By Steve Roberts, co-founder of Fripp Design and Research, with Tom Fripp.
For the past 8 years, Fripp Design and Research have been actively involved in the development of 3D Print technology. Indeed, our co-founder, Tom Fripp’s Masters Degree was all about designing custom wound supports using 3D Printers. We also own and operate a number of 3D Printers and we own Intellectual Property in the application of 3D Print in the rapid manufacture of prostheses too.
3D Print is getting much attention in the press and media at the moment and investors are valuing 3D Print related stock very highly too. This bodes well for our industry, however we want to apply some caution to all the hype and put to bed several ‘myths’ about 3D Printing.
Myth 1 – With 3D Printing you have an infinite degree of design freedom
If only this was true. It is fair to say that 3D Printing offers many more opportunities to create complexity where traditional tooling/molding cannot compete; however infinity is a very big number! The reality is that you are still constrained by the types of material, the method used for fusing the powder (either sintered or binded) and the biggest one of them all–Gravity!
And with ‘design freedom’ comes expertise. Our design team members have spent all their adult life living and breathing the world of 3D Design. It would be unrealistic (even with some of the great software tools now available) to expect the average consumer to be able to understand, exploit and enjoy such design freedoms; especially when you factor in that a professional designer understands the inherent constraints in the materials and technologies applicable to 3D Printing.
Myth 2 – 3D Printing will replace Traditionally Manufactured Products
This is probably the most over hyped and mythical claim of all. A manufactured product is not, simply, about the making of a product; the whole process is much more complicated than this. As a design agency we know. Designing a product for manufacture involves a multitude of stages (all of which we explain on our website so we won’t repeat them here!). Add into this the need to operate within a Quality Manufacturing System, testing the products safety to extremes and the need to market, promote and distribute the product, the ‘actual’ cost of delivering a product to market is much higher than simply making it. Plus within a manufacturing process, economy of scales and the use of constant quality controlled components means consumers know that, wherever they buy the product, they know the quality will be the same.
Another major concern is the variability of operating 3D Printers. From experience, we have learnt how to ‘fine tune’ our 3D Printers to make sure the prototypes we create are of the highest consistent quality that can be achieved. This has come from the experience our design team has gained in using 3D Printers day in day out. This experience you will not find in an operating manual and would not be understood if you are not trained as a professional designer.
The other subject that is bought up is cost, the belief is it is cheaper to make a product on a 3D Printer. Clearly, if a manufacturer had to customize every product for every customer, then costs would be so high, that nobody would buy them (which is the primary reason for products being the same); so for a ‘one off’ cosmetic model, there might be a cost benefit of using a 3D Printer ( we say ‘might be’ because, don’t forget you have the capital cost of buying the printer as well as the consumables to buy too. If you only make one model, then your costs are going to be in the £100s…so ‘economy of scale is a 3d Print issue too).
Myth 3 – 3D Printing will allow you to reverse engineer spare parts
This is one that worries us most. For cosmetic spare parts, we see no issue (other than Intellectual Property infringement – see below). But for functioning spare parts, we have great concerns. A functioning spare part will have been designed to meet the rigors of the environment it is designed for. It will be stressed tested, thermal tested and shock tested to make sure it is safe for a consumer to use in the environment it was designed for. If you print a spare part, on a 3D Printer, you have no idea about the parts functional qualities in the working environment you want to use it in.
Although you could print a car spring on a SLM machine, there is no way we could recommend you actually fit and use it.
There is also the issue of design. A part designed to be injection molding uses the strength properties of the plastic being molded. As the material type you would use in a 3D Printer is very different, it often requires internal ribbings to add the necessary strength to make the part work, as a prototype.
So simply ‘copying’ the existing design will, in most cases, create a part that will look the same, but will be, functionally, weaker; but unless you are a professional designer, you will not be aware of this (but you are now!).
A similar issue is wall thicknesses; from our experience, a 3D Printed wall is always thicker than its injection molded counter part. You also need to take into account that the finish quality of the material is more often than not, rougher too. This requires post processing of the part; which adds both time and the potential for creating more structural weakness too.
Another key consideration is the legality of printing the part. It will be highly likely that the part you want to print is protected by patent. By ‘copying’ the part, you could be sued by the owner of the IP (check out this article for an example.)
Myth 4 – 3D Printing is cheap!
For those who follow us on Twitter (@frippdesign), you will see we, recently, engaged in an interesting discussion with a major vendor of full color 3D Printing on the costs of 3D Printing. The claim made was that their technology could make a part for only $5, which we accept is true. But what they are, potentially, implying is ‘look how cheap it is to 3D Print full color’. This is a piece of ‘marketing speech’ that many vendors put out about 3D Printing…if only it was true!
The very same Vendor, making this claim, eventually conceded that their 3D Printer costs $47,000, however they did state that their Total Ownership Cost (TOC) is lower than comparative technologies and, in this respect, there is some truth in what they say. However it is still a long way from being able to make a claim that it costs only $5 to 3D Print a part.
So let’s look into what the likely TOC is and the implications in buying a 3D Printer using the above as an example. The key factors to take into consideration are:
1. Depreciation–When buying capital equipment, financiers will normally depreciate the asset over a 5 year period. This represents depreciation of $9,400/annum on a piece of capital equipment costing $47,000.
2. Running Costs–As a company that operates three 3D Printers ourselves, 3D Printers do consume consumables (by this we mean things like Print Heads; not the materials used for Printing the model). It is difficult for us to assign a cost to this, but we will be generous and say the Printer consumes $200 of consumables per annum (note, for Laser based sintering machines, the ‘print head’ is a laser, replacing these runs into $1,000s but the 3D Printers do cost $100,000s to buy…and to be fair to these vendors we have not, yet, seen them claim you can 3D Print a model in metal for $5!)
3. Operating Costs–To run such a machine requires an operator. Accepting that operating a 3D Printer is not an intensive task, there is still a cost. We would assume that an operator is likely to be a 3D designer and the designer might spend 5% of their working week operating/monitoring the printer. Assuming a salary of $40,000, this represents an annual cost of $2,000. This does not include any costs incurred in fixing the 3D Print file to make it compatible with the 3D Print technology to be used, but we are assuming this would be absorbed in the 5% of designer time required to operate the printer.
4. Other Associated Costs–Although your designer would make the 3D Print file compatible with the 3D Printer, the designer will still need a PC and software to make any changes. For simplicity, we assume a cost of $1000 per annum to achieve this.
Total Cost Of Ownership–So taking the four costs together, then the annual ‘fixed’ costs of operating such a 3D Printer is in the order of $12,600.
In the Vendors claim, we have to assume that the $5 is the material cost for making the part.
So, to make 100 parts per annum, the actual cost/per part is $131 (12,600 divided by 100 plus 5)
To make 1000 parts per annum, the actual cost/per part is $17.60 (12,600 divided by 1000 plus 5)
To make 10,000 parts per annum, the actual cost/per part is $6.26 (12,600 divided by 10,000 plus 5). The reality is it would be higher as the 3D Printer will consume more consumables and might need maintenance because of the very high usage. However, for the purpose of this Blog, we will assume the machine can handle this level of use, maintenance free.
So, as with injection molding, there comes a ‘tipping point’ where an investment of $47,000 in a 3D Printer looks viable (as does the investment in tooling makes sense for injection molding)…but then you have to factor in another very important variable; the TIME it takes to make the part.
Let’s be generous that is takes an hour to print the part. At 10,000 units, this represents 10,000 hours or 417 days of continuous use (operating 24x7x365 days) i.e. making 10,000 parts per annum is very unlikely on a 3D Printer (in fact we know of no 3D Printer making $5 parts at this volume…we’d be very happy to be corrected on this though).
Even at 1000 parts, this works out at 125 working days (assuming a ‘single shift’ 8 hour day). This represents almost 6 months of a working year; again a very high utilization of the 3D Printer. From our experience, 3D Printers operate in the 100-1000 prints per annum range, so the actual cost of ownership, of making a $5 part, is in the region of $131-$17.60 per 3D Print.
Even at this level, the costs still look attractive. The investment decision, as with any investment decision, has to be “Is there market capacity to be able to make a financial return on the investment (bearing in mind a bureau will need to add a profit margin to this cost)? Can we get the utilization of the 3D Printer to justify the costs?”
Although this Blog has been written in response to recent Twitter traffic, the principle applies to any 3D Print technology you are considering investing in.
Even at the entry-level FDM 3D Printer level, you need to think about the Total Ownership Cost. We did buy an entry level FDM Printer and quickly rejected it because of the inherent low resolution and quality you get from a FDM machine costing a few $100. A great hobbyist product…but not something you would consider for making professional standard models (bear in mind you can get very high resolution FDM machines, but they cost significantly more than $47,000 to buy).
We are great advocates of 3D Print. In 2005, our co-founder, Tom Fripp, did his Masters in developing a method for manufacturing custom medical casts. But when vendors over hype their capability, it impacts on our ability to sell our services.
We operate at the sharp end of 3D Printing and it is our job to set customer expectations at the correct level. 3D Printing offers many benefits, but lets make them realistic…please?
Note: The figures quoted in this Blog are for reference purposes only. The actual TOC will vary dependent upon the circumstances you will operate your 3D Printer. The figures quoted are theoretical and are provided to contextualise this Blog.
This article may appear to be a little negative, but we think it is important to set the record straight about the myths. 3D Printing is very important to us, it is a key tool in our commercial offer and fulfills a vital role in delivering value to our customers. But expectations on what can be delivered, using a 3D Printer, need to be realistic. 3D Printing is still, today, primarily about making prototypes.
However we are keen to see (and support) the developments being made in the use of 3D Printers to make custom medical devices for patients. This is an area we are actively involved in where we have developed ways of rapid manufacturing cosmetic prostheses. However the world of 3D Printing is still some way from delivering custom functional medical devices (such as orthopaedic implants); but it is an area we actively support and work in.
This blog was originally published by Steve Roberts on his company website http://www.frippdesign.co.uk under the title Don’t Believe the (3D print) Hype. It is published here with permission by Mr. Roberts. Although not a designer himself, Steve has spent the past decade immersed in design and has the experience (some would say age) to understand the commercial opportunities for 3D Printing.