Today’s businesses have many technological advances at their disposal. For any modern business to succeed, it has to keep up with new technological trends. One that is currently making its mark on several industries is 3D printing.
Gone are the days when 3D printing was limited to large factories and labs. This technology has not only advanced dramatically, but it has also become widely available to anyone in the form of 3D printer products. Thanks to the new breed of high-quality 3D printers at affordable prices, businesses can now afford to include them in their everyday operations.
This technology opens up new frontiers for small businesses as it provides a range of operational and business benefits that we will discuss later on.
So, What Is 3D Printing And How Does It Work?
In simple terms, it’s the process of creating a physical object from a digital model. It is classified as additive manufacturing where layers of specific printing material type (usually plastic, resin, metal, or wood) are built up one after the other to create an object.
This result in a three-dimensional product that can be used as a prototype, parts of another product like with 3d printing threads, or the product itself. 3D printing is far less expensive than traditional manufacturing processes and also takes less time to create prototypes, fixtures, tools, and jigs.
One of the biggest sectors that can benefit from this cutting-edge technology is small businesses and entrepreneurs. Yet, they are not reaping the benefits as they should mainly because of misconceptions. Many believe it to be a futuristic technology that’s expensive to implement in real life while others think that this technology is highly exaggerated and doesn’t deliver as much to justify its value.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the world’s largest brands like Nokia, eBay, Coca-Cola, and BAE Systems are already benefiting from this technology.
The possibilities with this emerging technology are mind-blowing; making it possible for small businesses to compete with big ones. But just like any other technology, there are pros and cons.
3d Printing Benefits
3D printers have continuously been decreasing in price over the past couple of years, which makes them an affordable asset for your business. Most importantly, 3D printing can help you save on the operational cost by up to 70%.
No more outsourcing your product development needs to manufacturing companies. This will not only save you money that you’d otherwise pay to these third-party companies but also travel costs as you’ll be able to create a product from start to finish.
Unlike traditional prototyping methods like injection molding and CNC machining that require experienced machine operators and technicians to run them, less manpower is needed with these hi-tech printers. This will save you a significant amount in terms of labor costs.
Ability to customize
Just as your brand is unique so should your products be. With 3D printing, ideas can easily be conceptualized and transformed into virtually any object.
And, if you want to customize your product, you simply use a 3D modeling software to modify your STL file and then print different versions of the part(s) you need.
The ability to customize products might come in handy in sectors like the medical field where 3D tools can be adapted to the patient’s or surgeon’s needs.
We live in a fast-paced world where everything is needed quickly and 3D printing does just that. It has the ability to produce parts and products a lot faster than conventional printing methods.
Complex designs can be made as a CAD model and transformed into reality in a matter of hours. Outsourcing is also time-consuming. The time spent placing orders, making approvals, transporting products, and performing other related processes could be spent completing important tasks within the business setup. And, as we all know, time is money!
The materials used in 3D printing are generally recyclable, which minimizes waste that would otherwise end in a landfill. Plus, in-house printing eliminates the need for outsourcing and compresses the supply chain.
This mitigates the need for transportation, which would otherwise lead to more fuel consumption and fuel emissions that are harmful to the environment.
Providing 3D print services
In addition to saving money, another possibility is making money with 3D printing. If you own a 3D printer, your business can profit from it by providing 3D printing services within your local business community.
You can make money reproducing other people’s products and the provision of such services will make you a focal point within the community, thereby attracting more customers to your business.
Production on demand
Mass production is only affordable if you are selling or need tens of thousands of product, which is not usually the case for small businesses. They don’t always have this level of demand to justify the cost of mass production; luckily, 3D printing allows companies to economically produce low-volume batches down to a size of one.
Additionally, storage can easily become an issue for small businesses. With 3D printing, you can produce parts when you need them, which saves on stockout costs. And that doesn’t even mention the extra time saved by not having to manage stock.
Outsourcing requires a bit of faith in a third-party company will get everything to your exact specifications. Buying a 3D printer for your business, on the other hand, guarantees the quality you desire. 3D printing involves the step-by-step assembly of a part/product, which allows for functional and visual accuracy.
In-house printing also allows you to closely monitor the process and avoid costly errors, mishaps, or inconsistencies. Enhancements can also be made to include the finest details, smooth surfaces, and ultimately ensure better quality.
Disadvantages of 3D Printing
3D printing has been found to consume 50-100 times more energy than conventional printing methods when melting printing materials with heat or lasers. High energy consumption has a negative environmental effect.
Plus, with the increasing cost of electricity, it will beat the financial logic if your business uses 3D printing for mass productions. This makes 3D printing better suited for small batch production.
The technology is costly
3D printing will save you a lot of money in the long run but the initial expenses can be very high. Industrial grade 3D printers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the materials used in these machines are just as costly. Small businesses that can raise this kind of cash will be locked out from accessing and using this innovative technology.
It is slow when it comes to mass production and customization
While 3D printing is limitless for mass customization, it is not the best for mass production. Also, the more the work involved with product development, the slower your printer will be. If you need a large number of parts, that is anything above a couple of hundred units, or have to make prints using a variety of products, it can take you several weeks to print.
It requires post-processing
Most 3D prints have to go through some form of cleaning up to remove support material and smooth the surface for the desired finish and a great quality part.
Manufacturing job losses
Since most of the production process is automated and done by the printer, there’s a potential reduction in human labor. While this sounds like a cost-cutting benefit for businesses, job layoffs in the manufacturing industry can cause economic disruptions, especially in regions that rely heavily on low skill jobs.
Limited raw materials
Despite being a significant manufacturing breakthrough, the materials that can be used in 3D printing are still limited. The preferred 3D printing material is plastic but metal can also be used.
There’s still a limited selection of these materials as not every plastic or metal can be temperature-controlled enough to allow 3D printing. Glass and gold can also be used, but they are yet to be commercialized.
Restricted build size
A majority of the 3D printers have small print chambers that restrict the size of parts you can print on them. Anything bigger is printed in separate parts and joined together in post-processing. There are however, larger 3D printing machines that can create larger parts, although they are quite costly and not a viable option for many small businesses.
With this cutting-edge technology becoming more common, there’s an increasing possibility for people to create fake and counterfeit products in ways that cannot be detected. Many businesses creating unique products will suffer as anyone who gets their hands on a product blueprint can easily create counterfeit products.
Buying guide for the best 3D printers for business.
After analyzing the pros and cons of 3D printing, you have decided to get one for your business. You want to get started on printing models of your own –whether it’s a custom phone case, figurines, musical instruments, cosplay material, or even 3d printing gifts, the possibilities are endless. Guaranteeing high-quality and accurate final parts is the most important concern for any business, and a 3D printer does just that.
Choosing a 3d printer for your business is not an easy task, especially for beginners, given the bewildering array of printers to choose from. There are a lot of variables to consider, from the user interface, connection options, and filament size just to name a few.
In this part of the text, we are going to cover 3d printing facts and all the main features that differentiate 3D printers. Hopefully, you will be able to get answers to all the initial questions that arise when faced with the task of choosing a 3D printer.
Ultimately, matching your business’s priorities, goals and needs will help you narrow your search and choose one that best suits your corporate needs. Without further ado, here are the most important things you need to consider when shopping for the best 3D printers for your business:
This is the most basic factor to consider. That’s because 3D printing is a broad term that covers a range of technologies used for producing physical materials. There are two available technologies in the realm of desktop-based 3D printing:
Filament Deposition Modelling (FDM)
FDM printers use a thin plastic wire, known as a filament, as the input raw material. The material is fed into a nozzle with an internal heating element where it melts into a semi-liquid form. The molten filament is then extruded via the print head and pieced together layer by layer until the final 3D model is realized.
FDM printers are the more common type. Not only are you guaranteed of more choices at a reasonable price range, but there’s also a thriving FDM online community that you can go to for help or if you want advice on how to improve your craft.
These printers, together with their materials, are also generally cheaper. The major drawback is its limited resolution. FDM prints usually come with visible layer lines as the thickness of each layer is limited by the size of the nozzle opening.
Parts can also feel slightly rough to touch. For this reason, you might have to do quite a bit of work during post-processing to attain a professional-grade finish. Be sure to check out 3d printing pen ideas online for any artistic, decorative, or even repair work.
SLA printers, on the other hand, use a light-sensitive liquid called a resin as raw material. With this printing technology, the ultraviolet light beam used to solidify layer-on-layer of photosensitive resin until the entire part is built.
Since SLA printers build layers using a super-fine beam of focused light, they allow for thinner layers and retain a greater level of detail. SLA prints have a better finish than FDM prints, although you can still do post-processing for an enhanced visual appeal.
On the negative side, SLA printers are rare; plus, the machine itself and the raw materials are quite costly. They also require a steeper learning curve, which doesn’t make them ideal for beginners.
There are many more types of 3D printers available on the market, but many people use and prefer these two options.
Materials Used To Print
One of the biggest determinants of how a 3D print will look and function is the material used. But the thing is every 3D printer has specific materials that it can use. Knowing which material is suitable for your final product will help you decide what type of printer you should buy.
Generally, you are limited to the material options that are available to the printing technology you are using. For instance, FFF/FDM printers use a spool (or Coil) of filament in either Poly Lactic Acid (PLA), which is a type of plastic derived from corn starch; or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), which is a petroleum-based plastic.
These two are known as thermoplastics, meaning they can be heated to become semi-liquid and revert to being solid as soon as they are cooled.
PLA is biodegradable and environmentally sound, available in multiple colors, and cools quickly thus preventing problems with model warping, not to mention it can arguably produce sharper printed corners and thinner layer thicknesses.
It does, however, have a low melting point, which can cause models to deform under high heat. ABS material, on the other hand, is strong, flexible, and has a high-temperature resistance. It does, however, emit fumes during printing and takes longer to cool, meaning models are susceptible to warping.
In addition to these two materials, FDM printers can also use nylon, PETG, PMMA, laywood, laybrick, as well as plastic with wood fibers or chalk-like material embedded in it.
Keep in mind that some printers are only compatible with proprietary materials, which limit you to the offerings of the manufacturer. Others have an open system that is compatible with 3rd party materials, thus allowing you access to a broader selection.
As for SLA printers, they work best with thermoset resins. This printing technology has a rather small set of materials with most manufacturers offering just 4 or 5 resins options –some are softer while others are harder.
Standard resin is ideal for creating prototypes or small desktop gadgets, although not strong enough for final products. Tough resin is more physically resistant, which makes it ideal for higher impact uses.
The frame material of most 3D printers is either plastic or metal. The former is more lightweight and less expensive but don’t offer long-term value. A metal-framed 3D printer offers better stability and durability but is obviously costly.
When you’re considering adopting new technology for your business, it needs to make financial sense. The cost of 3D printers has dropped significantly with the current market offering some of the lowest costs for many applications.
These pieces of equipment range from a couple of hundred dollars to well over $3,000. There are a lot of great choices in the range of $400-$1,000, although you’ll have to make a few compromises in terms of features.
It goes without saying that the higher the price, the more features you’ll get and the higher the quality of prints it can make. While there are affordable quality machines, sacrificing too much quality in for cost might cost you even more in the long run.
When choosing a 3D printer for your business, it’s important to consider not only the upfront cost of the machine but also, setup, training, running, and potentially software costs.
Running costs are best estimated using per-unit material costs. Beware of servicing and maintenance costs as well, which can cost up to 20% of the printer’s upfront cost annually.
Ease of use
This is a very important factor, especially if you are a newbie in the 3d printing business. After all, you and your team will have to learn how to use the machine and maintain it daily. Getting the right 3D print usually involves a long and repetitive process.
Troubleshooting is unfortunately, considered an inherent part of 3D printing. As you can imagine, grasping how to do this can take a considerable amount of time.
Not all machines are created equal; some manufacturers make life easier by providing intuitive user interfaces, a seamless slicer software platform, and automatic bed leveling features.
Other machines, especially the cheap models, can be quite difficult to use. They rely on third-party software, which requires a bit of coding to get them to talk to the printer.
Can the printer be used in your office, or does it need a workshop environment? Most consumer 3D printers are desktop machines; as such, they can be used in an air-conditioned office environment without any problems. Of course, there will be some odors from the melting resins or filament, but these are not harmful.
Not all technologies are office-friendly though. For instance, a printer that takes large vats of liquid or powders with harmful lasers must be in a more controlled environment. Some of the environmental controls that may be necessary are air exchange or ventilation, along with humidity and/or temperature controls. The ease and safety of waste disposal is also an important factor for businesses to consider.
Assembled or DIY
The choice between a fully assembled machine and a DIY kit is not that simple. Both options come with pros and cons. For instance, the initial setup of a fully assembled 3D printer is pretty simple as there’s no need for assembly and calibration.
These printers are, however, more expensive; plus, chances are you might not be familiar with the components since you didn’t put it together from scratch. A DIY kit, on the other hand, is much cheaper and allows you to learn a great deal about the printer during assembly. This knowledge will prove useful when you’re dealing with a technical issue in the future.
Software & Connectivity
Since 3D printing is a digital manufacturing process, the software a printer uses is as important as its hardware. Most 3D printers come with their own 3D printing software called the slicer that can print Stereo Lithography (STL) files.
This is the standard file format that is used to print a 3D model into a physical object. There are several different 3D modeling software, either free or commercial, which can help you bring your creation to life. While the capabilities of these slicing software vary greatly, they typically include preset parameters that are optimized for each printer and material to help simplify workflows.
This is the maximum size of a model that a particular printer can produce is a single print. Once you’ve decided on the printing technology, the next logical thing is to think about the size of the prints you want. If your 3D printing business requires large pieces, then you’ll have to choose a 3D printer with a large build volume.
It’s best to target a 3D printer with a build volume that’s significantly larger than the largest print you are aiming to create. You do, however, have to keep in mind that the ability to produce large objects may be at the expense of accuracy and reliability.
Also, a printer with a larger build volume will likely be more expensive, not to mention, there will likely be an increase in the final price of a print.
3D printing resolution is one of the most crucial factors to consider when evaluating the print quality of a particular 3D printer. It refers to the quality or level of detail the printer can get when creating a part. Resolution is measured in microns and the smaller it is, the higher the level of detail you can create in the objects.
Manufacturers use different methods to define a printer’s resolution with layer height being the most commonly cited standard. Layer height is, however, a poor representation of 3D printing resolution as it only factors in the Z resolution without including the XY plane.
The truth is the printer’s movement on both the XY and Z planes determines how fine the resolution will be. And, smaller movements typically yield higher resolutions. A high-resolution object is usually smooth with very thin layers while a low-resolution object tends to have relatively thicker layers.
Some printers provide two or more resolution options to choose from so get one that’s to adjust and has a higher number of microns listed in the specs.
The print head is perhaps the heart of the printer. It is divided into two parts: the cool end (also referred to as the extruder) and the hot end. Each part is designed to perform a specific task. The cool end pulls the filament from the spool, pushing it to the hot end where it melts and is deposited onto the print bed to create a solid object.
The quality and configuration of the entire print head affect print speed, material compatibility, and ultimately the print quality. There are several things to consider with the cool end, including the filament feeder system.
This comes in either a Bowden setup or a direct drive setup. The former allows the hot end to move faster while the latter is ideal for flexible materials.
Some printers have dual extruders, thus allowing you to print in two colors without having to change the filament. Such printers seem enticing but are not recommended for beginners due to their demanding maintenance and learning curve.
With the hot end, you need to consider the max working temperature since some materials require extremely high temperatures. This part also carries the nozzle whose diameter affects the print speed and quality. A smaller nozzle produces smoother and more detailed 3D models, although at the expense of the print speed.
3D printers come in multiple designs and forms, and also feature a range of extra accessories that make management, connectivity, monitoring, and the whole printing experience quite easy and enjoyable. When choosing one for your business, it would be best to consider the following additional accessories:
All-in-one 3D printer: This is a machine that combines printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. This will save on office space and money that you would otherwise use on getting all these different types of office equipment.
Onboard camera: This makes it possible to remotely monitor the progress of your project and easily take photos of the final print.
Automatic Material Recognition
Connectivity: 3D printers often rely on a USB connection and a computer to print an object. Therefore, consider one that comes with a USB and SD card slot so that you don’t have to rely on an external computer during the build process. Additionally, some 3D printers are able to print from a PC or even a phone via Ethernet or wirelessly using a Wi-Fi connection.
LCD and display: Whether a touch-screen or some coloured LEDs or even a character or graphical LCD, this added feature can relay useful printing information like the printing progress.
Glass print bed: This is a recommended accessory if you’re buying an FDM printer. A glass print bed heats up evenly and makes it easier to apply adhesives. You can get a piece of glass cut to the size of your printer’s build plate from your local hardware.
Be sure to learn how to level 3d printer bed perfectly, without forgetting to adjust it every 5-10 prints, so the material extrude evenly across the entire build surface. This will ensure your prints look much better.
Ultimately, before you buy a 3D printer for your business, it helps to know what you want to print, how often you plan on printing, the amount of time you are willing to invest in 3D printing, and where you plan on using the printed objects.
Once you understand your 3D printing needs, the rest will fall into place. Be sure to buy a 3D printer from a reputable brand with good support. With these guidelines, we hope that you’ll be able to make the right choice when selecting a 3D printer for your business. Good luck!