Implementing 3D Printing: In-house or Outsource?

Your business needs 3D printed parts. Multiple market surveys indicate that most businesses, if not already using, are evaluating 3D printing for product development and manufacturing. They are investing in training designers and engineers specifically for 3D printing and recruiting new employees with experience with additive manufacturing to prepare for the future. Most companies understand the benefits of additive manufacturing and can identify prototype and production parts prime for 3D printing, but the path to operational implementation is not always clear. Do you buy a 3D printer or order parts through a 3D printing service provider? Budget is obviously a factor, but what about the type of system(s) you need? Do you need multiple platforms? What materials are required? Will training be involved? Each route has its unique benefits and can better serve certain objectives and business models. The following considerations will help you start to weigh the pros and cons and find the best 3D printing solution for your business challenges:
3D printing

What applications have you identified for 3D printing?

The applications you plan to 3D print should be your number one decision driver. If you only plan to 3D print scaled models early in the design process to check look and feel and to sell new concepts, a small desktop printer could be a great solution. If you need full-size functional prototypes, a larger, more robust machine may be a better fit, like the Fortus 450mc. If you’ve identified a complex production part to be fabricated with 3D printing, a service bureau with design for additive manufacturing expertise and a large capacity of machines to handle the production volume would be your best bet. Another dead ringer application for a service bureau is large parts or parts larger than any 3D printer build platform because service providers like Stratasys Direct Manufacturing have expert finishers who can assemble multiple sections without sacrificing strength or integrity.

How many 3D printed parts do you need per year and what mix?

You should also consider the volume and variety of parts. At a basic level, if you think you’re going to need high mix of part designs, at generally a low volume – which could usually indicate a lot of concep and prototype applications –  it may make sense to invest in a machine because you don’t need multiple systems working at once. If you’re planning on printing a high volume of a low mix of part designs, that’s when you would want to turn to a service bureau that has capacity and an extensive quality team to ensure consistency and repeatability. Additionally if you think you’ll need a wide variety of 3D printing processes and materials, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing is be able to provide the gamut - from rigid and elastomeric plastics to metals and alloys parts - all under one roof.

How familiar is your team with design for additive manufacturing?

Designers and engineers have always adhered to design for manufacturability (DFM) and assembly rules for conventional manufacturing methods. While additive manufacturing frees designers from a lot of traditional constraints and allows engineers to create parts solely for desired form, fit and function, there is a learning curve when it comes to designing for each 3D printing. Luckily 3D printing is quickly becoming a part of mechanical engineering education, but it’s still not fully established. Bringing a 3D printer in-house still means training or even hiring new talent. If you do not have the resources to dedicate to fully understanding the system and designing fIor it, outsourcing part production is a way to minimize risk and compensate for resources or expertise that doesn’t exist internally before making a larger investment.

What is your budget and timeline for implementing 3D printing?

Do you need parts immediately? Or do you have time and budget to make adjustments to your engineering and manufacturing operations to accommodate a new process? If you need parts immediately, is it a functional part or a model? Working with a service provider is the best option for immediate, functional parts whereas a desktop 3D printer, like a Stratasys Mojo or uPrint, is easy to use right out of the box for small concept models. Alternatively, investing in larger, more sophisticated 3D printing equipment isn’t just a matter of buying a machine, plugging it in and pressing print. It involves investments in training staff, setting up software, maintenance, purchasing consumables (meaning material, print heads, etc.) and even disruptions in overall operations. With such a big investment, you may want to try 3D printing out first and take meditative steps – that’s where 3D printing service providers come in.

What type of working environment do you have?

It’s important to consider your physical work environment and if 3D printing equipment would be compatible. Some systems are more office friendly than others. For example Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) systems, including desktop 3D printers up to the Fortus 900mc and PolyJet systems, are clean and safe for an office environment. Laser Sintering processes that use powder materials involve careful handling and much higher processing temperatures that require a controlled environment and additional space for powder collection and recycling equipment. Therefore producing parts with Laser Sintering or Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) is much easier through a service bureau from a facilities maintenance and operations standpoint.

There are many avenues to realizing the full benefits of 3D printing. Some of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing’s most AM-knowledgeable customers have equipment in-house for concept modeling, functional prototyping and one-off end-use parts, and then turn to Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for:

  • 3D printing higher volume of production parts

  • Trying new technologies they don’t have in-house

  • Building large parts

  • Producing smooth or coated parts with finishing services

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