So how is a final product manufactured with mass production 3D Printing? And more importantly what is the development process leading up to final production.
Well, there are a few steps. Mainly there to ensure that the final product is within spec for the client. Mass Production 3D Printing offers much more control and variation than traditional processes. And since it is relatively new there are areas that we think it is important that a client understand early on which can reduce cost and provide amazing new opportunities if utilized.
With this post we hope to outline the general process and why it exists, and give mass production 3D Printing clients a "look behind the curtain"
If the title is not clear enough this post focuses only on the process of mass production 3D Printing. Which is generally longer and more intensive than prototyping 3D printing. If you just need a part made quickly for testing we recommend going to our prototyping service Twist 3D Printing
Submit a 3D Model
3D Model Type
This sounds simple but can be confusing, mainly because there are dozens of 3D model formats. And what is submitted might have limitations.
When we request a 3D model we prefer a .STEP, .STL, the original CAD, or a .OBJ file. And if you are sending a zip a dimensioned drawing with critical tolerances is nice icing on the cake.
A .STEP file is the strongest because it is immediately editable, and contains accurate dimensional information. It is pretty much the universal 3D model file. And the editability is also great because we can quickly implement slight modifications that do not change the function of the part but improve its manufacturability.
Original CAD files can be converted but not always, and they can delay processing of quotes.
.STL and .OBJ are often submitted by clients with a history in 3D printing. And these files are fine. But they have no universal units associated with them and can therefore be incorrectly scaled during processing. And since they are generally files that have been developed for 3D Printing they are generally focused toward the machine or process that they were prototyped on. Which means that tolerances may be off for the mass production 3D Printing method. And last of all they are uneditable. So these standard 3D printing files are the easiest to work with but can lead to many problems.
The need for a dimensioned drawings ensures that critical features are highlighted and the tolerances associated with them. This helps during the design review.
Overall, if you can send one of each file type that is great. If you submit a .STL make sure you provide the dimensions it was created it. Or just submit a .STEP file. If you have all the files to submit place them in a zip file.
If you have none of the files requested. Send what you have and we will work through it. But do expect a delayed processing
No 3D Model
This is not uncommon. But a 3D model is required in order to 3D print the product so one must be created. Fortunately we offer a 3D modeling and engineering service, so we can create your model for you. Our team can create anything from engineering models to creative character modeling.
3D Modeling is billing at an hourly engineering rate. The advantage of our team is that they are able to optimize your part for mass production 3D Printing, speeding up the process down the line.
If you are still indeterminant about what the final production process will be, then we do recommend hiring an independent design firm. Because our team's expertise is focused on 3D Printing, therefore should that not be the ideal avenue we might not have "all the tricks" for converting your model over to something like an injection molded format optimally. We are specialists and not explicitly a design firm.
When submitting a part there is always an option to "elaborate" on it its function and specs. While it is optional, due to confidentiality reasons, we highly encourage completing it for engineering and economic reasons. The more we know about your product and what it needs to do to function, the more we can help by offering advice about optimization and good design for additive manufacturing so you get the most bang for your buck.
Any file submitted to Slant 3D is kept confidential and will not be shared outside of the organization. Any employee of the company is required to sign an Non-disclosure agreement upon hiring covrting all projects within the company that they may interact with.
That company NDA is enforced upon all employees. But we will also sign NDA's put forward by clients. If you would like to have a 3rd party NDA signed before submitting files please either contact us first or send your NDA to email@example.com
The Quote for Your Mass Production 3D Printing
Once a file is submitted to use it is forwarded one of our design engineers. These people have some of the most in depth knowledge of mass production 3D Printing in the industry. We know this because Slant 3D operates the largest 3D Printing farms in North America. Once assigned the design engineer will be with your from the beginning to the end of your project and they will be the main point of contact.
The first thing that engineer does is quote your part. This will include slicing it and receiving estimates of material use and print time. The engineer will then use their expertise to optimize the process as much as possible at this stage and give a reasonable estimate.
The design and features are then fed to our quoting system which takes into account dozens of features about the part including capacity available, lead time, rejection rate, and of course material and print time to create a final estimate.
But we do want to emphasize that we do not always agree with the final quoting system. Design of a product and the optimization of it is a process that is so broad that there can be exceptions that our automated system can't deal with. That is why the design engineer is there, and we don't use a fully automatic quoting system. A good engineer can spot things that a computer can miss. And that leads to our next component
While the engineer and system are restricted to your design when quoting they will make design suggestions when the quote is delivered. 3D Printing is a new and often foreign process so we want to make sure that clients are able to utilize our expertise in the field to get the best result. There is no reason to hire a service if that service cannot lead to a more optimal solution.
So the engineer will offer modifications that can improve price, functionality, appearance, and manufacturability. These might be as simple as reminding a client that the best way to design for FDM production is to "Minimize surface area and don't worry about volume," an idea that is counterintuitive to those with a history in injection molding, to more detailed ideas such as adding specific features. The design engineer will also have the expertise to implement those design changes if necessary.
But this part is why it is so important to provide as much information about the function and critical features of the parts at submission. Without that information the engineer is not able to make optimal suggestions quickly. It is entirely possible that they could suggest something as simple as a different material to dramatically improve the economics. But if they don't know the function of the part then they must defer to the client entirely. Because the last thing we want to do it slow the process by changing your product. But we do think it is important to make our expertise available in every way possible.
When the quote and design review are sent over to you that is the first step of what will likely be an iterative process. Ideally the client will be able to implement any design notes that the design engineer offered and have the parts requoted.
Sampling is part of the process that we consider very necessary in order to ensure that reality match expectations. Again mass production 3D Printing is quite new and we want to be certain that client are getting what they want.
A roughcut sample is a piece that has not been optimized for production. That means that it is not final and is not representative of the final product.
So why do them? Well we use roughcut samples as a quick and often free way to illustrate a challenge with the part that the client should be made aware of. For example, it may show how support material could be converted into a functional feature of the part with a redesign.
Though we are often hesitant to create roughcut samples, because clients often misconstrue them as representative of the final product, and they are not meant to be. For example, while highlighting a feature like support material usage a roughcut sample might be made with a large layer height for the sake of speed. But the client might assume that the large layer height is somehow part of the final product as well, which it most certainly isn't. So we are cautious because these quick and dirty pieces can create confusion.
Shipping Time and cost can delay a project. And often mass production 3D Printing is used to shore up a leak in the manufacturing a supply chain. Much like in the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. So to expedite this we can do photo samples.
These pieces are production ready prints of the part which are photographed in our studio to highlight every critical feature of the part. Some include caliper measures and color comparisons.
While not the same as holding a part these samples are quite common and can create some ease of mind when a part is ordered in a rush.
Regular Sample/Production Prototype
Of course we do these. But we call them a production prototype. Therefore a fee is applied that is a prototyping fee. At this stage we go though the full optimization process. It might include several iterations on the part finding the optimal process and tweaking tolerances. This is not a push-button part of the process. Therefore it can be quite expensive. While 3D Printing is most certainly more flexible than injection molding it is incorrect to assume that there is not still a setup process for a new part or product to make it just right.
The cost of a sample is the standard setup fee, plus shipping, plus the cost of the prototype of that part at the prototype quantity. Often these will be included in the first quote you receive.
Quality Control From Samples
There is a lot of possible variation in 3D Printing. There are different processes and an infinite control of part material behavior. Depending on application there is also a broad variation of requirement from clients. A bracket might not need to look good, but a vase must be immaculate. But those words are not quantifiable. Many clients will use "good surface finish," but that phrase can have wildly different interpretations based on their backgrounds.
Therefore we have adopted the "Eye Doctor" QC method during sampling. In most cases with new clients we will send multiple iterations of the same part to the client for them to evaluate. Some will be blatantly bad, some will be "immaculate." (Particularly in the area of appearance, tolerances after all are very cut and dry. "Look good" doesn't mean anything to an engineer.) When the client receives these samples we will use their feedback to establish a QC checklist that will be used during post processing in production to verify that parts are up to spec during production. This checklist might evolve and become more narrow overtime.
Unfortunately there are not currently universal engineering standards within the additive manufacturing sector. So this has been the best method we have to ensure that we meet the clients standards when each client is different, and the technology is incompletely understood or designed for.
The quickest way to create a sample is to print it yourself and iterate until your have what you want. That eliminates shipping, and Slant 3D providing iterations to choose from. It can also be very fast since shipping and communication lags are eliminated. The reason it is not general practice is because no 3D Printer or process is created equal. And there are costs in the machine itself as well as skill of operation. We have years of experience, your company may only use it causally.
But we have fixed this problem with our Mason 3D Printer. The Mason is a prototyping machine. But one that leads directly to production with no intermediate steps. Anything made on a Mason is identical to what will come out of our 3D Printing farms. This dramatically speeds up sampling because the client can do it themselves. And if they do not have expertise in a particular area your design engineer can prepare an iteration of the part and email it you to print on your Mason. So you get our experience and one of our machines to work with in your facility or business.
Our clients who use this model often have many products (such as in a toy company) or designs which change dynamically (such as factory tooling).
Adjustment of the Quote after Sampling
As we have said the creation of the production sample is an iterative process. There is experimentation that can reveal problems with the piece that were overlooked during the digital quoting and evaluation process. Therefore after a production sample is made and evaluated the quote made need to be adjusted, either from features we find or from client feedback.
Very often the design itself will change after samples are created. And every time the design changes the quote must be updated as well.
So the part has been submitted, the design has been optimized. The Sample has been approved. Now we are ready to actually make thousands of parts and really utilize mass production 3D Printing.
The payment method and structure will be decided during the quoting process. Generally it is quoted as payment upon order if the order is under a certain dollar amount. But that is flexible based on size of the order and the structure of the contract. 50% down and Net30 are common.
Note: The setup fees are applied anytime a design is changed or a production context changes. So the setup fee is billed at sampling and at production.
We Make the Parts
Not much to say here. We make the number of parts requested with the same specs as the approved samples. We do this by using fleets of 3D Printers.
Shipping can be done a number of ways. The most common are shipping in batches, just in time, and bulk shipping.
Batches are generally the fastest way to get parts, but can increase shipping costs. But this method can allow for the payment on delivery contract that spreads out expense over a longer period of time and allows for tighter control and iteration in between shipments. Remember 3D Printing allows for a design to be changed during production without a big uproar, just a refreshed setup fee.
Just in Time is often partnered with Slant 3D's fulfillment capabilities. When an order is made we are notified though a number of means and the part is printed and shipped. This can also include warehousing of inventory or just digital inventory. This is optimal for spare parts and high margin businesses where the cost of the single part can be higher.
Bulk Shipping, is just like injection molding. We make 100,000 parts and send them to you on a pallet.
The Baker's Dozen Rule
3D Printing is new. Things are overlooked and sometimes problems can slip through. Therefore at Slant 3D we have a "Baker's Dozen Rule" where we intentionally overproduce on nearly every job to make sure that there are spares and replacements. Just in case.
We Guarantee Our Parts
Once a sample is approved and we have shipped those parts we are responsible for those parts to your doorstep. If they are damaged in transit we will replace them. If they are not up to the specs outlined and agreed upon we will replace them. A supplier should not require oversight. The reason a company uses a supplier is because they think the supplier can do the job better then they could. If we can't then it should be taken inhouse. If we screw up we own it and pay for it.