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3D Printing: Putting the 'Additive' in Manufacturing

(June 2013) posted on Thu Jun 20, 2013

Can you justify investing in 3D capability?

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By Craig Miller

Our machine is limited to two common plastics; ABS and PLA (some machines cannot handle both plastics, while very high-end machines can print to 10 different materials). ABS is what the bumper covers on our cars are made out of; it’s outdoor-durable and works reasonably well for most applications. The downside of ABS: If you’re printing on a desk in an office shared with people, the smell can be offensive. PLA or Polylactic acid, on the other hand, is more environmentally friendly – made from plant starch; it’s even biodegradable. I can’t detect any smell associated with a PLA build. Because only the two types of plastics are available, I’m limited to the kinds of things I can make. For instance, neither ABS nor PLA are food certified.

Both of these plastics come in a variety of colors; there are translucent materials, but no clear as of yet. Bundled software allows you to print in multiple colors, depending upon the printer model. For our system, by the way, the plastics come in cartridges – similar to ink cartridges; these are basically plug-and-play. (You can also buy third-party spools of ABS and PLA filament for about a third of the cartridge cost.)

Tensile strength: Keep in mind that additive manufacturing involves extruding a plastic “wire,” like a thick monofilament line, to create a layered object. The strength of the build relies on how well the fusion between the various layers sticks. This is the weak point in every build. In the two non-fused dimensions, the product is amazingly strong; but in the vertical or z-axis of a build, it’s possible to snap the model by hand (although this has not been a problem in any of our builds to date).

Becoming self-sufficient
The main reason we bought a 3D printer was to do in-house prototyping. To accomplish this, however, we had to have in-shop: one, a CAD software program; and, two, a designer who could become proficient in 3D CAD.

We chose a very powerful, yet intuitive object-oriented CAD program called SpaceClaim from the company of the same name. The software was about as expensive as the printer itself, but we have been very happy with it. And, I’ve since been reading reviews of excellent, less-expensive CAD software packages, if you are looking to manage your costs on this end. Two that have caught my eye are McNeel’s Rhinoceros and Cheetah’s Cheetah3D; both of these seem to be powerful and intuitive, and their price point is in the hundreds of dollars.

Tom, one of our designers, had experience with AutoDesk’s 3ds Studio Max modeling and animation software, so we asked him to spend work hours going over the tutorials in SpaceClaim. It took a few weeks, but in that time he was able to teach himself to design in 3D CAD. So we became self-sufficient in additive manufacturing. As it turned out, we now have a lot more need for designs than we initially anticipated, so we have also retained a freelance designer to augment Tom’s work. This has helped us move projects along at an amazing speed.

The future of exponential returns
We were able to justify the ROI of developing 3D capability based solely on our own internal needs. Just recently, though, we did our first 3D job for a client. We don’t anticipate becoming a “3D service provider” per se, and we don’t think 3D printing will ever become a standalone profit center for us. But a modest income from these sorts of print-for-pay jobs will help reduce the overall cost of owning the printer.

Looking back, I’m glad we took the 3D plunge. In all, we have invested less than $10,000 for the equipment, software, and labor. As a result, we now have an incredible capability that has helped us develop products that I’m confident will provide exponential returns. Plus, this experience has put us in a good position to evaluate the future trends and needs in additive manufacturing. If the market develops for us to sell 3D design and print as a profitable enterprise, we won’t hesitate to make the capital investment in more high-end equipment.