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I work for a company that makes items from plastics.
Many or our current runs are between 500 and 5000 copies, but knowing the company, if we find a good method to do smaller runs, they are willing to see if it is a good commercial option.

At the moment we do use several different methods but the technical people are not yet looking into 3D printing.

While I am not sure printing is the right option just yet, I would be surprised if it will not be in the future.

At this time I am interested in finding information to convince the tech people to look into the abilities of printers and what would impress them to look further would be printers that can produce in short times or at multiple stations so the overall run will be relatively short term.
Our current items are mostly simple in shape, (disks with relief print) and small in size (no bigger than a 2 pound coin).

Do you know an online magazine where the tech people can look or can you suggest a (few) printer(s) to look at right now?
Links to online general information or names to search for will be great.

Knowing our current bunch of tech people they will likely prefer commercial available printers but proven 'home build technology' might be useful as well.

1 Answer 1

3D printing may absolutely be a viable technology for what you are trying to achieve. The term you should search online is printing farm or 3D printing farm. A typical farm looks like this.

The reason you normally want to set up a farm is that - despite 3D printing being often associated to the expression "rapid prototyping" - 3D printing is anything but fast, and operating several machines is an easy way to increase the throughput. (On a side note: the term "rapid" in "rapid prototyping" refers to the fact that there is little to no overhead between the design and production phases, as opposed to the need to create a mold, or send out technical drawings to a machining shop, for example).

The right technology to be used (i.e.: what types of 3d printing you would need in your farm) is entirely dependent on the requirements and characteristics of the printed parts. There are so many different 3D printing technologies, and each technology has so many variables attached to it that it would be silly for me anybody else to state with certainty which one would be best for you (your "tech people" will likely spend a lot of time evaluating their choices), but to give you a sense of the complexity of the problem, I could mention that FDM/FFF printers are very cost-effective, quite slow, can print in a variety of materials, have limited resolution, suffer from wear, produce anisotropic parts while SLA printers have incredible resolution, can't print large parts, struggle with solid objects, emit toxic fumes, are expensive to buy and operate, etc...

Be advised that the list of 3D printing technologies is not limited to those two (especially when it comes to industrial settings): FDM and SLA are the most known technologies as there are several consumer-grade printers using them, but DLP (Digital Light Processing), SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), SLM (Selective Laser Melting), EBM (Electronic Beam Melting), LOM (Laminated Object Manufacturing), BJ (Binder Jetting), MJ (Material Jetting) and others are also available... each with its own pros and cons.

When it comes to source of inspiration and information, I have to disagree with the suggestion made by another responder that Make Magazine would be a good resource for forming an opinion. Make Magazine is a magazine targeting hobbyist, and as such it pitches and explores technologies that are geared towards enabling creativity. What you should be after is information on 3D printing in a commercial setting / on an industrial scale, as the requirements of a hobbyist printing their own drone are very (very!) different from those of a company needing to meet quickly, reliably and consistently a customer's specifications.

3D printing technologies evolve continuously and quickly, so - if you are after printed material - it is essential for you to get hold of something published recently. Off the top of my head, The 3D Printing Handbook: Technologies, design and applications that came out a couple of months ago seems to be an excellent match for your current needs of forming an opinion / acquiring information (the link is to Amazon, and allows you to browse its index online). Keep in mind it was put together by 3D HUBS the largest network of manufacturing services in the world... so it is not some random guys' opinion!

A couple of additional considerations that I would also keep in mind:

  • If you are planning to enter the 3D printing space be ready to fight off an established but ever-growing competition. One of the cool things about 3D printing is that being highly automatised, having a low cost of entry, and not requiring access to huge amount of energy or raw material, it is often available as a service locally. There are often global networks (e.g.: 3D Hubs, mentioned above) that make easier for potential customers to find a local printing facility, and that - conversely - make difficult for an isolated manufacturer to be discovered.

  • If you are considering setting up a 3D printing farm, I would spend a lot of time also considering its operation (extraction of fumes, backup energy sources, automatic/early detection of printing failures, replenishing of the raw matearial, etc...), as it will be a seizable part of the operating costs and associated risks.

  • If you are working with extremely small batches of small parts, also consider large printers over printing farms. The risk profile is different (larger investments, single point of failure) but the economics of running a single machine may prove more efficient overall.

  • If you are producing functional parts (i.e.: parts meant to be loaded / exposed to mechanical stress) be advised that some printing technology (most notably FDM/FFF) requires designing the parts with the printing process in mind, as the mechanical properties of a FDM printed objects are not the same along all of its axis. This may require additional training of your staff.

Hope this helps! :)