So you've heard about 3D printers and have see some products on the web. You are interested in buying one for your business. Prices range from $1,000 to $15,000 and up. What to buy? Here are 7 questions to consider before buying that will help you make an informed decision and avoid investing in a product at is not appropriate for your intended use.
1. What are you wanting to make on your printer: conceptual prototypes, or finished products? Prototypes may not require the same level of precision as finished parts. So you need to find out what level of precision a specific printer can provide. Better yet, take a look at parts that have been created on the printer. Most vendors show videos and/or photos of parts printed on your products. Do they look good enough to you? Precision: ie. the fit and finish of the printed object is a function of the printer's rated level of accuracy, the type and color of the plastic material used by the printer, the level of detail of the 3D CAD drawing or 3D scan file used as the source file for the printer, and the skill of the printer operator. Entry level 3D printers that use, for example ABS plastic filament, typically cannot provide a completely smooth finish to the part. You will notice fine grooving on the surface that corresponds to the layers of plastic deposited to create the object. There may be a range of precision that one can achieve on the same printer by printing at lower layer heights, but this can extend the print time dramatically. Higher precision is not always directly related to higher priced printers. Look for customer comments on the web. Ask the vendor to provide a written statement on the precision and capability of their printers. Try to get a sample object to inspect if possible.
2. Are the mechanical properties of the object important? If so, will the printer support using plastic materials that meet your mechanical property requirements? Most entry level printers have been designed to print using either PLA or ABS, plastics at certain temperature ranges and print speeds. Neither material has very strong. There are a number of "engineering" material filaments available, including types of nylon, polycarbonate and polyurethanes. These materials provide stronger mechanical properties such as impact strength and flexural modulus(ability to withstand stress). These material often require printing at higher temperatures. Many entry level 3D printers cannot sustain these temperatures. Using the wrong material in a printer may result in melting components and jamming the printer's extruder. Again, ask the vendor for written representations on what materials their printer is rated to handle. Be sure and ask about the warranty as well.
3. Do you have a source of 3D CAD software or a 3D scanner that you can work with? All 3D printers are designed to operate using specific software file types and formats. The industry standard format for 3D drawings is called "STL". Most 3D scanners collect what is known as a "cloud point" file that defines the object scanned in three dimensions. If you are not familiar with using 3D CAD software, such as offered by AutoCAD and other computer aided design software vendors, you should consider finding a CAD specialist you can work with. Remember that the creation and input of the 3D file represents a significant part of the time and cost of printing 3D objects. Even if you are experienced with conventional "2D" CAD, there is a learning curve in learning how to use 3D CAD appropriately for 3D printing. Not all 3D CAD drawings are printable. It takes some knowledge and experience to know what to avoid. Fortunately, there are software products available that can check the integrity of STL files. Some can even make corrections to the file to aid in making it printable.
4. Are you willing to go through a learning process? Please understand that 3D printing requires more than simply hitting the print button. Even for technically trained people, there will be a learning process before you can consistently create and print objects that meet your design goal. There is a "craft" aspect as well as a "science" aspect to 3D printers. If you are not prepared to spend some time learning, then you may want to consider using a 3D printing service bureau first. Good service bureaus can assist you in creating a printable STL file and then provide the printed object for a fee.
5. Do you understand the economics of 3D printing? Just as in ink jet printers, the hardware is not always the major expense. With 3D printers, the total cost of printing is the sum of the cost in creating the STL file, plus the consumable plastic filament used to print, the time required to print and the acquisition cost of the printer. 3D CAD software can cost $100 to $5,000 or more, depending on the brand and capability. Plastic filament is using sold by the kilogram or pound, but be careful, as the cost of a printed part is related to the volume of plastic consumed. This can add up quickly, especially if you require use of engineering grade materials. Some printer vendors require that you purchase plastic filament only from them. This can turn out to be very expensive over time. Other vendors allow for use of approved third party types of filaments. Expect some variation in results, even with the same plastic material from different vendors.
6. Do you understand the real benefits and trade offs of 3D printing compared with conventional methods of prototyping and making plastic parts? If you are seeking a lower cost alternative to your current method of creating prototypes or parts, you may or may not find this is true with 3D printing. The benefits you can expect to receive from 3D printing include: a. total control of the making process (if you design and print in house) b. shorter time to first completed part (if you know how to operate your printer) c. higher security during the process (if you do everything in house). d. potential for making more complex parts that cannot be made using conventional molding & machining methods e. ability to quickly and efficiently revise and print modified objects(valuable in fine tuning an object design). f. potential for lower cost than alternative methods. In some cases, 3D printing an object may be more expensive than a molded or milled object. This will vary based on many factors. If you want faster time to market and better control over the prototyping, perfecting and initial production of the first objects, the 3D printing may be a good investment for you to make. It may save you time and money in the design and prototype stage that could help you avoid wasting money with tooling for a flawed object design.
7. What kind of warranty, support, service and spare parts are available from the vendors you are considering? 3D printers require care and tuning to be useful. Parts can wear out or break. You may need to replace the nozzles for different levels of precision and different types of plastic filaments. What kind of warranty does the vendor provide? Do they have a customer support line to talk with a specialist for advice? Have they been in business long enough to have a history in servicing customers? Many entry level vendors are startups that lack experience in supporting customers over the life of the product. On the other hand, some of the best value in printers are from creative new companies that are willing to go the extra mile to win your business.
Take time to investigate as many printer vendors and models as possible. Talk to customers who have been through the learning process. Make sure your goals and expectations for 3D printing are in line with the capabilities of the printers you are considering. If you can't find an ideal match, wait a few months. There are literally dozens of new models and vendors being introduced nearly every month. And while you are investigating, give a 3D service bureau a try. They can help you get a clear understanding of what is possible with this exciting new technology, so you can fine tune your expectations before investing. One thing is clear, 3D printing is on the fast track. If your competitors are not trying it out yet, they will be soon. When used properly for the right reasons, it can be a real game changer for business. When you do buy a printer, please drop us a line and tell us about your experience. Thank you!
Author: Robert Zollo- Publisher of ProForma 3D Printing