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.

Breadth/Application

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.

 

Obsolescence

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 www.3Diligent.com.

Hello New York!

Pretty awesome to see news of 3Diligent’s launch popping up in Times Square!

One month after launch, news of 3Diligent appeared on the PR Newswire feed in Times Square.  Needless to say, buzz about our offering is growing!

We are excited to help our customers and vendors on their 3D printing and rapid manufacturing needs.  Through our platform we connect customers with top quality vendors and facilitate the communication, bidding, and transaction processes creating a win-win situation for both parties.

So if you are a business looking for suppliers in the 3D printing space, we are your sourcing solution.  On our platform, access the capabilities of many vendors in real time, saving yourself loads of time and money.

If you are a service provider who has invested in next generation technologies and looking to maximize your machines’ utilization, we are your solution as well.  Via our algorithmic matching of customer RFQ to vendor capabilities, you’re hand delivered RFQs that you’re well positioned to support.

Customers, sign up today from the 3Diligent.com home page and gain access to the most powerful sourcing tool in the 3D Printing industry for free.  Getting competitive bids from qualified vendors has never been easier.  Vendors, contact us to start the qualification process to become a vendor today.  It’s also free to join.


Let us help your business Source Smarter. Visit www.3Diligent.com to learn more about us and sign up for free.  Any questions? Drop us a note in the comment section. 

3Diligent Raises Nearly $1M in Seed Round

Well the word is out: we’ve raised a nearly $1M seed round and launched our web portal, www.3Diligent.com.  We are thankful to have a fantastic set of investors and look forward to enhancing the user experience on the 3Diligent web portal for our customers and vendors!  Further thanks to the good folks at 3DPrint.com for a great writeup.

With this funding in hand, we’ve been put in a position to launch 3Diligent.com, invest in ongoing development, and spread the word about this fantastic resource for anyone seeking use of advanced manufacturing.

3Diligent is the sourcing solution for industrial rapid manufacturing.  We connect customers who need 3D printing, CNC machining, casting, molding and other rapid manufacturing technologies with qualified vendors to perform their job on time and to spec.

Our platform gives customers seamless access to multiple vendors with expertise in a wide arrange of rapid manufacturing technologies.  Customers submit an RFQ, the right set of vendors to complete the job are identified, and those vendors competitively bid on the project opportunity.  Customers are given the ability to directly converse with vendors via the platform to refine their request and arrive at the ideal service provider for their job.

Meanwhile, the platform gives our vendors access to more customers and the opportunity to utilize excess capacity.  Vendors with excess or idle capacity can offer competitive bids to get the most out of their machines.  This ability is bolstered by 3Diligent’s “veiled bidding” concept: customers and vendors are provided all the information they need before consummating a transaction (certifications, ratings, reviews, etc.), but their names are left out of it until the deal is reached.  This allows vendors to comfortably offer below market prices when they have the ability to do so.

Every vendor goes through 3Diligent’s qualification process before joining the platform and vendors are rated and reviewed by customers to ensure quality.  Further, every transaction on the platform is backed by a 100% satisfaction guarantee.  If your parts are not delivered to you on time and to spec, you will be given the option of your money back.

Thanks again to our investors!  We are very excited to bring the business community more efficient and affordable access to amazing rapid manufacturing technology with their backing!


Let us help your business source smarter. Sign up for free at www.3Diligent.com/signup to learn more about us and start taking advantage of our platform. Any questions? Drop us a note in the comment section. 

3Diligent: The Sourcing Solution for Industrial Grade Rapid Manufacturing

Instant Access to the Latest and Greatest 3D Printing, CNC Machining, and More…

3D Printing is an incredible technology.  But it’s expensive.  If you want to access the latest technologies but don’t want to fork over a small fortune for a machine or waste tons of time hunting down vendors, only to find they don’t have your desired material, process, or reasonable pricing, 3Diligent is for you.  

The 3DP Story

3D Printing is a game changer.  And we want to help your business access the best of it faster and for less.

Article after article says it, from The Economist to Forbes to Business Insider.  There is no denying that additive manufacturing (the more technical name for 3D printing) is fundamentally changing the way things are made.

But it’s somewhat remarkable to think that this is a technology that – at it’s heart – has been around for more than three decades.  A number of things have held this technology back from adoption – patent protections, speed concerns, size limitations – but quality and cost have generally been established as the biggest recent issues.

Recent Developments

Recent years have been kind to 3D printing on the quality front.  Material science has improved massively – with aerospace grade plastics and metals arriving in the market.  Production accuracy has similarly improved, with accuracy from industrial printers capable of meeting or exceeding +/- .005″.  Case in point, GE is manufacturing all of its next generation LEAP jet fuel nozzles by way of additive manufacturing.

There have been strides on the cost front, but cheap the technology is not.  Certain patents expiring on early technologies like Stereolithography (SLA) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and community efforts like the Rep Rap Project gave rise to desktop printers like the Makerbot Replicator and Form One.  These personal printers could be offered for a few thousand dollars – relative peanuts compared to industrial printers.   But those industrial printers – the ones achieving the quality and certifications that I mentioned earlier – still carry price tags in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.  If you want to access this incredible professional and production-grade technology to achieve something better than a basic prototype, what do you do?

The Printer’s Dilemma

Buy a printer?  Not a chance…not with that price tag and related obsolescence risks!  By the time you hired and trained staff internally, it’s a safe bet the printer you bought has been surpassed by a slew of faster, better models.

Lease a printer?  The residual values built into leases after just a couple years make it almost the same as buying a printer without the capital asset.

Outsource to a service provider?  This makes the most sense for all but the biggest companies.  And even for mega corporations, it still makes sense to outsource some production that isn’t viable in-house – whether as overflow or for less commonly used materials and/or processes.  The trouble is, utilizing a service bureau, or even a few, has its own issues.  Service bureaus face the same concerns as their customers – trying to win the race against obsolescence by keeping machines running all the time, with full build trays, and striving to stock the right amount of material to perfectly match demand.  Since every vendor takes a different approach to recouping investment – and since no vendor is perfect at inventory management – pricing can be highly variable from one service provider to the next – sometimes 10x.  Further, since no provider carries all the technologies in the market, let alone all the available material-process combinations, even a handful of select service providers are not enough.

And that’s describing the challenge of how to go about 3D printing.  We haven’t even touched on the separate analysis of when to use 3D Printing, and the fact that it isn’t always the best option relative to CNC Machining, Molding, Casting, and a handful of other rapid manufacturing techniques.  How does a company not only access 3D Printing efficiently and affordably, but also know that they’re deploying the most cost effective technology for the particular job at hand?

The 3D Print Sourcing Solution

That’s where 3Diligent comes in.

3Diligent has networked independent service providers who have invested in the industrial grade rapid manufacturing technologies we’re talking about.  When customers submit an RFQ through our secure platform, our algorithm identifies the vendors equipped to bid on the job, then facilitates messaging and transactions between the interested parties.

So you’re not limited by a single provider’s material or process constraints.  You’re not limited by the backlog they may have.  You’re accessing the available capacity of the market.  And doing so not only provides more seamless and efficient access to the capability you seek, but also allows you to take advantage of serendipity.  If one vendor has excess capacity, or they have a scheduled run that your job could slide nicely alongside, you’re able to identify that vendor and take advantage of circumstances that may allow you below market pricing.

Savings of time.  Savings of money.  In sum, the ability to efficiently and effectively the best in 3D Printed metal, plastic, and more.  3Diligent.  More on our sourcing solution in posts to come.