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  • Writer's pictureM Aerospace RTC

Profitability of Additive Manufacturing.

For the first three decades, 3D printers were limited by their complexity and cost to large companies and service bureaus. In the early 2010s, hundreds of companies entered the market and flooded it with 3D printers due to more advanced software, expired patents, and technology maturation. A bubble quickly appeared.

The first technology available for desktop use was Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). 3D printers that selectively melt and deposit plastic became affordable for consumers, but their capabilities were limited. Excitement over the emergence quickly turned to disappointment, and the dream that 3D printers would become essential tools in every home never materialized.

However, aside from the volatile consumer 3D printer market, additive manufacturing technologies will continue to advance rapidly. Printers geared toward professionals for use in engineering, prototyping, and manufacturing began to cross critical markers for quality, reliability, and cost.

The second technology to become available in a more affordable, compact, and easy-to-use format was stereolithography (SLA). Professional printers costing $80,000 were found on the market for as much as $3,300. With a wide range of materials, the development of the technology expanded the use of 3D printing into the fields of product design and engineering, as well as the dentistry and jewelry industries.

The third wave of 3D printers available for desktop use was based on Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology, which has been an essential technology for industrial use. Unlike other technologies available in desktop formats, SLS creates exceptionally strong parts from thermoplastics, such as nylon, that is nearly as strong as their injection-molded or injection-molded counterparts.

In 2016, the lowest priced SLS printer was around $200,000 (with some reaching several million dollars). In 2019, Benchtop SLS printers had an SLS printer in the $10,000 range.

The 3D printer hasn't become the appliance its most avid enthusiasts predicted as of 2010, but it is blazing a trail in mass markets. While the creation of CAD files is still the domain of trained and capable technicians, consumer-friendly 3D printing has been put to good use in schools. Finally, although most people are not printing their own 3D objects, the number of products manufactured with this technology is growing every year.

Creative culture.

In the last fifteen years or so, an interest in taking things apart (and possibly voiding the warranty) has resurfaced, as well as creating things at home or school. At a time when workshop classes in US schools fell in popularity, in part because the schools themselves emphasized more pre-college education, a “maker culture” emerged. This culture has flourished for many reasons:

· The possibility of creating physical products (whether scarves, robots, or decorative items) gives a feeling of achievement, which abstract symbolic analysis and manipulation cannot.

· Computers have declined in importance, and instead smartphones, tablets, and other tools have brought computing into everyday life instead of isolating it in a box or on a desk.

· The same impulse that gave birth to the culture of "hot rod" cars in the '60s and '70s can find expression, not in cars (which are much less intuitive to modify at the hardware level due to all the computational control systems) but if in the modification of drones, home brewing, and even life sciences (as in the field of DIY).

· Both crowdsourcing and crowdfunding allow users to bring their creations to the market and allow small-scale creators to find audiences for unique products like on Etsy.

The open source ethic has influenced many creators to adopt a similar attitude towards hardware knowledge and design: plans and advice are available, often in video format, making it easy for people to learn new skills or be inspired with intelligent thought.

·Physical instances of this culture, be it “maker spaces” or maker conventions (which draw thousands of people), contribute to the vibrancy of ideas and resources online.

Rep Rap Project.

The RepRap project began in England in 2005 as an initiative by the University of Bath to develop a low-cost printer that can print most of its own components, but is today made up of millions of contributors around the world. RepRap derives from Replicating Rapid Prototype.

Due to the machine's ability to create some of its own parts, the authors envisioned the possibility of cheap RepRap units, allowing the manufacture of complex products without the need for extensive industrial infrastructure. They tried to get RepRap to demonstrate the evolution of this process as well as its exponentially increasing numbers. A preliminary study concluded that using RepRaps to print common products resulted in cost savings.

Why use Additive Manufacturing?

Using traditional or conventional technologies such as machining or injection molding has many advantages. All subtractive techniques can achieve a mirror-like finish and can detail to within microns of tolerance in almost any material available. Injection molding can be time-consuming to set up, but once it is done, the production volume (productions of parts per unit time) will be very high, which is commonly the only way to reach mass production.

But the industrial challenges become more and more complicated, to a level that sometimes the necessary geometry cannot be achieved with conventional techniques. Sometimes this happens because of the accessibility of the tool or because the mold has to be opened to pick up the part without damaging it, or simply because the production is too low (a single prototype) to be cost-effective and justify the cost of production. the tool needed to make it.

Those blunt limitations mentioned above could prevent a part from being manufactured in a lighter, more efficient way, or without the possibility of producing the necessary number of prototypes fast enough to iterate and improve it. In addition, the capabilities of traditional technologies, relative to cost, can be loosely summarized in a single picture, in which the opportunities linked to additive manufacturing appear:

Cost-effective opportunities (Green Area) for AM compared to conventional manufacturing.

In the image, you can see what is preferable to do with conventional manufacturing (CM) and what is economically more attractive to do with additive manufacturing (AM).

Looking at the number of parts produced in the traditional way, it is well known that the more identical the parts produced by the machine, the lower the cost of the batch will be. If the batch size is too low, the cost of the tool could become too expensive to produce, which can become unproductive. This is represented by the blue curve, with the dotted line being the limit.

In terms of geometric complexity related to the cost of conventional machining, the trend is more like the red curve. Low complexity means low cost, and if the part is too complex for the technology, the part becomes too expensive or it is not even possible to build the part for technical reasons.

Advantages of Additive Manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing can have many advantages:

· With the optimal design, much less material will be wasted compared to machining.

· Thanks to the layer-by-layer construction, access to the interior of the part becomes easily accessible, allowing the designer to create much more complex designs (internal cavities, lighter structures, channels…) than with conventional techniques.

· One-step manufacturing does not require the use of extra tools during the manufacturing phase. No special mold or apparatus is necessary to position the part on the machine.

· A wide range of materials is currently available in the form of polymers, metals, and ceramics.

· Vaguely, one could say that geometric complexity does not increase cost, in other words, making a very light part, made of a 3D grid, with integrated channels and hinges, would cost about the same as a cube with the same size and volume of material. This is not at all the case for conventional technologies.

· It becomes possible to produce different pieces (in size, and complexity.) at one time when instead a mold can only produce the article for which it was designed. Particularly of interest for medical applications such as custom implants.

· Some technologies can produce parts made of different materials in one go.

· Some functionalities (springs, hinges, gears, rotary axes…) can be added to the design to be manufactured. This would require no extra post-assembly work, instead, they would be integrated right out of the printer

· The time needed to produce a standard volume part (300 x 300 x 400 mm3) is usually less than a week from draft to CAD to a final ready-to-use part. Very convenient even for early iterative development of a product that is to be manufactured by injection molding.

· Customization, labeling, texturing, cooling channels, weight reduction…, they become much more.

Disadvantages of Additive Manufacturing.

But there are, of course, some limitations to be aware of:

· The best geometric accuracy that can be achieved is 0.1mm on standard AM machines, for a part smaller than 100mm. For larger parts, 0.1% should be considered. This value can even reach 0.3% depending on the material, technology, and part.

· The maximum part size limitation can prevent the designer from manufacturing large parts, such as car bumpers or tables, in a single print. On average today, the maximum size possible on industrial grade machines is approximately 800mm. But some non-standard techniques can create a sand mold with dimensions of 4,000 x 2,000 x 1,000 mm or even houses with concrete walls.

· Many Additive Manufacturing technologies require a support structure. Roughly speaking, this structure connects the built part to the built platform. This prevents parts from moving during manufacturing and keeps them secure. This support is built at the same time the part is built. Unfortunately, this structure has to be removed after manufacturing and therefore will require post-processing to remove the support structure.

· Right after manufacturing, in some technologies, raw material is found everywhere, around the entire part, inside cavities, crevices, channels… And if the design does not take these facts into consideration, this raw material can be very difficult to remove, especially in small spaces.

·Some techniques produce parts with anisotropic mechanical properties, especially on low-cost machines and at “great” layer thicknesses (> 100 µm). But for most technologies, this anisotropic feature is not strongly marked.

What determines the cost of a 3D printing service?

Capital is the cornerstone in deciding on the right 3D printing service. Therefore it is important to know the factors that determine the amount of capital needed to print or hire a printing service.

The cost of 3D printers

3D printers are available in the market with different technologies, features, and sophistication that affects their cost as well as the quality cost, and quantity of the parts to be printed.

3D printing is an additive technology that involves manufacturing a 3D model from a CAD model. However, as 3D printers operate based on different technologies, both the operating scheme, production speed, compatible materials, post-processing, and most importantly, the cost of printed parts, vary from model to model.

Among the different technologies used in 3D printing, some stand out when comparing their cost and print quality. One of these technologies is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which involves the construction of parts through the melting extrusion and deposition of thermoplastic filaments. FDM process 3D printers are the lowest cost printers available on the market. Another of these technologies is Stereolithography (SLA) which uses a laser to cure resin and convert it into hard plastic. This technology is expensive due to its high detail, precision, and versatility. Other of these technologies include Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Selective Laser Melting (SLM), and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), all of which cost more than other technologies due to their rarity.

Cost of setting up a 3D printer.

Setting up a 3D printer can be a difficult task if you do it yourself. This is why many people wanting to avoid damaging their printer resort to the help of technicians, although of course, this entails an extra cost.

There is no average cost of a 3D printer set up as the price varies depending on the experience of the technician and the sophistication of the printer. For example, for FDM process 3D printers, the setup cost is around $200-$1000.

Operating cost of a 3D printer

To answer the question, how much does it cost to print in 3D? It is important to know how much the operation of a 3D printer costs.

Let's say you decide to buy a $2,000 printer that you plan to use for 10 hours every day for 2 years. Now, ignoring the cost of repairs, maintenance and electricity, let's calculate

10 hours X 365 days X 2 years = 7300 hours

$2000 ÷ 7300 = ~$0.27/hr

With this simple calculation, we can conclude that the cost of running this $2,000 3D printer would be $0.27/hr. Related to this, a 3D model that takes 3 hours to print will cost approximately (0.27 x 3) $0.81

Therefore, knowing the cost of printing a 3D model is a determining factor in the cost of the 3D printing service.

· Maintenance cost

3D printers are capable of producing parts of the highest quality and definition, but without maintenance, their performance and print quality will decline. Like other machines, a 3D printer needs proper maintenance. However, this comes at a cost.

Maintenance costs comprise the cost of replacing the parts of a 3D printer and cleaning those parts. Depending on the parts and the sophistication of the printer, this could cost a few hundred dollars. For example, for an FDM printer, the maintenance cost varies from $200 to $500. If an expert is required, the cost will go up.

Material cost.

The number of materials available for 3D printing continues to increase as knowledge of the process continues to advance. This increases flexibility in manufacturing products, their features, and the cost of 3D printing parts. The effect of materials on 3D printed parts and their cost is profound, as their accessibility, rarity, etc. makes it an important factor. The most common materials used in 3D printing are:

Powder and filament.

Powder and filaments are the two cheapest types of material used in 3D printing. They are thermoplastic, meaning when melted they can be reshaped until the desired shape is achieved.

3D printing enthusiasts prefer to use these types of materials (commonly PLA and.

ABS) because they are low cost. For example, filaments can be found on the market starting at a price of $20 dollars per Kg. However, although cheap, using these materials in the production of parts that require high quality is difficult, since it is necessary to invest time and money in the perfection of models made with these materials.


Resins are possibly the best material for 3D printing because they are easy to work with. Although, unlike powders and filaments, they are quite expensive. Therefore, working with them will certainly drive up the cost of the printed parts.

high-end materials.

The cost of a 3D printing service tends to rise when high-end materials are used. High-end materials are not easy to get because they are not common, making them more expensive. For example, working with metals such as titanium, cobalt, aluminum, nickel, and steel alloys. This is also partly because of the need for specialized technology like DMLS.

The size and complexity of a 3D model.

When designing parts to be 3D printed, a 3D model of the part is essential for accurate 3D printing, as the model provides the details needed for production. After getting the 3D model it is easier to estimate the cost of a 3D printed part or printing service.

The complexity and size of the model affect the final price of 3D printing. Complex designs may require more sophisticated printing technology and thus increase the cost of the part. Understanding the complexity and size of a 3D model will avoid wasting both capital and time.

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