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3D Printing: How to Choose the Right Service

3D Printing: How to Choose the Right Service | 3D Printing Spot

Updated by

William Stone

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September 16, 2021

Global adoption of 3D printing is inevitable but how the technology is incorporated by various organizations will be a key question. It can either be brought in-house or outsourced to service bureaus.

Choosing the right 3D printing service is a challenge especially for new users. They often give importance to the wrong parameters ultimately leading to a failed attempt at incorporating the technology. We will help you choose the right 3D printing service.


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Table of contents:

Why is 3D Printing Needed?

Before diving into knowing the way to choose the right 3D printing service, we will see why 3D printing is needed in the first place. Can’t we just use the tried and tested traditional processes to continue manufacturing products? The answer to this question is complicated and depends on what type of products you are manufacturing. 

Yes, you can continue to use Traditional Manufacturing Processes

If you are a small ancillary unit and are manufacturing parts for specific requirements in huge volumes then you can continue to use traditional processes. If you do not design and develop new products then you still can continue.

For smaller organizations 3D printing is still too costly to incorporate. In addition to the capital investment, the complete setup costs, training costs and learning cost is also big barriers. And so it is not advisable to shift to 3D printing without a proper strategy. In such a case, organization can continue to operate with their existing traditional processes.

No, you need to try to use 3D printing 

With the global pandemic opening the eyes of the world to the glaring loopholes in the supply chains, it is evident that the conventional supply chains based on the traditional processes is not the most efficient way to operate. The manufacturing has to be distributed and only 3D printing can support such a manufacturing philosophy. 

3D printing has the power to design and print complex products previously not possible. It boasts of an ever-increasing material library that has covered most of the popularly used materials. It imparts flexibility, sustainability and reliability to an organization due to its advantages of on-demand manufacturing, cheaper low-volume manufacturing and high-quality output. 

Moreover, since it gives complete design freedom, new efficient designs are made possible. Even existing parts can be optimized topologically thereby reducing the material usage, reducing costs and ultimately reducing the time to market.

With these unprecedented benefits, it only makes sense to shift some of the operations, if not all, to 3D printing.

How to get parts 3D Printed?

Buy a 3D Printer

A seemingly simple of 3D printing any part is to buy a 3D printer suitable to the needs and requirements of the application. The user has to go through a process to know what type of 3D printer he/she needs and accordingly a printer can be bought for the individual or the organization.  

Buying a 3D printer may seem a simple solution to new users but in reality, it is pretty tedious and more so if the user is new to the technology and sees the machine as an entry point to 3D printing. 

A 3D printer is now available all across the globe and at affordable prices for entry-level models. Depending on the need and requirements of the user, he/she can buy one and get started with 3D printing parts. This can however pose a problem as not all 3D printers are affordable. For getting reliable and high-quality output, a branded and high-performance printer is required and such printers cost quite a lot. If the user is an industry then they will require industrial-grade 3D printers that cost a fortune. It is hard for smaller businesses to invest in a 3D printer even if it can solve their production needs. 

It is a difficult predicament and depending on the budget, output quality and quantity, application, material compatibility, and many other parameters, the decision to buy a 3D printer has to be taken. And it is not always an easy decision to make. Additionally, most 3D printing requirements are not sufficed by a single 3D printer or even multiple machines of a single type. A user may have to buy different technologies like Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), etc. depending on the products he/she wants to 3D print. Bringing so many printers in-house is not viable even for large organizations.

Entry-level and desktop FFF 3D printers are mostly affordable but industrial-grade printers cost a fortune. On top of that, the user also needs to consider its operating cost including the consumables, its maintenance and even training to employees. The technology also has a learning curve and superior to the technology, steeper the curve. 

Considering the many pitfalls towards finalizing the perfect 3D printer for a user, many experts suggest that users should always start with getting their parts 3D printed from service providers, and only after studying the pros and cons of bringing the technology in-house should they decide whether to buy a 3D printer or not. 

Outsource the 3D Printing Production

Outsourcing means just getting parts 3D printed from established service bureaus. It is truly a simple way to get involved with 3D printing. With 3D printing service bureaus taking care of the printing parts, the users are relieved of the heavy upfront capital investment and the need to learn and educate themselves and the employees. The difficult part of 3D printing is taken care of by the bureau and the user does not have to break his everyday routine. 

3D printing service bureaus are businesses that invest in machines, skilled personnel, and the expertise of the technology. Most service bureaus operate with multiple 3D printers and multiple technologies. Top 3D printing service bureaus can own up to 20-30 industrial-grade machines to cater to a large section of the industry like the aerospace, automotive, healthcare, tooling, engineering, maritime, etc. Many service bureaus have a vast 3D printing facility covering all the major 3D printing technologies like FDM, SLA, SLS, DMLS, Selective Laser Melting (SLM), MultiJet Fusion (MJF), ColorJet Printing (CJP), PolyJet Printing (PJP), and more.

Ideally, they are the perfect people to print any part. Due to their technical knowledge, expertise, and competence they can suggest the best possible way to 3D print a part. Many service bureaus will also tell whether a part should be 3D printed. 

Expert suggests that users, especially businesses, should start their 3D printing journey as a project and tie up with a good service to study the impact of 3D printing on the business. Generate data and if the resultant project is successful then they can proceed to think about bringing the technology in-house. 

Benefits of Outsourcing 3D Printing Jobs

Outsourcing a 3D printing job is beneficial to an organization for various reasons. 

  1. It avoids heavy expenditure on 3D printer infrastructure and technology.
  2. It eliminates the need to learn the new and rapidly developing 3D printing technology and the need to educate the employees.
  3. The company can focus on its core competencies rather than spend time on learning and excelling at getting parts 3D printed.  
  4. A company can get access to the skilled resources of the outsourcing partner as they have the necessary expertise and machines to complete the job. 
  5. It also increases the production efficiency

How to Choose a 3D Printing Service?

As the technology grows, the need for 3D printing services will only grow. The benefits that a 3D printing service bureau brings will stay relevant even if the technology is adopted by companies all over. The reasons are quite simple and we explore some of them below:

Technologies Available

One of the major reasons to work with a 3D printing service bureau is the range of technologies it makes available. Even large corporations with billions of profits do not have dedicated 3D printing facilities. The reason is simple - they do not hold the expertise in the technology which the 3D printing service bureaus have developed over the years. This is one of the major factors that a user should consider when he/she thinks of turning to a 3D printing service bureau for its 3D printing needs. 

A service bureau makes available its fleet of 3D printers right from entry-level technologies like FDM to cater to budget-constrained polymer customers to the professional and industrial-grade DMLS and SLM technologies for metal 3D printing. This range allows the 3D printing service bureaus to cater to multiple industry verticals including aviation and space, medical and healthcare, automotive and motorsports, maritime and railways, oil and gas or the energy sector, spare parts, engineering, and many other emerging markets like sports, fashion, art, architecture, infrastructure, etc. 

Protolabs, one of the world’s leading 3D printing organizations with more than 2700 employees, houses more than 120 3D printing machines. This astounding figure itself says a lot about the technological capabilities of the company. 

For catering to the polymer sector, service bureaus have FDM, SLA, DLP, DLS, SLS, MJF, CJP, PJP, and a few other technologies.

For catering to the metal sector, service bureaus have DMLS, SLM, EBM, Metal Jet Fusion, Bound Metal Deposition (BMD), Directed Energy Deposition (DED), Laser Energy Net Shaping (LENS), and a few other technologies.

Materials Available

Adoption of the 3D printing technology is highly dependent on the availability and compatibility of materials. Materials play a very important role in 3D printing and without the ideal or the closest alternative material, it is difficult to switch the manufacturing process from traditional to 3D printing. 

So a user must first try to understand the range of materials that a service bureau can print with. Depending on the available materials, a user can decide whether to work with the bureau or find a new one that can deliver parts in the required materials. 

Most service bureaus operate with polymer materials like PLA, ABS, PETG, and PEEK filaments for FDM technology, standard, tough, flexible, dental, biocompatible, and castable resins for SLA, and DLP technologies. 

Top service bureaus having metal technologies like DMLS, SLM, EBM or extrusion-based processes use steel, nickel, titanium, and copper alloys as well. 

Design assistance

Every 3D printing process starts with designing. Engineers use design software to create product models which the printers transform into solid objects. But designing a model for 3D printing is different from traditional design. The designing principles vary and specific parameters like wall thickness, feature size, tolerance, and others have to be considered if a product is to be 3D printed. 

So a designer must know beforehand if the model to be designed will be 3D printed or not so he can design it for 3D printing. This brand of design is called DFAM or Design for Additive Manufacturing.

Most often a new user thinks that any design can be 3D printed but that is a common misconception and it does not yield optimum results if a regular model is just 3D printed. The resulting 3D printed part will not perform as required and so this must be avoided.

CAD Design

To get a part 3D printed, users have two options:

1. A user should create a design compatible with 3D printing. For this either the user should create such a model from his team or get assistance from the service bureau. A good service bureau has expertise in designing aspects as well. They can study an existing design and work on it to make it suitable for 3D printing. Generally, they employ topology optimization methods to reduce the weight, unnecessary material and optimize the design features to ensure less material used but the performance is not affected. 

2. Alternatively, if the user does not have a design ready with him, then designers from the service bureau can assist in designing the model. A good service bureau will help in understanding the needs and requirements of the product to be 3D printed. By understanding the product, the team will also chart out a path from designing to 3D printing and post-processing. In this way, the service bureau will be able to deliver the perfect 3D printed part that performs all the functions as expected out of the product.  

Such assistance is essential if a user is new to 3D printing. Without design assistance, the user will never be able to proceed to the next step of getting the part 3D printed.

Expert Guidance 

This is an important aspect to consider. Users, no matter how new or experienced, certainly need some amount of expert guidance while working on a 3D printing project. With the expertise employed by a service bureau, the team can bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the table. This hands-on knowledge will certainly help in the successful completion of the project. 

The guidance can be of two types:

Design Guidance: As explained earlier, it is not only about designing a part and getting it 3D printed. It is about designing the product for additive manufacturing. This is easier said than done. By carefully analyzing the objective and function of the part to be produced, the service bureau experts can guide the team of users to create specific designs. Both the teams can then collaboratively work to build a design compatible with 3D printing principles. For an ambitious project, the team can also make use of generative design software tools and create multiple design iterations. Stacking them against each other to compare functionality and aesthetics of the part, the teams can mutually finalize the optimum design. 

Material Guidance: Material technology needs a lot of know-how on the part of the engineer. As mentioned earlier, not all materials are available for 3D printing and so most often, the users have to make use of an alternative material that also serves the purpose. So, in such cases where the user has never used and/or does not know much about a certain new material then he has to rely on the expert guidance provided by the service bureau. A good service bureau will always guide the user towards a certain material if it can serve the purpose of the product.

Niche Service Providers

While most service bureaus aim to target all types of sectors, some are highly niche and focused on who they want to cater to. This type is often seen in the case of Medical service bureaus. Medical 3D printing service providers have to follow certain safety guidelines and so they have a setup different than regular service bureaus. This enables users to reach out to these niche businesses.

Moreover, such niche service providers also have a well-developed ecosystem including the relevant talent, experts, machines, and other support systems that enable the perfect solution for every need. So every problem, no matter how unique it is, will always be resolved by such bureaus. Such is the power for niche service providers.

Users should approach such businesses if they have niche service providers in their field of application.

Quality & Pricing Parameters

Quality and pricing parameters are always a critical factor for any and every organization. However, it is a well-known fact that both factors are quite deceiving and more often than not go hand-in-hand. The better the quality more will be the pricing and vice versa. But this does not mean that the price cannot be negotiated if a high-quality product is required. So, a balance should be achieved and it can be discussed in a meeting with the service provider. 

Both these factors are highly influential and compromise on any one factor affects the other. For critical applications like in aviation and space, motorsports, maritime, healthcare, and medical, even a slight compromise in quality can lead to drastic effects on the end product, system, or patients in the case of medical applications. And it can cost the user his entire reputation. So these factors should be carefully assessed before proceeding further to work with the service bureau. 

Post-Process Parameters

This is quite a unique factor to consider but it helps in driving the price down or offsetting the unavailability of technology. Some technologies produce the rough surface finish and such parts cannot be used for end-use applications. To solve this issue, either a better technology should be used which would cost higher or the same product should be post-processed to improve the surface finish which may not cost as high as shifting to a different process. This also helps in case the service provider does not have an alternative technology. 

Post-processing serves many purposes right from improving aesthetics, strength, and resistance properties. Various post-processing methods are available to improve the product quality. 

FDM 3D printed parts can be sanded, electroplated and painted, to improve the aesthetics, strength, and chemical or moisture resistance. 

SLA & DLP 3D printed parts can be cured in a UV curing chamber to improve their strength. They can also be sanded and painted. 

Metal parts can also be post-processed for removing excess material and giving the parts a smooth surface finish. It also helps in ensuring the parts have accurate dimensions. 

So, the user should always ensure that the service provider has the necessary post-processing capabilities because almost every 3D printed part requires some amount of post-processing. Without this capability, the user may have to find a new partner who can post-process the 3D printed parts and this can increase the lead times. 

One-Time Service or Long-term Partner?

One of the most critical but often ignored aspects of choosing the right service is to know whether you need a one-time service or a long-term partner. This aspect is explained below with an example.

Most big organizations are always on the lookout for expanding into new territories, new markets, and new verticals. For entering such unknown markets, 3D printing is a barrier-breaking technology. No matter how small a production volume, 3D printing can efficiently deliver by printing parts in low quantities with ease. For a user, it is a boon to have a technology that can deliver affordable products for low volumes. 

Upon validation of the market by selling limited 3D printed parts, the user may consider going all in and expanding in the new market. For this, he has to scale and the production quantities increase, the setup increases, the volume and frequency of production also increases. While this may seem a simple decision based on sales and revenue, it is not as easy on the production team as it seems. The production team has to rapidly scale their production operations through manufacturing plans, schedules, production routing, etc. While in-house scaling is still controllable, the team has to ensure that they receive the outsourced parts on time as well. 

Here comes the big issue of a long-term service partner. Without an established relationship with a competent service bureau, the expansion project will fail. The expansion cannot happen one-way, the service bureau also can deliver the increased number of parts with the same quality and at the same pace as required by the user. 

So, the user has to know well beforehand if he is looking for a one-time service from a bureau or wants to work closely with the bureau as a partner and grow together.

Reputation

One more thing that users should consider is the reputation of the service provider. It is very important to know what their past customers think about the service. 3D printing is not yet a fully standardized process and so most of the time parts may require multiple iterations, good service, and after-sales support. Without all-round support from the service provider, it is not recommended to select the right 3D printing service provider.

So, look for testimonials, google reviews, other reviews on news sites or service comparing sites to have confidence in their service before approaching and commencing work with them. 

This can also be done during the initial talks. Understand the type of work they have done, have they done any comparable job in the past, or do they have the capability, the application-specific experts who can support the project. Only after knowing more about their reputation, should a user proceed to work with the 3D printing service provider.


About THE AUTHOR

William Stone

William Stone

William has spent 20 plus years in the custom manufacturing industry as a COO, CEO and Owner of various custom product businesses. His experience has exposed him to all types of manufacturing from die cast, die struck, injection molding, CNC machining, laser etching, engraving and of course 3D printing.

Learn more about William Stone

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