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.
High Volume 3D Printing allows companies to produce products at any scale without the cost of tooling. For new companies and products this eliminates the high initial cost of tooling. And for companies making complex hardware, or low volumes of products 3D printing can allow them to access new markets faster and with far less risk.
So how is high volume 3D printing able to replace injection molding. There are a number of ways. Fast 3D printers or Lots of 3D Printers.
Fast 3D Printing
Fast 3D Printers are systems that are able to adiditvely produce parts very quickly. These are systems like HP Multi-jet Fusion (MJF) or Carbon's Digital Light Synthesis (DLS).
These technologies are able to produce parts very quickly with 3D printing. But they are limited in geometry and require a lot of post processing, so they remain quite expensive. Though when compared to the high up front cost of molding, these processes can be very useful in high margin products. The design freedom they offer with lattices and light-weighting are also big advantages.
Lots of 3D Printers (or 3D Printing Farms)
3D Printing Farms, like the ones created at Slant 3D, used hundreds or thousands of 3D printers all working in parallel to create parts very quickly at scale. A single part may take an hour to produce, but with hundreds of machines working on that part, you are now making hundreds of parts per hour.
3D Printing farms are able to achieve a much greater scale and a much better cost advantage than other systems because they take advantage of scale. They source larger amounts of more common materials and high automation eliminates the labor costs that can make other processes very expensive.
While fast 3D printing systems may only be affordable compared to molding up to about 1000 parts, 3D Printing farms have achieved cost parity with molding up to 100,000 parts. And that is just by eliminating the need for molds. Long term the savings can be even greater with better supply chain management that 3D Printing allows.
Choose the Process for your Product
It is important to understand that each manufacturing process is not a perfect substitute for any other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. As you plan your product consider everything from design attributes to ultimate scale and production needs.
High volume 3D printing is great for getting started and scaling up. It also can provide many interesting engineering advantages. Injection molding, is great at high volumes and also provides certain engineering advantages. It is all a matter of what you product needs to be when it gets into customer's hands and your budget for making that happen.
Creating a jigs or custom fixtures on a factory floor is a laborious process. The engineer has to work up a model and then send it to the machinist who might have to send it back to the engineer for redesigns. Then when a machinable part is made then it is realized that the solution might not work. And then the cycle repeats. And the whole time money is being wasted trying to fix a problem.
That is why we made the Mason 3D Printer
3D Printers allow new parts to be created quickly and with relatively few design constraints. This frees up man-hours and allows for quicker testing of new solutions.
But what makes the Mason Different from the hundreds of other 3D printers on the Market. Here are three of the biggest ones.
Backed by Slant 3D
Slant 3D is one of the Largest producers of 3D printed parts in the North America and the machines we use in our 3D printing factory are the cousins to the Mason. This means that if you made 1 part with the Mason you can make a thousand more immediately through the Slant 3D Printer Farm.
So if a designer at one line or factory creates a part for use in their area that part can quickly be produced at larger volumes to outfit all other factories and lines within a matter of days.
Make Functional Parts
The Mason 3D Printer is able to print in strong and high-temp materials such as nylon and carbon-fiber filaments. It's lower temperature alternatives also retain the properties similar to ABS. So making solid and reliable parts and jigs for your factory is not a problem.
You Don't Have to Operate It
3D Printing is a skill set. And companies often can't train people to use CAD and then run the designs through the 3D Printing process. So we have made the Mason so we can do it for you.
The Mason can come with wifi and cloud-connectivity. Backed up by Slant 3D Support Staff and designers, and customer could essentially submit a napkin-sketch to us, we could create the 3D model, and then prepare and send it to the Mason 3D Printer where it will start printing. The Client does not have to learn anything at all. And if there is ever a problem with the Printer, with the Onsite Subscription, clients can have the whole machine replaced within 2 days
Production 3D Printing is a new technology. And not everyone has interacted with it or understands what kind of pieces and features can be made with it. That is why we designed the Slant 3D Sample Brick. This 3D Printed part demonstrates many of the key features and capabilities of the additive manufacturing process. Everything from complex internal geometries to complex surface textures.
The sample Brick can be ordered for free with the form below. Just let us know where to send it and we will get it to you.
Clients may use the 3d printed sample brick as a reference for proper design of 3D printed parts. As well as a way to evaluate our high volume 3D printing processes.
Features on the Brick
Generally when designing a piece of industrial hardware or a product prototype designers have to create all the models from scratch. But there are online resources full of functional 3D models that are explicitly designed for functional use. There are also resources for custom on-demand 3D Printed parts.
McMaster supplies 3D Models for many of their hardware products. These models are provided in the .STEP format so they can me edited and integrated large CAD assemblies, or printed to use in prototyping.
Part Mason is a partner company to Slant 3D. It is a repository of 3D printable models that can be created and used in as final parts in applications. Parts can be downloaded in a number of formats from 3D Printable .STL's to editable .STEP. They can also be ordered printed at any volume, whether it be 10 or 1000. Part Mason is basically a fully digital on-demand parts store.
Finding the 3D models is a challenge by itself. But then you need a 3D Printer that can reliably print those parts. Check out the Mason 3D Printer as a resource for 3D printing functional industrial parts.
3D Printing is truly starting to scale up. It is often a comparable process to injection molding both in volume of parts it can produce and the cost of producing those parts. Currently, based on Data from projects done at Slant 3D, 3D printing is on average less expensive than injection molding up 50,000 parts and we are working to push it to 100,000. But that is an average. What are the factors that make 3D printing more or less expensive than injection molding?
If you make more parts they cost less per part. This is true for injection molding and for production FDM 3D Printing at large volumes.
Many people have seen the graph below. The graph that shows that 3D printing costs remain constant regardless of volume. Nothing is more incorrect, those graphs are created by services with just a few machines.
Large scale 3D printing scales much the same as injection molding. The larger the job the better economics on materials.
Below is a chart of a part that could be produced with Injection Molding or 3D printing. The part requires 40g of material. The Mold would cost $10,000 upfront. The vertical axxis is on the logarithmic scale.
As you can see 3D printing follows a very similar curve to injection molding. And is in fact about 20% less expense up to 20000 parts and breaks even at about 45000 parts.
Warehousing and Inventory
While the graph above shows a situation where 3D printing and injection-molding eventually even out and have a mild price difference there is still the a cost that is not accounted for. Warehousing and lost inventory.
It is estimated that 15-25% of inventory is scrapped each year because it is not sold. There are also the warehousing costs of that inventory which can add another 5-15% to the cost of a product.
Even though 3D printing is higher cost than injection molding at very large quantities, its just in time capabilities ensure that almost no inventory is lost and very little of it every spends time in warehouses. Additive manufacturing allows a part to exist only in cyberspace until it is needed.
Design to minimize surface area, not the volume. This the general rule for FDM additive manufacturing. Volume is not really relevant to the cost of the parts. Surface area is. Surface area requires the most printing time and the most material. Internal volumes we are able to filling with internal lattices that maintain strength but do not add much material to the print.
The clearest depiction of this is with a simple cubic shape. With injection molding it would likely need to be design with ribs of some kind. But printing that design is expensive because it requires that the whole part be solid infill plastic. Which uses a lot of plastic increasing the print time and cost of the part.
If the part is to be optimially designed for affordable additive manufacturing it should be designed solid. We will then use our various softwares to design an internal lattice that matches the strength of the injection molded ribbed part. But since the walls can be thinner it will often use less material is an more efficient to print. Saving cost
LittleBots is an excellent example of good design for additive manufacturing. Each part is simplified and monolithic. Allowing internal lattices to provide strength and light-weighting. For this reason they will never have to transfer to molds because the cost of 3D printing is always equivalent on a per part basis.
There are about 20 large design conisderations that can affect price of 3D printed parts. Including overall complexity, need for support, part size. But minimizing material and print time are the largest the best way to do that is to minimize surface area.
Now let us invalidate all this with a giant "it depends." The cost of a part, with either process, depends on the size, design, tolerances, and materials of that part. Some pieces will never be economical with 3D Printing. Some pieces will be impossible with injection molding.
But there is an easy way to find out. Get a quote. We have qualified sales engineers who are ready to help you with the design and the quoting process to make sure that you are getting your product made correctly.
Many startups and small businesses are using 3D printer farms to test and scale products. The problem is that they don't have the experience to scale production to really large volumes.
Trainlab, Slate Robotics, Ohmnilabs, and others are all startups and small businesses that are using 3D printing to produce their final products. All of them have been faced with the choice of whether to bring production in-house or outsource it to services such as Slant 3D, Carbon, or Voodoo Manufacturing. But what are the benefits or dangers of both methods of mass producing 3D printed parts.
In-House 3D Printing
Many startups attempt to build a 3D printing pipeline in house. While this allows them to have more vertical integration, it is a process that has very high risk and high-long term cost.
Answer this question. If you are making an injection molded part why don't you buy an injection molding Press. Because it is expensive? Because you don't have the experience to operate it? Exactly. So why does 3D printing seem easier.
Desktop 3D printing has created the myth that anyone can use the process to make parts. But creating a few good pieces to test is very different from producing thousands of production quality parts consistently. Supply-chain, servicing, and part optimization all become factors. This requires that the startup essentially dedicate personnel to managing printers, and recreating the infrastructure that already exists in companies dedicated to production 3D printing.
There is also the problem of the machines themselves. A startup becomes dependent upon the company that manufactures the machines that they use. If that company should go out of business (which 3D printing companies have been very prone to doing) or just abandon support of the machine that the startup uses, then they are left up the creek without a paddle. Or with dozens of 3D printers that will have to be replaced.
Building a 3D Printing farm in-house does have the advantage of slightly faster turn-around, a bit more control. It also can decrease startup financial costs. But operationally it is expensive and risky because printer farms require skill, maintenance, and personnel to operate. These farms are also very inefficient because the startup has to create operational processes from scratch and source at low volumes.
Production 3D Printing Service
Services solve the problems of in-house 3D printing. Companies like Slant 3D, are able to dedicate all of their time, resources, and personnel to creating high quality plastic parts at scale. A scale that often makes the 3D printed parts more affordable than in-house versions with high overhead.
Slant 3D, itself manufactures its own machines. Ensuring that the factory is always supported and ready to produce. So if you make a part with us this year. You will be able to make the same part 5 years from now. It also ensures that Slant 3D is able to scale rapidly to implement new demand from clients as they grow.
Services are also able to take advantage of scale. Through strategic partnerships, and in-house filament production, the material costs of parts are less than if a startup were to source materials for their small projects.
The last advantage of services are the processes. 3D Printing is all these companies do. They are not creating a product and creating a smaller company inside the company to create that product. Since services are so focused they can implement the best in the industry hardware and automation, and ensure it is all operating at peak capacity.
This is what Slant 3D does. We produce 3D printed parts at scale so that companies don't have to. The same way injection molding services produce injection molded parts so that companies don't have to.
High Volume, Production 3D Printing is able to produce thousands of parts per week, eliminating warehousing and providing more flexibility in the design and production of parts. But there are several misconceptions and great abilities that people overlook.
3D Printing is often considered a slow process for making parts. 1 part at a time that is true. That is why we deploy hundreds of 3D printers, in our printing farm, all working in parallel so that even though a single part might take an hour to print, we are still producing hundreds of parts per hour.
Capacity constraints can sometimes slow down production of orders, just as with any process. But we are constantly building out more capacity so that is mitigated as much as possible.
FDM 3D printing has a decided advantage over all other 3D printing processes. We are able to to create any pantone required by the client in our plastics. Other processes are generally limited to black, gray, or white. If you want a specific color it is exorbitantly expensive. FDM printing allows us to create a part in any color of the rainbow, and everything in between.
FDM is one of the most versatile 3D printing processes created. If a material can be put into a thermoplastic filament then it can be printed with our machines. For this reason we are able to manufacture parts with materials ranging from simple Bio-plastics and ABS up to Carbon Fiber Nylons. We have even started work with metal printing which will allow us to print parts and then sinter them to create complex metal parts.
Out own material production capabilities also allow us to continue to experiment and develop new materials and mixes. So if you need a plastic we can make that plastic
3D Printed parts are often considered to be weaker than injection molded or machined parts. It is true that the properties of a part vary based on the direction of loading, based on the orientation during printing. This property is refereed to as anisotropic.
But this issue is vastly over-stated and often just wrong. The reason it is so prevalent is that designers have been attempting to apply traditional design principles to the 3D printing process. That is the equivalent of trying to make an aluminum plane the way you would make a wooden one. Similar end goal, very different details.
If an additive part is appropriately designed for the process then it can meet or exceed the performance of traditionally manufactured parts. And we have a team of engineers who are standing by to help you optimize your designs for the process.
Slant 3D has also developed new methods of 3D printing parts which reduces the anisotropic nature of the pieces. In many cases we can achieve 90-95% the strength of an injection molded part the part in the Z direction using additive processes.
This is another common misconception. The idea that 3D printing is 5-10x more expensive than other methods at scale.
Large scale 3D printing is generally less expensive than injection molding up to 20-50000 units just on the savings of tooling. Long term, the on demand nature of additive can make production cheaper than other large volume processes because warehousing costs are reduced which can constitute 10-25% of the cost of a part over its production lifetime.
Then there is the traditional understanding that 3D printing is cheaper than molding at low volumes just because of the savings in tooling. In this situation 3D printing can be 5-10x less expensive than molding.
Hopefully we have cleared up an fogginess about the capabilities of 3D printing and the parts that is creates. Is it a perfect process for everything? No. No process is. But it does offer a lot of advantages in cost and supply flexibility.
If you are interested in getting a quote for your project with production 3D printing please contact us and one of our engineers will get in contact with you immediatly.
High volume Additive manufacturing offers an affordable option for creating industrial components like gears and rollers.
Over the lifetime of Slant 3D, we have had many opportunities to manufacture amazing products for clients. These have ranged from robotics components to Amazon Echo Covers. But there are a group of products that we have a special love for, Wheels and Gears. These fundamental parts are used in every aspect of engineering. They the transistors of the Mechanical world. But they are very expensive to manufacture.
The engineering time alone in the creation of good gears and rollers can be a large portion of the budget. But it has to occur in order to create a component that will work for your particular application. Just last year Slant 3D manufactured rollers for machinery handling pears. Pear Rollers are not an off the shelf component. So the engineering had to be done to create a roller with the correct profile. But once that was done 3D printing was a very viable method to produce several hundred rollers affordably and reliably. The alternative was to machine the parts which would have been exceptionally expensive for such a large part or to mold them which also would have been exceptionally expensive. Neither process allows any iteration either.
Whereas 3D printing was quick and affordable. And it allows the client to change the design 10 units in without substantial added expense.
Gears for agricultural equipment are also a common need. Large, bulky, sturdy gears for farm equipment are expensive to machine from a block of delrin. And they are nearly impossible to mold in some cases. 3D Printing allows for the creation of strong gears that can take the abuse of the farm.
And again, since 3D printing is so material efficient these large gears can be created for the same or less cost than off-the-shelf parts that will not fit the application.
Slant 3D is working on several initiatives to make wheels and gear more accessible and affordable via additive manufacturing. Stay tuned for those in the future.
But if you need your rollers, wheels, or gears manufactured today get a quote from Slant 3D and compare production 3D printing to all the other processes available.
What is the Process of preparing a product to be manufactured with high volume production 3D printing?
Production 3D Printing is able to produce 100,000's of parts more affordably than injection molding. This savings is a result of the eliminated upfront cost of tooling and reducing design time and the long terms costs of warehousing.
But what is the process of moving a product into Production 3D Printing? It is very important to know this process to ensure that there are as few delays as possible as you are going into production.
I have an Idea/Sketch
I have an Engineered Design
I have a Physical Part I need Re-manufactured or is no Longer in Production
The Most Important Thing
The most important thing is to make sure that you part is designed and optimized for production 3D printing. This makes sure that the quality, performance, and cost of the part is the best case possible. Additive manufacturing is rarely an exact replacement to injection molding. It is an alternative process that must be considered during design. That is why we keep a team of engineers who are the world leaders in design for additive manufacturing and they are here to make sure that your part meets your needs.