At Slant 3D we often work with companies that are either considering building a 3D printer farm or are looking to complement their existing 3D printer farm. We are obviously biased toward not building a 3D printer farm in house, but there are a number of reasons for that. If we were to sum it up then we might just ask you "Why don't you buy an injection molding machine?" Buying a machine like that is equivalent or better than building a 3D printer farm. With this post we'd like to expand on some of the reasons to and not to build an in-house 3D printer farm
Cost to Start
3D Printers are expensive. Yes there are machines that cost $200 dollars (see "depreciation" below). But you are building a miniature factory. You need good equipment, not cheap equiptment. So lets say that you are buying high quality machines like the Ultimaker or a Mason. You can expect to spend $1000-$2000 dollars per machine. So if you want to create a "farm" you can expect to spend nearly $10,000 dollars before you even get your first parts out. And, if budgetarily you have to use cheap machines, you are still spending $1000-$2000 before you can produce parts. The alternative would be to put those thousands of dollars into a service like Slant 3D. There you could invest a bit at a time at get 10 parts, then 100 parts, then 1000 parts, and so on. And you are profitable as soon as you sell your first part. With building you printer farm you essenatially go into debt and then you have to pay it off. In short building a printer farm for you business is like buying a mold. High up front cost that you have to pay off with sales. Contrasted with a service where your per part margins might be smaller but you are always profitable.
Cost to Scale
Say you have a printer farm. And now you have a successful business that is selling parts. But now you are limited by how fast you can afford to buy more machines. Clients might be clamoring for your product. But your farm can only produce them so quickly, so you can only sell so many, so you only have so much money coming it. You can't just push a button and produce 1000 parts. You have to wait for them 10 at a time. Using a service you have an entire factory backing you up. Hundreds of machines. Thousands of parts per week. At Slant 3D we produce about 15,000 parts per week. And accessing that capacity does not cost you more. In fact, producing higher volumes of parts at Slant 3D decreases the cost per part. So with a printer farm, you are forced to buy more machines as you grow, and that limits how fast you can grow. With a service you can make ten parts in a week or 1000 parts in a week the costs drops. So as you grow you make more money without any other upfront investment. (As an aside to this. Services do have limited capacity. And with 100 clients needed parts produced in a week, sometimes it can take longer. But a slightly longer lead time from a service is still freer than the incremental increase of adding another printer)
This is why you do not want to use $200 dollar machines to build a printer farm. They will operate continuously for 6 months then fall into such a state of disrepair that they are basically useless and you have to replace them. Contrasted with a good quality prosumer or commercial machine, such as the Mason. That is designed to operate for years without breaking down. But even with good machines in your farm. They do eventually break down and need to be replaced. And that is another cost of operations that you have to deal with. Most consumer machines will only run 1-2 years tops until they have to be replaced. So you have 50% depreciation on your farm each year. So if your farm costs 5000 dollars to setup, 2500 dollars disappeared after the first year. That was $2500 that could have gone to into actual parts that could be sold if you used a service. Services have this baked into the model. And at places like Slant 3D, we actually manufacture our own machines in order to minimize this cost. But that is not feasible for other companies because they don't have the resources to design a printer farm 3D Printer.
3D Printers need a lot of maintenance. If you are only maintaining 10 printers you are going to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping them running. They plug, they jam, they go out of alignment. All of that is time lost that could have been put towards improving your product or selling more of it. And what happens when you simply do not have the expertise to maintain your printers. Then they may be thrown out and written off as an expense. You can expect that about 5-10% of the cost of your farm will have to be invested in maintenance, and that does not include time-spent. Again services have the advantage of having this baked into their business models. They are able to streamline and standardize maintenance so that it is minimized
We did not include labor before, now we will. 3D Printer farms are very labor intensive. And they require expertise. You are not operating a fleet of microwaves. You are operating a fleet of CNC machines. Each machine must be tuned and prepped with the correct material. The files on the machines must be sliced and tested. Then the prints must be started on each machine. And those prints must be removed when each machine is done. When prints come off the machines, they must have supports removed and be refined for shipping. All of this is a labor cost. If you are starting a company you can count your labor as free, but that is not the case as soon as you hire an employee to do this work. Labor is a big component of 3D printer farms. They are not low effort. This is part of the "secret sauce" of services like Slant 3D. All of our systems are automated. Parts are robotically removed from machines. Cameras and trained personnel check and evaluate thousands of parts per day. Again this makes the cost of labor per part much lower than with an in-house 3D printer. You can watch the video below to see how involved it is to maintain a 3D printer farm
Material is what most people attribute to the cost of 3D Printing. And it is a big one. And two things contribute to the cost of material. Failure rate of the machines and scale of purchases.
Standard desktop 3D Printers fail about 25-50% of the time. That means that you will waste 25-50% of the material that you put into them. And that applies to a 3D Printer farm composed of desktop 3D Printers. This failure rate is due to all the factors that we have already discussed, expertise, labor, quality of the machines, etc. And it is practically unavoidable without equipment designed to operate in high-volume long-running environment.
The other contributor is Scale. Unless you are buying material literally by the truckload then your cost of material will be much higher than a service that is able to import truckloads of material. They simply have an economy-of-scale that is very difficult to achieve with a small printer farm that is dedicated to only a couple of products.
There is also just the efficiency of expertise. 3D Printing services employ world leaders in operations around additive manufacturing. They know answers to questions in-house 3D printer farms don't know to ask. They are a great resource because of this. When using a service you have input from these troves of experience that you would otherwise not be aware of. And 3D printers are a skill-set. They are not a microwave that you can just turn on and get parts out of. Especially not at any kind of scale. The reliability and and consistency of a service comes from this experience.
Reason to Go it Alone
Now it is true. Services are more efficient and reliable than an in-house 3D printer farm when making large numbers of parts. But there are cases when you can and should create an in house 3D Printer farm.
1. Many Custom Parts
If you are doing custom parts for people. You should have a printer farm. These are high margin components that you can evaluated and iterate on more quickly than any service can ship you parts. There may also be some cost advantages a well. But you should do the spreadsheet on that. You can get a quote from Slant 3D for comparison
But even here services can be of help. Slant 3D works with companies that make on-demand custom cookie cutters. And it is far easier to have Slant 3D do the printing, packing, and shipping then have the client build their own printer farm. Now they are able to focus on designing more cookie cutters.
With any business context matters. Services offer scale fast for companies that are ready to grow. In-house printer farms offer control, but very rarely cost benefits over the long term. If you are starting a business around 3D printed products. Make sure you have a spreadsheet that takes all of these costs into account. And get a quote from us to see how they compare. Taking the stress manufacturing your product off you plate is always a huge value. That is why we started Slant 3D.