With additive manufacturing technology reducing in size and simplicity, your home garage could one day be the machine shop of tomorrow. We’re talking a micro factory! A 3D print lab where the mad scientist in you now has full spectrum dominance on every level, from design to production, in the comfort of your own home or small office. You’ll have total engineering and manufacturing synchronicity at your fingertips.
In the famous words of Rex Kramer from Airplane!:
But it’s his ship now, his command. He’s in charge, the boss, the head man, top dog, big cheese, a head honcho, number one…
Now remember, despite the excitement, chaos, and myriad of life altering choices you’ll make at Macho Grande, you need to decide how best to outfit, operate, and strategize your new 3D print lab. From material selection to service offerings, consider me your inflatable co-pilot.
While your new 3D print lab can focus solely on rapid prototyping for clients, low volume manufacturing is attainable, albeit to a smaller degree as you get started. This will change as advancements in 3D print speed, intelligence, and consistency are made.
One of the greatest advantages of low volume manufacturing is the ability to print near-net-shape objects, thereby reducing raw material waste when compared to subtractive manufacturing. For prototyping, you’ve drastically improved your design and manufacturing cycle by days instead of months with little to no ripple effect on the overall process.
Be sure to embrace both
Look into providing rapid prototyping for clients while exploring the possibility of selling your own products. Since you’re the design department, use your CAD skills to come up with a niche. Break traditional barriers and bring your products to life. Even if you find no avenue to sell your widgets online, you already have the design ready for partners who can run with it on your behalf.
However you equip your lab, remember that you still have the option under your belt to utilize online services should the need arise for unique materials like metal. Partner with several companies and utilize their experience and technology as a resource instead of thinking of them as a competitor. As innovation catches up, you can easily shift strategy to offer your own services later.
Material selection vs. what you’re trying to achieve
Let’s consider that despite advancements in 3D printing, there’s no Swiss army knife unit capable of doing everything. Material selection starts with deciding on what you’re trying to achieve. The materials used, coupled with the printer’s capability, will equip you for a variety of situations.
Materials such as ABS, PLA, HDPE, Nylon, and Polycarbonate are the most popular, offering varying degrees of strength, rigidity, flexibility, and function for multi-part assemblies. Plastics are ubiquitous in prototyping and are economically feasible for low volume manufacturing runs. Plastics fill a large range of needs, from standard prototypes to functional models. Offered in a myriad of colors and characteristics, plastics are the cornerstone for rapid prototyping or low volume manufacturing on 3D printers.
Plastic filaments and powders are available in a broad range of technologies, price ranges, color capabilities, build volumes, and features. In the world of FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling), a $2,500 desktop printer can sometimes provide you with a “close enough” degree of print quality compared to a $50,000 unit, depending on your use case. The models will be functional, offer reasonable dimensional accuracy, and inexpensive to produce.
FDM printers also have a head start on material availability. Recent filaments in the market simulate aluminum, steel, iron, carbon fiber, wood, or rubber. For electronic components, conductive 3D printer filament can dissipate static and provide electromagnetic shielding. FDA approved filaments are appearing, allowing you to focus on 3D printing for the medical and food & beverage industries.
Thermoplastic powders are the next step, requiring lasers to melt or sinter thermoplastic powder by into 3D objects. Technologies such as SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) and SHS (Selective Heat Sintering) provide excellent surface quality and detail when compared to FDM printers. Available for plastic, metal, or ceramics, they are more expensive and not yet consumer friendly. SLS and SHS units yield significant material savings, especially when printing complex objects. It’s also a popular choice for low volume manufacturing runs.
There’s also the steady rise of small-office sized SLA (Strereolithography) and DLP (Digital Light Processing) 3D printers. They use laser or light to cure photosensitive polymer resins into 3D objects. SLA printers excel at fine detail, smooth surfaces, and yield reasonable strength characteristics depending on the object’s geometry. Latest resins available feature enhanced strength properties, flexibility, and the ability to produce molds for metal casting.
Metal 3D printing is the holy grail of additive manufacturing. While not yet easily attainable for your garage startup, we’re seeing significant advancements on all fronts, from desktop level to professional grade. Several companies are now in the race, setting the stage for your 3D print lab to become the ultimate machine shop. The rise of metal 3D printers will help take near-net-shape manufacturing to the next level. Metal’s most obvious advantage, apart from its strength characteristics, is the ability to 3D print prototypes that are also fully functional for the real world.
Various titanium, aluminum, chrome, and stainless steel alloys are commonly used with SLM (Selective Laser Melting), SLS, and DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering). Each of these technologies use laser melted or sintered metallic powders with various alloy compositions, giving you a wide range of properties to work with. Metallic powder is also available for brass, sterling silver, solid gold, bronze, and alumide.
For rapid prototyping or manufacturing, alternative materials provide a viable option for clients with outside-the-box design needs. Sandstone-like surfaces are growing in popularity, allowing for multicolor objects at affordable prices. It’s useful for details and color but not for flexibility and strength. Consider this material for clients that design art, novelty, home decor, or sculptures. Ceramics also offer a great choice for home goods as well, with a variety of surface finishes and colors to choose from. While lackluster in strength, flexibility, and detail, 3D printed ceramics can add chemical corrosion resistance or waterproofing to your client’s design.
Surely, you can’t be serious
The decision making process for your new 3D print lab may seem daunting. Technology aside, it really starts with the path you choose. Rapid advancements in 3D printing yields an interesting overlap of material choices for the startup micro factory. Don’t shy away from using your 3D print lab to practice all three disciplines: prototyping, inventing, and low volume manufacturing. With an array of materials to choose from, you’ll be better prepared for the overall client experience while also offering operational flexibility.
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