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Is 3D Printing Right For Your Small Business?

by Lisa Hayden
Is 3D printing right for your small business?

Is 3D Printing Right For Your Small Business?

Businesses across the world are excited by the prospects of 3D printing with small to large scale transformations in full swing across multitude of industries. Sales of 3D printers for commercial purposes is expected to grow by 39% in 2018 alone (“The State of 3D printing, 2018 – Forbes, Louis Columbus). We know that 3D printing is all the rage right now, but is the technology right for your small business? We will explore the different 3D printing technologies and provide you with information to help you decide if 3D printing is a fit for you, and why 3D printing is useful.

3D printing can often seem like magic to the uninitiated. We see headlines about 3D printing concrete buildings, 3D printing food, and 3D printing bioplastics for medicine. In a broad sense, as defined by Wikipedia, “3D printing is any of various processes in which material is joined or solidified under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, with material being added together…”. So, food, concrete, and bio materials all can be 3D printed. However, these technologies are very specialized and expensive, and aren’t realistic or possible for use by most businesses (yet). Metal and plastic 3D printing on the other hand have made great strides in recent times, and are ripe for mass adoption in the manufacturing industry.

Metal & 3D Printing 

Metal 3D printing is one of the most exciting technologies out there. It works by melting metal powders together via laser to create 3D shapes. Another form of the technology works by melting plastic and metal powders together, and evaporating or melting away the plastic later to form solid metal parts. These 3D printers are very expensive, with the cost starting around $100,000 and climbing as high as millions of dollars per machine. However, if you have a very large business and can afford such an expense, it is worth it. These printers save $1,000 of dollars in costs for each metal prototype created as compared to traditional machining. If your business is smaller and cannot afford such a machine, do not give up! There are many companies, such as Shapeways and Materialise, that you could outsource your 3D printing to so that you too can create affordable metal prototypes for your business. This is a bit of a niche field, as most businesses will find 3D printing in plastic to be more practical, but in some cases metal will be a good fit for your needs. This technology is most often used for engineering grade projects, such as aerospace and medical products and prototypes.

Plastics & 3D Printing

For most businesses, the most helpful form of 3D printing will be 3D printing in plastic. Printing in plastic is affordable and useful for creating all sorts of products, prototypes, and replacement parts. It is rapidly being adopted by businesses of all sizes as a cost-effective alternative to injection molding for prototyping and small run production.

Injection molding is the common method of making plastic parts quickly at very high speed. In this process, plastic pellets are melted and forced into a metal mold under pressure. The part cools and is released from the mold, creating a finished, plastic part. The process is then repeated until the desired number of parts has been made.

3D printing is becoming a popular alternative to injection molding for 2 reasons. First, the molds themselves can be quite expensive ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 per mold depending on the complexity of the part and the durability required. If you plan to make a plastic part at volume using injection molding, you will need substantial working capital. Second, injection molding is only cost effective at large volume. An injection molding company will have a minimum quantity in the thousands. If you only need a small volume of parts, injection molding, while fast, is far too expensive for most small businesses. This is why 3D printing is so useful. It offers a few different technologies that can aid a small business in creating prototypes or small production runs of their own.

3d printer printing a toy

Option 1: Fused Deposition Modeling

The first and most common 3D printing technology is called FDM or Fused Deposition Modeling. 3D printers utilizing this technology dispense plastic one layer at a time to build up a part from a variety of melted/extruded plastics. These plastics are cheap and easy to acquire, making this one of the most affordable methods of 3D printing. FDM printers can range anywhere from $300 for an entry level machine to $5000 or more for higher grade machines aimed at businesses such as Fusion3’s printers. FDM printing is by far the most affordable 3D printing technology out there, and also one of the most useful. There is a wide variety of materials available for these machines, from biodegradable bioplastics to engineering grade nylon and food safe plastics. A high quality FDM machine will create strong, functional parts that make great prototypes and products.

Option 2: Stereolithography

The second affordable technology is called “SLA” or Stereolithography. SLA “is a form of 3D printing technology used for creating models, prototypes, patterns, and production of parts in a layer by layer fashion using photopolymerization, a process by which light causes chains of molecules to link, forming polymers.”. If this sounds confusing, then just know that light is used to harden liquid plastic layer by layer until it creates a 3D part. SLA can create incredibly fine detail, much finer than FDM printing. However, depending on the types of polymers used, the parts can be fragile and breakdown over periods of time. Also, the liquid resins used in SLA may have adverse health effects and must be handled very carefully when in their liquid form. These problems can be mostly avoided by buying high quality resins, though this can quickly become expensive. While this sounds bad, these printers do have some great uses. They are amazing at creating extremely small detail, and are often used by jewelers to create prototypes for intricate designs. They can also be used to make mold masters for investment casting, and are great for artsy products and sculptures where extremely high detail is desired.

Much like FDM printers, these printers can be found anywhere from $300 to $10,000, but I wouldn’t recommend getting a cheap machine if you intend to use it for business, as you do get what you pay for in this field. One of the best SLA manufacturers is FormLabs. Their machines are a great business grade way to get into this technology if it is a fit for your projects. The resins can cost anywhere from $100 to $300 per liter, so your cost per part will be higher than if using the FDM based 3D printers, but it is worth it if you require very fine detail.

Why Is 3D Printing Useful?

If you have read this far into the article, then you probably have some idea of what you might want to use a 3D printer for, although there may also be ways you hadn’t even thought of using one! 3D printing has 3 main uses. The first use is prototyping and design. When working on a product, you can print out the design at each iteration, bringing the design to life so you can interact with it, and discover any flaws and test and perfect the design before final manufacturing. This can aid in developing a completely new product and is much cheaper than old fashioned prototyping which required an expensive prototype to be hand built several times throughout the design process. This allows as many design flaws as possible to be worked out early on, and avoids many unpleasant surprises later in the product development process; in case you discover that your product isn’t working in the way you had hoped it would. It also saves a lot of time and money and streamlines product development.

The second use for 3D printing is for creating jigs, fixtures, molds, and specialty tools. This can be useful in a wide variety of fields, including woodworking and metalworking, or any sort of manufacturing that requires custom tooling to create complex designs. Most of these industries have to create the custom tooling no matter what, and 3D printing is much cheaper and saves a lot more time than paying someone to build the custom tooling by hand.

The third and final use of 3D printing is for short or limited run production, which means manufacturing parts in limited quantities. 3D Printing is a great and affordable way to produce parts if you need to manufacture a small number of parts. This is particularly true of replacement parts, as you may only print the parts on an as needed basis. Another example would be an interior designer with a client who wants custom door handles on 5 or 6 doors. That is too small a quantity to manufacture with traditional methods, but is a perfect opportunity for 3D printing to come into play, and produce 6 high quality door handles without the expense of paying a craftsman or a factory to make them instead. The sky is really the limit here, and what 3D printing can be used for is mostly limited by your imagination and ingenuity. When producing less than a few hundred parts, 3D printing is much more cost effective than traditional manufacturing, and can allow small businesses to create custom products they never could have afforded before. While traditional manufacturing is still king if you need a few thousand units, 3D printing is very useful for many niche industries and small businesses, and can help you take your business and your products to the next level. These machines have applications in all sorts of industries, and can be used by product design firms, toy makers, fabricators, machine and auto shops, hobbyists, and all sorts of other businesses to streamline product development and create high quality, functional parts and products. They allow small businesses to think big and create things never before possible, and have permanently changed the world of manufacturing as we know it.

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