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Do I really need to buy a 3D Printer?

Disclaimer: This Blog was previously posted on April 18th, 2014 on 3Dprinting Reports by Mike Vasquez, PhD.

Why should I buy a 3D printer and go through hassle of setting up a machine, worrying about maintenance, and sourcing materials when I can just outsource my parts to a service bureau like C-Ideas, Shapeways, or I-Materialise?

That’s a great question. Especially when you consider the freedom that outsourcing can give you in terms of machine and material selection.

 

The answer to this question highly depends on the situation of your company but my goal in this post is to discuss how you would go about making that decision so that when you are faced with this question you are equipped to approach the answer in a thoughtful and strategic way.

 

If you’re a company that doesn’t produce a lot of physical models or prototypes a service bureau is your best choice. A 3D Printing service bureau is a facility that has multiple 3D Printing platforms and materials that you can select from and the turnaround time can be pretty quick – most often about a week. You can get it faster of course if you want to pay more. Some advantages of using an outsourcing include:

  • You don’t have to pay for underutilized equipment.

  • You have lots of material and machine options

  • You don’t have to worry about operating or maintaining machinery/materials

  • Access to additional finishing techniques and tooling

However outsourcing is not without its drawbacks:

  • Delays or errors in part delivery

  • You don’t maintain control of the model through the entire process which could result in errors in part construction or the risk of designs being compromised

  • You may not know the quality of the material being used or whether the part is built in the most optimal way

  • Costs can add up and you are not really in control of how the companies feel they should markup parts coming from certain machines or materials

But what is the point at which you should start to consider purchasing a printer of your own. If you’re a company that is new to the technology I think it makes total sense to experiment with a variety of processes, vendors, and materials through one or multiple service bureaus. This is a relatively low cost and low risk way to answer any lingering questions of whether 3D Printing is right for your company.

 

If you do end up making the decision to go to a full scale printing system of your own here are some pros/cons to consider.

Pros:

  • In house systems allow on demand utilization of the machine at time scales of your choosing

  • Full control of how the parts are built – low likelihood of IP being lost

  • Customization and optimization of the machine and materials to fit your specific needs

  • R&D capabilities to try to push the boundaries of new applications and future projects

  • Strict quality control

  • Short turn around time and ability to do fast one time projects

  • Marketing and PR

Cons

  • Large up front investment

  • It takes time to get all the processes up and running in an efficient manner

  • Usually requires a dedicated person to operate and maintain the workflow

  • You become responsible for making sure material is ordered and the machine is operating as designed

  • Ancillary investments in equipment for part cleaning and finishing

  • Educating the your ‘customers’ (who could be internal designers/engineers) on the capabilities/benefits of the machine

I have worked with companies to build sophisticated cost models to justify the purchase of a large scale 3D Printing machine. In future posts I plan to walk you through the thought process in more detail. The best companies at leveraging 3D Printing go into their purchase with a specific and targeted application in mind. They do not pay attention to the hype from pundits that companies need to get on board with 3D Printing or be left behind. If it makes sense for your business to use the technology and you have though it through then go for it. If not, save yourself the time, money, and trouble and keep doing what you’re doing because it is probably working.

Why should I buy a 3D printer and go through hassle of setting up a machine, worrying about maintenance, and sourcing materials when I can just outsource my parts to a service bureau like C-Ideas, Shapeways, or I-Materialise?

That’s a great question. Especially when you consider the freedom that outsourcing can give you in terms of machine and material selection.

The answer to this question highly depends on the situation of your company but my goal in this post is to discuss how you would go about making that decision so that when you are faced with this question you are equipped to approach the answer in a thoughtful and strategic way.

If you’re a company that doesn’t produce a lot of physical models or prototypes a service bureau is your best choice. A 3D Printing service bureau is a facility that has multiple 3D Printing platforms and materials that you can select from and the turnaround time can be pretty quick – most often about a week. You can get it faster of course if you want to pay more. Some advantages of using an outsourcing include:

  • You don’t have to pay for underutilized equipment.

  • You have lots of material and machine options

  • You don’t have to worry about operating or maintaining machinery/materials

  • Access to additional finishing techniques and tooling

However outsourcing is not without its drawbacks:

  • Delays or errors in part delivery

  • You don’t maintain control of the model through the entire process which could result in errors in part construction or the risk of designs being compromised

  • You may not know the quality of the material being used or whether the part is built in the most optimal way

  • Costs can add up and you are not really in control of how the companies feel they should markup parts coming from certain machines or materials

But what is the point at which you should start to consider purchasing a printer of your own. If you’re a company that is new to the technology I think it makes total sense to experiment with a variety of processes, vendors, and materials through one or multiple service bureaus. This is a relatively low cost and low risk way to answer any lingering questions of whether 3D Printing is right for your company.

If you do end up making the decision to go to a full scale printing system of your own here are some pros/cons to consider.

Pros:

  • In house systems allow on demand utilization of the machine at time scales of your choosing

  • Full control of how the parts are built – low likelihood of IP being lost

  • Customization and optimization of the machine and materials to fit your specific needs

  • R&D capabilities to try to push the boundaries of new applications and future projects

  • Strict quality control

  • Short turn around time and ability to do fast one time projects

  • Marketing and PR

Cons

  • Large up front investment

  • It takes time to get all the processes up and running in an efficient manner

  • Usually requires a dedicated person to operate and maintain the workflow

  • You become responsible for making sure material is ordered and the machine is operating as designed

  • Ancillary investments in equipment for part cleaning and finishing

  • Educating the your ‘customers’ (who could be internal designers/engineers) on the capabilities/benefits of the machine

I have worked with companies to build sophisticated cost models to justify the purchase of a large scale 3D Printing machine. In future posts I plan to walk you through the thought process in more detail. The best companies at leveraging 3D Printing go into their purchase with a specific and targeted application in mind. They do not pay attention to the hype from pundits that companies need to get on board with 3D Printing or be left behind. If it makes sense for your business to use the technology and you have though it through then go for it. If not, save yourself the time, money, and trouble and keep doing what you’re doing because it is probably working.

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