How to evaluate a 3D printer, additive manufacturing system
In the additive manufacturing world, probably the most common question is: What is the best 3D printing system or technology for me? At the recent AMUG conference, Todd Grimm, president of T. A. Grimm & Associates, Inc., and Kevin Ayers, Specialist in Additive Manufacturing for the FBI, gave tips on how to evaluate any 3DP/AM option. Here are a few of them.
1. Do extensive research. While Grimm and Ayers proposed an exhaustive procedure as a best practice, they advised that you can work with it to fit your needs.
Your research should include investigating your company and your needs. You need to know your products, the processes used to develop them, your internal customers, various levels of expectations, and whether the potential users of this technology will be open to using it. Look for opportunities to build products throughout your company. This technique can help you grow the use of 3DP/AM within your organization as well as build a baseline justification for the purchase.
Your research should go beyond Google, publications, and books. Go to trade shows and conferences and visit each vendor. Ask lots of questions. Ask “dumb” questions. As Grimm noted, “Pick the time you want to be ‘stupid;’ is it with a potential vendor or with your boss.”
If you were to buy this equipment, what would qualify it as a successful purchase? ROI? Certain types of parts produced on it? Develop a weight ranking; what are the important factors, and which ones are the most important?
Establish a timeline for the entire process of evaluation through selection, and be prepared to adjust that timeline as necessary.
Research your boss’s expectations on the use of this equipment from the time of purchase order to the time the machine is producing parts. A large part of your evaluation process will be managing others expectations.
Your research should include calls to contacts you made at shows or those you know who are using this technology. You should even contact sales people of AM/3DP equipment. But be aware of how and why others are using this technology—try to understand their limitations–whether that is in perspective, use, need, experience, and so on. Sales people will know the competition, and they will trash them; that doesn’t mean their information is accurate. If two or three competitive sales people say similar things about one company, that may be important information to consider. But check it out for yourself. Investigate more.
2. Narrow your search to a process (laser sintering, 3D printing, stereolithography, jetting, and so on).
3. Benchmark. Initially, select one or two representative parts that you plan on building on your AM system. Have your prospective vendor build two versions, one raw and one finished to spec. Review and compare. Vendors may resist this step because it’s a cost in time and materials. So don’t request this unless you’re close to selecting a vendor. But this is an important step.
Be sure not to let the vendor pick your benchmark part; they will pick one favorable to their system, not your needs. Take the benchmark parts to fellow designers and engineers in your company. First, it will help them get involved and help justify the need for these systems. Second, they can examine the part to determine if the prospective machine meets your needs. Also, use the benchmark parts to clarify what your needs are, and communicate with others in your company.
Note how much time it took to setup the build, build the part, and then post process it.
4. Ask for customer references. (The AMUG group can be a good resource here). Call up the customers and try to find the truth about the prospective system. See if you can uncover new details. Visit the facility if you can. See if you can shadow the customer through a process. Note whether you may need extra equipment. Note whether the staff is spending a lot of time on post processing.
5. Attend user groups meetings.
6. Make sure the machine and peripherals will handle throughput needs. This is an area that is often overlooked during research. You need to know whether the prospective system requires peripherals, what they are, their size, output qualities, and so on. Check IT requirements too. What computers are needed? What software is needed?
7. Research maintenance and service, any training requirements, any upgrades (when and how often?), and delivery.
8. Fine tune and repeat these steps as needed.
9. Prepare your financial information. Get your proposals, cost calculations, ROI, budget approvals and so on and determine whether you have the money to spend.
These recommendations may be involved, but if you’re spending more than $20,000 for a system, they are necessary.