So your company has finished prototyping a product. They have used 3D printing to make the rough out and are now ready to move onto true production.
Traditionally the next step would be to have the molds made for the various parts in the design. Molds which cost thousands of dollars to manufacture. Molds, which will be out of date as soon as you change your product to adjust to customer demands. Molds which take weeks to make and finalize. While the process of creating these molds has improved and countries such as China have driven the price of molds down considerably, for many companies, that price is still significant and makes new products risky to pursue. But it has traditionally been the only option. But it isn’t. 3D printing is now a viable means of production, not just prototyping.
The reason 3D printing has been used exclusively as a prototyping process is the fact that it is not limited by geometry. You can create anything in the morning and have a physical model ready by the next day, without expensive machining costs. But it appears to be too slow to be used in production. A single part a day will generally not meet the demand of any company.
Fortunately, 3D printer manufacturers exist, such as Slant 3D, which have hundreds of printers working. So instead of a single part a day hundreds (or thousands) of parts a day are produced. Since the issue of creating a volume of parts is solved with these large farms the benefits become clear. Since 3D printers only need a 3D file to create a part, the cost for machine set-up is basically zero. And since the printers do not need to produce some volume of parts to be cost effective there are no quantity requirements. A company may order 500 pieces, market test them, change the design, order 100 of those, and then order 10,000, all basically for the cost of e-mailing some files and the plastic used in the parts. This is the ultimate in lean manufacturing. Using 3D printing as a manufacturing process (instead of just a prototyping process.) allows companies to test their products and change, as those products are being produced, without delays or restrictions.
Now, there are some cons to 3D printing manufacturing. Traditional FDM printing does leave slight textures on parts. This is generally not an issue, particularly if the parts are functional, (such as the bracket for an auto dashboard), since the texture is quite subtle. Sometimes the tecture is actually desirable because it make parts appear softer and more friendly to touch, since smudges do not appear.
Sometimes accuracy can be a concern. FDM printers generally only have an accuracy of .1 mm vertically and about .2-.3 mm horizontally. Again for functional/structural parts this is not a big deal. And for aesthetic parts is can be designed around. Just contact your 3D printing manufacturer for a consultation on your design. At Slant 3D we have produced parts for 3D printed robot arms with a precision of 50 microns. If 3D printing is precise enough to create something like that, than it is precise enough for anything.
Molding is great if you are going to create millions of an item. But if you are just exploring a market, fulfilling a kickstarter, getting started, or are just smaller than 3D printing manufacturing is often a great option to produce your product.