Justifying 3D Printing for your Business Part 1: Choosing the Correct 3D Printer

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Justifying 3D Printing for your Business Part 1: Choosing the Correct 3D Printer

Justifying any capital equipment for your company can often feel like trying to get the planets to align. But if you can’t wait until May 6, 2492 (next alignment of all 8 planets) let’s discuss what steps you can take to acquire a 3D Printer for your business. Most 3D Printer justifications can be simplified into 3 basic tasks:

  • Choosing the correct 3D Printer

  • Collecting the information

  • Creating the presentation

Let’s explore each of these in detail, beginning with: Choosing the Correct 3D Printer.

The first step is to assess your current situation. Do you currently use an external service provider for 3D printing, perhaps you have internal 3D printing capabilities now or some other alternatives for 3D printing? If you are using external resources, is design security controlled? Often the expense of external printing limits the number of design iterations you can create, If you already have 3D printing capabilities in-house you need to ask if it is meeting your current workload or if you need a complimentary technology to broaden your applications. Some companies consider subtractive manufacturing (mill. lathe, etc.) as an alternative to additive manufacturing, but this often ties up resources and skilled labor that could be better invested downstream in the manufacturing process. Then there is the ‘Risk’ that must be evaluated… What if we do nothing different?

Now, that we understand where we are, we can look at where we need to be. We can evaluate the correct 3D printer by examining versatility of applications, availability of materials, part size achievable, accuracy, resolution, repeatability and environmental requirements. Notice that price was not included in the list, this is because price is often confused with value, see our previous blog to understand cost vs, value (Click here). It is better to discover what you need and aim high than to be saddled with a bargain basement machine.

Investigate the versatility of applications that a technology provides.  You may not need all of them now, but they offer another tool in your toolbox. A good example is that many justifications built on prototypes often morph into tooling, jigs and fixtures. List all the applications a technology can deliver, then rate them as what is currently useful and what could be used in the future. For example, consider applications like concept/prototypes, engineering study, marketing samples, tooling, jigs, and fixtures. Dig deep into each application such as tooling, this can cover plastic injection molding, investment casting, sand casting, thermal vacuum forming, hydro forming and more.

Materials can be extremely critical to the applications. Make sure the technology offers a suitable material for the most important applications you have previously selected. Different technologies offer a variety of materials from simulated polymers and engineered plastics to metal alloys. Another major consideration should be on how easy it is to change different materials in a technology. For example, if a technology requires a vat of polymer it can be difficult and time consuming to swap over to a different polymer for different application. While mechanical properties often require major deliberation for your application, don’t discount something as simple as color as a factor in selecting materials.

The size of machine you will need will depend on the size of parts you intend to build. If you build large parts It may be advisable to select a build size that will accommodate 80% of parts manufactured. Larger parts can be sent to a service provider with larger equipment or separated and joined together after building.

You must also identify the accuracy, resolution and repeatability necessary for your products and/or applications. While accuracy, resolution and repeatability all deal with measurement, they are not the same. To simplify the terminology, think of accuracy as the dimensional comparison of the 3D printed model to the original CAD (Computer Aided Design) data, resolution as the smallest detail that can be produced on the 3D printer and repeatability as the comparison of multiple 3D printed models.

The last thing to consider in choosing a 3D printer is what environmental requirements will be necessary. Not all technologies are ‘office friendly’. Some environmental controls that may be necessary are humidity and/or temperature controls, along with air exchange or ventilation. Equipment that has large vats of liquid or powders with harmful lasers must be in a more controlled environment.  Ease and safety of waste disposal can also be an important factor to your company. Most technologies can provide a site prep guide to assist.

Hopefully, the information above will have helped you to reduce the wide range of 3D printers down to a couple of choices. In Part 2 we will go into detail on collecting information for your justification process.

Mark Abshire
Application Engineer, Additive Manufacturing
Computer Aided Technology