Evaluating Your 3D Printing Options: Advice from the Experts
Todd Grimm posted on January 18, 2012 |
As your investment increases, so will the demands of your evaluation. Use the following advice when ...

by AMUG members, edited by Todd Grimm

Editor's Note

As your investment increases, so will the demands of your evaluation. Use the following advice when making a big investment in professional and production 3D printers.

Written as a first-person account to retain the flavor of experience, this piece is a collective work by members of the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) with a major contribution from Kevin Ayers.



In Short
  • Get it right; conduct a thorough investigation of all 3D printer options.
  • Assess your needs then research your options.
  • Reach out to salespeople, users and industry experts.

Evaluating new technologies is an epic adventure full of little defeats and small victories. There are joys and sorrows; truths and deceptions; and risks and rewards. At stake are your job, your career, your company’s viability and the future of your company’s employees.

3D printing procurements can be significant capital investments running to well over a million dollars. So it’s worth it to get it right, and that means hard work on your part.

Let’s discuss some ways that you can get the facts and develop clear a picture of what your future holds.

Do Your HomeworkWomen doing research

Your first homework assignment is to know your company. What are its products? How are they manufactured? Who are your customers, and what are their expectations? What is the engineering methodology? How open is your company and its employees to change? Upon getting budget approval, when must you deliver on what is promised?

It may appear that the answers to these questions are a bit subjective and elusive, but not addressing these queries and planning for them will kill your efforts before you have any chance of success.

Next, move outside of your company to gather information. But do so with an understanding that you will never get the whole picture by sitting in front of your computer. I would only use what is on the Internet to get an understanding of the fundamentals and basic considerations. This is a big industry, everything changes constantly and hearsay is everywhere.

Your next step is to attend 3D printing tradeshows, such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ (SME) RAPID. Be open with all of the vendors about what you need, and yes, see them all. It may not appear that a particular vendor has anything that will work for you, but looks are deceiving. I am constantly amazed at the things I pick up, thinking that they are useless, only to find later that they save a big project or rescue a product line. Be a sponge — absorb everything.

Absorb everythingAbsorb everything but assume that there are some inaccuracies in the information. Salespeople are responsible for selling you what they have to offer. I’m not condemning salespeople—some of my best friends in the industry are in sales. Most are ethical and will even steer you towards a competitor when it becomes obvious that your applications don’t match their capabilities. But some are not.  

During the show and conference, keep focusing on your applications. Do not be afraid of asking any questions, whether you think they are dumb or not. Be wise about being dumb. Opt to appear dumb in front of strangers rather than when standing before your management after investing $1.0 million in the wrong equipment.

Be social and make contacts. Seek out the key people in the industry and try to make their acquaintance. They will save you time and anguish. The vast majority of these industry players are the smartest and best people that you will ever meet. They were once in your position, so they are often happy to share their experience.

You have done your homework. You’ve learned the fundamentals. You’ve went to the tradeshows. What is next?

InvestigationInvestigate 3D printing options

Narrow the field to two candidates for final review and selection. Pick two pieces of equipment, and the materials and peripheral equipment needed, that will do the job best. Here are my six critical steps to culling your options.

1. Dig up the dirt

Pull out your business cards from the show and call all the salespeople. After the initial discussion of your needs, steer the conversations towards the limitations of their competitors’ products. It is the salesperson’s job to know his competition.

Take good notes. After talking to all, compare what you’ve heard. If everyone is saying similar things, then take what they’ve said seriously.

2. Benchmark (see Engineering.com's Evaluation Checklist for more details)

Grab files for parts that are good representations of what you will be making. Have these benchmark parts made by all of the vendors. Instruct them to make and deliver two of each part: one raw (unfinished—straight out of the machine) and one finished to your specifications.

Upon receipt and processing, review and compare the benchmark parts. This should confirm much of what you know, but it will also open your eyes to other considerations.

Use the benchmark parts to maintain momentum and deflect detractors. 3D printed parts are engaging. Show them to management and advise them of your early findings. Also, use the parts to educate them about the technologies — a little knowledge will lead to inaccurate conclusions and misunderstandings.

3. Customer references

Ask for and contact users of the technologies. You need unbiased opinions and user-level insights. When combined with benchmark parts, user referrals will give you a bigger, clearer picture.

If you can arrange it, go see the customers at their sites. You will see and learn a lot. Observe the whole process and ask questions. The customer on-site visit is much more open and personal (than a telephone call), so users tend to be more willing to share both good and bad experiences.

This is also a good time to gather facility requirements. Vendors tend to withhold this information until after they have made a sale.

4. Reach out to experts

Contact the industry experts that you have added to you network. Tell them about your applications, what you have learned and what you think is the best option. Many experts welcome this kind of dialogue. They are passionate about the industry and willing to share what they have learned.

The experts will give you the benefit of their experience. They can help you avoid a bad decision or confirm that you are on the right track.

Process time chart

Users groups are ideal for gathering information on 3D printing technologies. Additive Manufacturing Users Group, Inc.

5. Get invited to users groups

Now, if you are really want to hear how things are done, ask for invitations to users groups. While networking with experienced users, you will discover the good and bad of each technology. And you may learn the tricks of the trade.

If you can only go to one, check into the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) Conference. It is open to users of all 3D printing technology, so you will get insight into many technologies.

6. Review operational & technical requirements

Throughout your investigation, collect the details regarding operations and technical requirements. Then compare them to the requirements identified in your assessment of your company’s needs.

Include items such as:

  • Material properties
    • Mechanical, thermal, electrical and chemical properties.
  • Process throughput
    • Build rates, setup time and post-processing time.
  • Equipment size
    • Footprint needed for operations and access (door size) to bring in the system.
  • IT requirements
    • Software, computers and networking.
  • Facility requirements
    • Utilities, HVAC and operating environment.
  • Maintenance and service
    • Warranty period and cost for annual maintenance contracts.
    • What’s included: routine/preventative maintenance, software upgrades, calibrations/tuning, 24/7 phone support?
    • User maintenance (routine) and frequency.
  • Training requirements
    • Where, when, how long and what kind; is it included with system purchase?
  • Delivery
    • How long for system to arrive after purchase (can be weeks or months)?
  • Upgrades
    • Discover if any system upgrades are soon to be released. If so, negotiate them as part of your contract.

SelectionContract signing

Once you have narrowed your options to a few systems. Repeat the process to fill in any information gaps and reaffirm all that you believe to be true. Now, take care of the financial matters: securing proposals, working up total cost, calculating annual expense and getting budget-level approval.

When you have made your selection, and management has accepted your proposal, turn your attention to contracts. Get as many of the promises in writing as possible. Promises are one thing; contractual obligations are another.

As you near the purchasing date, get all parties involved and invested in the acquisition. If your company has a safety group, bring them in early so you know what issues might need addressed, such as laser training, vision screening, noise requirements and material handling. If you company has a toxicology group, it will need to know what chemicals and materials you will need to a have approved (or what isn’t allowed). If your company has a facilities group, they will need to start planning for modifications, such as air handling, power and equipment isolation.

This many seem like a lot of work, and it is. But these recommendations will help you make the right choice. This guideline is based on personal experience — negative circumstances and corporate consequences — so take these lessons learned to heart.

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