The prices of some 3D printers are coming down, making it more affordable to own one of your own, even a desktop version. Still, it can be better to outsource your 3D printer. When do you stay in house, and when do you outsource? These tips will help you make the right choice.
Jeff Hanson, director of the global manufacturing network, RedEye, A Stratasys Co.
3D printing/additive manufacturing has seen a surge in popularity in the last few years, with major manufacturers across industries finding ways to implement the technology into their manufacturing processes. But as with traditional manufacturing methods, 3D printing is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. That’s why anyone interested in using 3D printing in their product development processes should learn more about the two main ways to take advantage of the technology: either purchasing 3D printers for internal use or working with an additive manufacturing service center to have parts printed and shipped.
Both options have their benefits. With an in-house system, you can create what you want when you want it, building parts on demand. On the other hand, outsourcing offers access to a team of experienced engineers to assist with a project’s designs, as well as a larger number of machines and a wider range of materials to expand output and speed up production time.
Before deciding whether to go in-house or to outsource, it is important to consider several key factors:
Familiarity with the technology: A good place to start in the decision-making process is to evaluate your organization and team’s knowledge of additive manufacturing. Most engineers are experts on the design and build guidelines of traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding and machining. 3D printing, however, builds parts differently and therefore has different design considerations, so purchasing an in-house system makes sense only if you and your team understand how to design for it. If your knowledge of systems, technologies and design guidelines is limited, it’d be wise to collaborate with a team of engineers at a service center to help you better understand the strengths of the technology and how to apply it to your design(s).
Frequency of production: Another important aspect to consider is how often you will build 3D-printed parts. Smaller or single-run projects may not justify the upfront investment in an additive manufacturing system, so sending your designs to a service center could be more cost effective. But if you are producing parts for multiple projects with great frequency, keeping the work in-house using your own systems and people is a smart choice and a worthwhile investment in the long run.
Project timeline: A project’s timeline is a key factor in determining whether to go in-house or to outsource. Once an in-house system is set up and running, production can begin as soon as you press the “start” button. However, it takes time to set up the machine and train employees to use it. If parts are needed within days or weeks, a service center can help produce them quickly and ensure that tight deadlines are met without the worries of setup or training.
Budget: How much money do you have to spend? It’s an obvious question, but a project’s budget plays a big role in determining how companies choose to create 3D-printed parts. Buying a system is an investment that will pay off over many years and across many projects, but for a lot of startups or smaller organizations, the initial expense of purchasing a machine is not a feasible option. In those instances, it makes sense to work with a service center because it allows you to realize all of the benefits of additive manufacturing (such as producing complex part geometries not possible with other manufacturing methods), while staying within a limited budget and without the upfront cost of a system.
Capacity: Part size is not an issue with additive manufacturing. However, a part bigger than a machine’s build platform must be built in two or more pieces and then bonded together. These processes take additional time and expertise. If you frequently build large parts and don’t have the personnel and machinery to assemble, bond and finish them in-house, working with an experienced team of finishers at a service center makes sense. They can help ensure parts have the exact look and feel needed for their application.
Design modifications: When creating prototypes for testing and validating form, fit and function, parts can go through several design and material changes to optimize performance. One of the major advantages of additive manufacturing over traditional molding is that you can modify part designs without the significant downstream impacts, such as production delays from making tool modifications. By having your own system, you can easily incorporate these iterations on the fly, updating features and material choices whenever necessary without having to wait for parts to be shipped to you from a service center.
Material selection: There are a number of different additive manufacturing technologies or processes, each with their own set of materials, properties and benefits. Technologies like PolyJet are good at producing high-resolution concept models. Others, such as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), are adept at building strong, durable parts by using the same engineering grade thermoplastics used in traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding. If your needs range from concept modeling to production, working with a service center will give you access to a broader range of technologies and materials without having to invest in multiple systems. But if your needs don’t span multiple stages of the product development cycle, nor require use of several materials, a system is a smart investment.
With all of this said, you do not have to take an either/or approach when determining how to implement additive manufacturing into your projects. In some cases, it makes sense to have a system in-house and outsource for specific needs. Existing system owners who need extra support can reach out to a service center for help on projects with higher volumes and a tight deadline or for especially large parts. Likewise, a service center can help increase your familiarity with additive manufacturing and allow you to try out the process first and become more comfortable with its capabilities before getting a system of your own.
Through careful consideration of these points, you can build 3D-printed parts more efficiently and use the process to get the most out of your designs.
RedEye, a Stratasys Co.