What you need to know that others may not want to talk about

Like every other technology, Additive printing has some specific issues that you need to be aware of

 First things first.  This is a technology that is rapidly developing and it literally is getting better with each day that passes.  In a lot of ways, there is still a wild-wild West mentality to this industry and people-wise, that means you are going to run into a lot of people we refer to as "characters."  One of the best ways to spot one of these "characters" is to be aware of the problems that do exist with the technology and see if the individual or company who is trying to sell you a 3D printer talks about them during their sales pitch.  If they do not, you have just learned something important. 

First and foremost, we are a consulting firm and our job is not to sell you a printer.  As you work your way through this website, that will be obvious.  This page will be updated regularly and is grouped by category to make it easier to integrate into your Additive printing analysis processes.  We are listing only some of the issues here, but we are in the process of putting together a document that will detail more and we also consult on this exact part of Additive printing;  call or e-mail us to request more information or a copy of that document and we will send you a copy of it just as soon as we have put the finishing touches on it.

We hope this is helpful to you:

Pre-production-related type issues:

  •  Once you have a good idea of what you want to end up with, the process  typically starts with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software package that  allows you to create a set of drawings that can be printed out on paper and then be the written instructions that someone else can follow to actually build what  you originally had in mind.  To print it out on a 3D printer, you just save that CAD file as an STL file;  this is a standard function in just about every CAD software package  today.   Here is the problem:  What is actually going on behind the scenes when you save that CAD file as an STL file is a data conversion and what you end up with is not always something that when used to print the part on your 3D printer will result in what you wanted.  Surfaces that were supposed to be straight can end up curved.  Surfaces that were supposed to be solid can end up with holes in them.  Parts of the finished product that were supposed to overlap, may not do so.  The reason that this may happen is due to the fact that the conversion from a CAD file to a STD file is in essence a translation; think English to French for perspective.  There are many ways to address this issue, but it is something you have to think about from a manufacturability standpoint when implementing and then using Additive printing in your business.

Materials-related issues:

  • When you print things using a 3D printer, you will potentially have some environmental-related issues due to the fact that most materials are consumed in a way that is different than is typical in a legacy manufacturing  environment.  Your raw material for printing steel will now be a powder for example. Keeping those raw materials clean and protected from specific environmental conditions will be very important.  The key is to understand what exactly will have to change in your environment and how that is going to impact your startup and on-going operations cost.
  • Different 3D printers can also consume raw materials in different ways and this can have a material effect on your costs and waste.

Production-related issues:

  • 3D printers print layer by layer.  This will have profound impacts on your manufacturing process, many of those impacts will actually result in an end product that is functionally superior when printed than it was when you made it another way.  A good example of this comes when you need to connect multiple 3D-printed parts using fasteners and you use a plastic tube and screw to do that.  That plastic tube typically would be produced by injection molding into a mold that has a piece of metal inside it.  The plastic flows around the piece of metal and is joined at a seam as the two flows of plastic meet in the mold.  That seam is a structural weak point.  When you print the part using a 3D printer, it is printed layer-by-layer.  The weak point will now be between printed layers.  The good news is that you can do a lot more to reduce the potential for part failure when using a 3D printer than you can when using injection molding.  The key point here is that you will need to think about how the physical and structural characteristics of your products may change when you create them in an Additive printing environment.  You may well find that what you uncover in this process may require specific functionality be integrated into your 3D printer and process, such as layer by layer inspections, which some 3D printers have built-in.  This is a source of costs and requires a commitment of time that many companies find out about only after they have purchased a new printer and is something you need to do up-front before you purchase a 3D printer. 
  • Another key area you will need to explore is whether the thing you are printing will require that structural supports be used during the 3D printing process.  This can materially add to your costs and different types of printers and printing methods have different structural support requirements for the printing of items with different types of geometries.
  • Bills of materials.  Additive Printing is going to affect these.
  • Factory/production floor layout and Shop Floor Control reporting and systems.  Additive printing will potentially require significant changes to how you do things today.  

Post-production-related issues:

  • Many things can be used or sold right after being printed by a 3D printer; many things cannot.  This is something that you need to think about and investigate as it relates to what you intend to make using a 3D printer system.  The fact is that many companies that employ 3D printers also have CNC operations that they do on the same part.  A part may need to be polished post-production.  It may need to be subjected to specific quality checks.  You will need to think through what additional processes will need to occur after a part is printed on a 3D printer in your business and what additional equipment and you might also need to add when you introduce Additive printing into your business.

Finished part issues:

  • If you use a 3D printed part to make something or to assemble something else, you will need to make sure you understand how any changes to the physical properties of that printed part that result from the Additive printing process itself might affect the part or assembly it later becomes a part of.
  • Certifications.  You need to think through how individual part certifications might be effected and determine if you will need to go through a re-certification process.

The above are just a few of the things you need to think about and understand more about before you purchase any 3D printer that you intend to use to actually print something that you will actually use or sell.  There are many more.

The good news is that Additive printing brings with it many advantages and capabilities that in most cases far outweigh all of the efforts and costs that are associated with its implementation and use.  If that was not the case, you would not see the great number of very smart and very well run companies around the globe that are moving into the Additive printing world today.  One of the keys to you making good decisions as it relates to this technology is not just to understand the opportunities, but also the related challenges.  

We hope this page has given you a good start in understanding some of the potential issues and challenges you might encounter if you implement Additive production in your business.  If you need help, we are just a phone call or e-mail away.