Key Considerations for Weighing the Purchase of a 3D Printer
Cullen Hilkene posted on December 15, 2015 | 11737 views

As a tidal wave of 3D printing news has crashed across the headlines, corporate leadership has taken notice.  

Whether a company has a pressing need for 3D printing or not, it has become an increasingly common Chief Officer mandate to "take stock of what 3D printing is, how it can impact our company, and come up with a strategy of what to do about it."

3D printing provides a more efficient way to prototype most products and has an increasing ability to print end-use parts on-demand, so many companies can find a place for 3D printing in their strategic plans.  

Often, the decision boils down to striking the right balance between purchasing 3D printers and utilizing service providers or marketplaces to best match the company’s needs to the available technology.

Below are some of the considerations companies should take into account when assessing whether they should buy a 3D printer.

What are your applications for 3D Printing?

Before diving into printer research, it’s important to first consider how you'd like to use your equipment.  Will you be prototyping?  Producing replacement parts?  Creating custom tools to support your operations?  

Different machines are capable of different types of printing, and no single printer can do it all.  So if you know in advance what you’re hoping to do, that can massively expedite your search.

Once you have a sense of desired uses, consider whether you need to print in metal or whether plastics and resins will do.  If you need metal prints, there are powder bed, blown powder, binder jetting, and hybrid 3DP/CNC options to consider.  

All are capable of printing end use parts, but each process lends itself to different applications and material options, and not all machines executing a particular process are created equal.      

Outputs from a selection of 3D printing processes.  Clockwise, starting with robot: SLS, DLP, FDM, PolyJet, Stereolithography, Selective Laser Melting/DMLS, Electron Beam Melting.
Outputs from a selection of 3D printing processes. Clockwise, starting with robot: SLS, DLP, FDM, PolyJet, Stereolithography, Selective Laser Melting/DMLS, Electron Beam Melting.

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. 

3D printed surface finish varies from one process to the next.  Clockwise, from top left: SLS, DLP, FDM, PolyJet, Stereolithography (fuzzy due to camera), DMLS.
3D printed surface finish varies from one process to the next. Clockwise, from top left: SLS, DLP, FDM, PolyJet, Stereolithography (fuzzy due to camera), DMLS.

If your models don't need to be durable, PolyJet, Stereolithography, or Digital Light Processing machines might be a better fit.  Those printer types use resin as their "ink" to build their 3D printed parts.  

These types of machines are quite accurate - PolyJet can print in 16 micron layers, for instance - but their prints tend to wear faster than plastic ones from an FDM or SLS printer.

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 loose, "extra powder" still sits in the bed alongside the fused particles, it serves as a support to whatever is being built above.  When a job is finished, you can basically pull the solid parts out of a “cake” of loose powder and after you’ve blown out the loose power, you’ve got a finished part.  This extra powder can also be recycled for future parts as well.

These complex geometries – including a moving Ferris wheel – were printed via Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) with no assembly whatsoever.
These complex geometries – including a moving Ferris wheel – were printed via Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) with no assembly whatsoever.

PolyJet can achieve something near this level of freedom, as many of those machines are capable of printing both end material and dissolvable support material.  Same goes for certain industrial grade FDM machines.  

Meanwhile, vat polymerization processes like stereolithography and DLP only print in a single material, so you’ll need to print both your part and its supports in a single material, requiring a more labor-intensive post-production process.

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.

If you aren’t certain about which process will serve for your application, consider testing some of your parts on various machines by using a service bureau or 3D Printing marketplace.

Build out a list of "need to haves," "want to haves," and “can’t haves” to frame up your research.

 

The hard costs of operating a 3D printer

Once you have a sense of what processes might be a fit for your applications, it’s time to consider which printers actually fit your budget.  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 grand.  Investigating metal printing?  Those machines regularly cost in excess of a million bucks.

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 outsource the rest from a service provider?  Beyond the purchasing the printer, there are also the hard costs of feedstock materials and maintenance, so be sure to take them all into account.

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

Industrial grade 3D Printers will cost you a few of these.  Quarter pictured atop a stereolithography-printed part.

Industrial grade 3D Printers will cost you a few of these. Quarter pictured atop a stereolithography-printed part.

3D printing entails soft costs as well

Once you’ve tallied the hard costs of owning and operating a 3D printer, be sure to consider the human impacts 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?

If you’re making an investment, it's important that you can either carve out time from existing personnel's schedules to develop expertise on the system or hire new staff that can ensure you get the most out of your 3D printing investment.  

This is especially true if you’re making a sizable industrial grade purchase.  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.


Obsolescence and the pace of 3D printing innovation

Earlier, we called out some of the capabilities and limitations of different technologies with a hint of hesitance.  That's because the market is evolving so fast.  

Market fixtures like Stratasys, 3D Systems, Envisiontec, EOS, SLM Solutions, VoxelJet, ExOne, and Arcam AB may introduce new functions or features to next generation models as refinements to existing processes.  After all, the list of potential innovators and competitors in the space is growing.  

Just consider a partial list of traditional manufacturing or 2D printing names we’ve seen enter the ranks of the 3D Printing world in the past couple years: Dremel, Renishaw, Mitsubishi, Cincinnati, HP, Ricoh, Canon, Toshiba

We’ve also seen plenty of startups.  As of Wohlers and Associates last count, there are more than 300 "FDM Knockoffs" that utilize plastic extrusion.  It isn’t just plastic extrusion either.  

Carbon3D and Gizmo3D released compelling prototype videos announcing vat polymerization technologies that may massively accelerate the speed of printing in resin (and perhaps other materials…we’ll see when they enter the market).  

It’s tough to keep track of all the machinery, although Senvol and ENGINEERING.com both have databases that do a good job of trying.

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 if you buy a reliable 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(s) when the "next big thing" hits the market.


There are alternatives to buying all of the 3D printers you need

Once you’ve considered these factors, you should have a good sense of the printer options that might work for your applications.  You should also have a pretty good sense of whether the cost of those printers in both hard dollars and manpower align to your company’s vision. 

With those considerations in mind, it’s important to consider the best combination of buying those printers that address your needs and “renting” use of them for on-demand parts.  

Frankly, most companies can’t invest in purchasing all of the machines their business could possibly need.  Even companies with unlimited budgets often prefer to outsource a significant portion of their printing to provide strategic flexibility.  

With that in mind, they work through individual service providers (e.g., Stratasys Direct) or service marketplaces (e.g., 3Diligent) that have networked many service providers.  Utilizing services can serve as a useful hedge against some of the fixed costs and related risks that come with in-house production.

3D printing services are often a viable alternative or supplement to in-house production; make sure you’ve properly explored those avenues before making a purchase decision.


Your decision

It is with good reason that corporate leadership wants to include 3D printing as part of its business strategy.  There are a number of considerations to take into account as you plan how to best leverage this technology in your company.  

Once you’ve taken stock of your desired applications, hard and soft costs, your risk tolerance, and investigated service options, you’ll be in a great place to make an informed 3D printing purchase decision.

Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, a service marketplace for 3D Printing.  He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting.  

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