3D printing is still a largely un-tapped resource and with companies often jumping to the conclusion that injection moulding is the only option, organisations are missing a huge opportunity.
“3D printing is for one-off prints or prototyping”….. well, maybe, but have you seriously considered the form vs function of the parts you need? Do they really need to be perfect to the eye or would a more balanced view of form vs function (and cost!) equally suit its purpose? Don’t get me wrong, 3d printers these days aren’t throwing out ugly looking blobs of plastic when printed correctly and I’m more and more blown away by the quality of even the budget end FDM printers on the market, but my point is, do you really need to make such a huge financial commitment to have your parts injection moulded?
I recently developed a camera bracket for a commercial vehicle telematics company. The brief was simple, it needs to be strong, adjustable and small…..perfect! The mass produced injection moulded brackets they’d been using were hit and miss, and not really tailored for the varying applications the company needed them for. They were also too large for the job. A few hours later and with some prototype prints in my hand, I sent a custom bracket to the client complete with their company logo embossed into the print and a quote per part. A few refinements later and on-demand, the company receives 100 brackets within 48 hours….no stock commitment, no up-front investment other than the 3d modelling and ultimately no writing off of old stock when the new model camera comes out.
My point here is the part in question needed to work, look acceptable for the application it was to be used in, and not require the kind of investment that can cripple a small business without the funds to invest or hold large volumes of stock. Although the part works out slightly more expensive than the injection moulded equivalent, these were universal un-branded parts not designed specifically for their application and requiring significant stock holding.
We’re actually talking about hyper-personalised manufacturing. We are taking a specific requirement and making it viable to have that part manufactured on-demand, from one part to one thousand or more parts. Whether it is personalisation of a product for marketing purposes, flexibility of design and investment for fledgling startups, or satisfying the growing demand for a product which hasn’t quite reached the volumes required for financial viability of injection moulding, 3d printing is increasingly seen as a viable solution. Lets not forget too, that 3d print technologies are often enabling the use of designs and materials not possible via traditional manufacturing methods.
The message is simple, the balance of personalisation, on-demand manufacturing and low initial investment when compared to the ‘finish’ of the final product, may surprise you. 3d printing is increasingly used for production run part manufacture and not just prototyping.
A little over three years ago I entered the world of 3d printing which combined a whole host of the things I love to do, designing things, making things and the possibility of selling things. A lot has changed in those three years and its an eternity in the fast paced development of 3d printing. What started off as one second-hand, home made printer churning out pretty useless and often unrecognisable star wars characters (I’m not even that big of a fan) for the shelf, is now a farm of 5 semi-professional printers serving individuals and businesses with great quality prints with an ever increasing volume per print run.
I’ve never been one for sitting on an opportunity though, and when the opportunities to print more and more have come to me it has been a case of ‘say yes and then figure out how you’re going to deliver’ or words to that effect, which are spoken by Mr Branson in one of his books. Love him or hate him, he has his own island….I don’t!
So, why look at a technology that has been around for quite some time now? Well, 3d printing technology has progressed significantly in the last 10 years or so. With the improved quality and availability of materials such as PLA, through to more specialist carbon fibre impregnated materials, the potential of using these mid-level machines for producing functional and decorative parts for end-user applications is now a reality. When you mix the ever increasing desire for customisation and product personalisation, an explosion of designers, inventors and startups wanting to take their own unique products to market and the capability to turn an idea to a physical product in a matter of hours, you have the makings of a pretty strong case for satisfying these needs with 3d printing at scale.
So, there you have it…. the makings of….well, lets just see. First things first, I need to make some space for all these new printers!