Is It Time to Start Printing in 3D?

For each and every design, it appears that 3D printing can increase the chances of a successful product.    In fact, over the past several years, 3D printing has grown from just an interesting idea to an evolving technology capable of doing far more than just adding an interesting twist to a CSI plot.  This rapidly advancing technology brings new real-world applications to light nearly every month.  Furthermore, in more prosaic fields, such as manufacturing, 3D printing has proven to enable more thorough design evaluations with more iterative processes, ensuring more successful product launches at the lower cost. Additionally, 3D technology is bringing dramatic changes to industries such as mass manufacturing, the delivery of consumer goods and the creation of artificial organs.3D printing

In December 2013, Time Magazine reported that “In a year when investors were willing to make speculative trades in emerging technologies, one of the hottest areas was…3D printing. “  While, from an investor standpoint, 3D printers are hot, one of the issues that have held back otherwise progressive engineering firms from purchasing a 3D printer has been the relative costs.  But this may be about to change.

With major patents on selective laser sintering (SLS) printers having expired in January, it’s hoped that the prices of these machines—which can run as high as $250,000 will decrease. When the patents on fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers expired, there was an explosion of open-source FDM printers that led to the use of 3D technology by small businesses as well as home hobbyists.

But, for professional use, the SLS printers provide the ability to print with more varied materials, including glass, metal, plastic, and ceramic.  It is this adaptability that comes with a much higher price tag.  Nonetheless, with increasing pressure to get products to market quickly, and the potential of lower of 3D printer costs, companies are more than ever likely to get into 3D printing.

Successful product design requires review and input from many sources. To this end, many large companies on the forefront of leading-edge technology purchased in-house 3D printers early on.  This lead to their design teams being able to review concepts earlier with other team members for feedback. These large corporations have found that fast collaboration with engineering, marketing, and quality assurance can empower designers to make adjustments throughout the design process and follow-up testing, leading to better products faster.

But is a large budget and in-house printers the only way to make use of this technology?

What About Outsourcing 3D Printing?

For those companies who realize the importance of 3D printing to the whole design process, as well as the improved speed in time-to-market, but who lack the budget for the purchase of a 3D printer, is outsourcing a viable alternative?   Generally speaking, outsourcing 3D printing can result in models equal in quality to those printed in-house.  The sticking point may be making it all happen in a time-frame that enables the in-house engineers to see quick feedback on design changes.  While it’s true that printing in-house can eliminate shipping delays and administrative slowdowns that can be caused by outsourcing the actual printing, if I had to choose between using 3D printing as an outsource and losing a few days with shipping, versus not making use of 3D printing at all…I’d outsource.

The Important Outsource – File Prep

What can and often should be outsourced to all companies, no matter their size and budget, is the preparation of the CAD file for the 3D printing process.   The one issue with 3D printing that most newcomers to the technology fail to realize is that you can’t just print a 3D CAD file.  In fact, it can be quite difficult to make traditional cad files ready for 3D printing. The process can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and in some cases impossible.

This is because, a typical file, when first exported from a CAD format to an STL format (WRL for files with colors and textures maps), often has a variety of problems.  These issues, which some refer to as not being “watertight”, include objects such as gaps, shared edges, inverted normal, non-volumetric geometry, small features and other unprintable geometry. Making matters worse, thicknesses created when making a scaled model are often too thin to print. The challenges along with limited time and resources are too often the reason for not printing in 3D, especially for those wanting to make scaled models and scaled prototypes.

How to Fix 3D Printing Problems

Outsource services that specialize in preparing CAD files for 3D printing have developed a variety of workflow options. One option is remodeling or redrawing CAD mainly for the purposes of 3D printing. This is an effort almost equal to creating the original design in the first place.

Another option is the use of specialized software tools and training that enables the outsource service to repair most of the issues.  One especially difficult issues are the control of fine details or undefined thicknesses so that the model prints correctly and looks right.  This detail alone can be a major challenge.

Outsource firms that are familiar with setting a minimum thickness parameter can generally assure that all entities of the model will print on a selected 3D printer.  This is one reason for making sure that the outsource service you choose is one that you can work with easily…with no language barriers or time zone differences that prevent direct communication.

In addition, you will want to ensure that the outsource firm supports and processes a large variety of 3D file formats, such as AutoCAD, SolidWorks, Inventor, and SketchUp.  Finally, make sure they understand and are familiar with the 3D printer that the print will be made on.


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