications and tolerances, which you can do by highlighting them in the box provided or alternatively by uploading a PDF file with any drawings or pictures.  Finally, there is a field for “Additional Requests” where you can post anything that might not be clear in the rest of the process.  This could be anything from assurances that certain features will come out in the print, an insurance that they will provide an inspection report, or really anything that comes to mind that you might need from a Vendor – this is where you will request it.


Shipping and Payment

Next, we get into the details of logistics where you specify the shipping address.  This information allows us to give the Vendor a zip code so they can provide a complete bid inclusive of sales tax and shipping costs.  Then we provide you with access to our payment information.  Bank Transfer, PayPal, Credit Card, and Retainer are all options.  Certain payment options, such as Credit Card and Retainer, allow you to move quickly on any bid you might receive.


Submit RFQ for 3D Printing

Lastly we are taken to the summary page where you can review all the details of your RFQ submission.  If you are not ready to submit yet, you can save it or alternatively you can submit that RFQ.  After that, all that is left to do is say “Congrats” – you have submitted an RFQ!  Be on the look out for bids soon after submitting your RFQ along with messages from our Vendors regarding any questions they may have.  As you can see, the RFQ submission process can be quite easy by following a few simple steps.  If you have any questions or comments, please drop us a note in the comment section or email us at and we’ll be happy to help you in any way we can.