Over the past few years, 3D printing tech has become much more affordable for businesses of all sizes. This change has pushed some tech companies to buy 3D printers of their own for in-house uses like rapid prototyping. However, while there are many benefits to owning a 3D printer, proponents of the technology sometimes omit a few of the drawbacks of these machines.
Below, we’ll break down the pros and cons of 3D printer ownership for tech companies.
How 3D Printers Can Help Tech Companies
Here are some notable advantages of a tech company owning its own 3D printer.
Rapid In-House Prototyping
One of the biggest advantages of 3D printing is rapid prototyping, which is one potential prototyping method businesses can use to test product ideas. With this technique, you can use your 3D printer and modeling software to quickly design and manufacture prototypes. Printed objects can be ready in an extremely short time frame — depending on size and complexity, some may print in as little as one hour.
Once you’ve printed your materials, you’ll have instant access to a new product model you can use to test ergonomics, design and functionality.
Rapid prototyping is, as the name implies, extraordinarily faster than the traditional approach to prototyping, in which a business partners with a manufacturer capable of producing a design with injection molding. Typical lead times for a prototype made by this method can vary — some of the fastest manufacturers advertise a three-day turnaround, but many others will tell you to expect waits of up to 12 weeks.
If you like to perform fast with your work and experiment with new products, rapid prototyping with a 3D printer can be a massive advantage.
Lower Prototype Cost
At larger production scales, manufacturing methods like injection molding tend to beat 3D printing on per-unit price. If you’re just manufacturing one or two prototypes, however, 3D printing is one of the best options available for cost effectiveness.
For example, one study found that when it came to manufacturing a certain kind of lamp holder, per-unit costs were more than four times higher when designers used injection molding for a small batch of 5,000 units, rather than an additive manufacturing method like 3D printing. Only at much higher scales, like 100,000 units, did prices for the two manufacturing methods start to become comparable.
Flexibility in Prototype Materials
While plastics like polylactic acid (PLA) are the most popular filament for 3D printers, you have a massive range of options for materials when using a 3D printer. Printing materials like wood, metal, sandstone and even coffee-derived filament are all commercially available — although they may be somewhat less affordable than more standard options.
With a few exceptions — like fabric and woven materials — 3D printers can replicate almost any material a manufacturer can offer. You can even purchase carbon nanotube- and graphene-derived filaments which mix short strands of carbon nanotubes or chunks of graphene into other materials. These composite substances have some extremely fascinating qualities compared to their base materials — like improved conductivity, flexibility and strength.
The Drawbacks of 3D Printers
Now that you know some of the benefits, here are some drawbacks involved with using 3D printers.
Potentially Low Object Quality
3D-printed objects typically aren’t of the highest quality. It’s not uncommon for a prototype to have issues like rough edges, noticeable seams or unusual geometry resulting from artifacts or errors from the 3D blueprint.
These errors won’t make a prototype non-functional, but it can sometimes make them less effective — or not as representative of what the final product will look like. Rough edges may cause a prototype to be less ergonomic than a finished version would be, which can make it more difficult to test and, in extreme cases, potentially non-functional.
You can use simple mechanical polishing methods, like vibratory finishing, to smooth out rough edges and remove burrs on a 3D-printed prototype. However, you will likely need to find a shop to partner with if you want to use one of these techniques to finish your prototypes.
Possible Environmental Impact
3D printers can also have a significant environmental impact. A printer typically draws a high amount of energy while printing. If your office doesn’t receive power from a green energy source, a printer could seriously increase your business’s carbon footprint.
Some printing materials also contribute to environmental issues. The most economical kind of filament is PLA filament, which may seem very eco-friendly at first glance. While the material is plastic, it’s biodegradable and derived from corn and other biological materials — meaning that, unlike other plastics, you won’t be contributing to global oil consumption if you purchase it.
Biodegradability, however, doesn’t truly mean what it seems to. These materials don’t break down by themselves when thrown out — instead, they need to be composted in special industrial conditions. They’re more recyclable than compostable. If a PLA object is tossed with other trash, it won’t break down in a natural environment.
Fortunately, if you want to minimize the environmental impact of your printing, you can always partner with a recycling company capable of composting PLA filament-printed objects. You could also swap out PLA for more environmentally friendly, but more expensive, materials like wood or aluminum filament.
Why Owning a 3D Printer May Be Right for Your Tech Company
3D printers are within reach of many tech companies. These businesses can use 3D printing to rapidly prototype their newest products — potentially saving both time and money and enabling quicker iteration on concepts.
There are some disadvantages to 3D printing that companies will want to consider. Print quality, for example, won’t always be the best. Using a 3D printer can sometimes produce objects that are literally a little rough around the edges. Some filaments also aren’t that eco-friendly. However, both of these issues can be mostly remedied with some extra work.
Lexie is an IoT enthusiast, an aspiring Olympic curler, and a web designer. She enjoys hiking with her Goldendoodle and checking out local flea markets. Visit her design blog, Design Roast, and connect with her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.