Most companies that have adopted 3D printing will tell you that it has become an integral part of their business. 3D printing is now entrenched in their design process, manufacturing and visualization processes. But what do smaller businesses or even individuals do when they need a prototype? Most do not have the capital to invest into their own 3D printer and have to outsource their printing. Those new to 3D printing and wanting to dive in will have many questions, the problem is; what are the right questions to ask? This guide will help you to outsource your 3D printing needs and get a prototype that will truly be what you were looking for.
What do I want to do with the prototype?
That is the first question you need to ask. Are you looking for a visualization piece that will show your design intent? Do you want to create a model that will quicken your casting process? Looking for a form and fit model that will be durable enough for all the engineers to work with? The possibilities are huge for 3D printing applications, but asking that question will give you a good idea of the technology and material type you need for your application. There are hundreds of types of materials that are available, and many different technologies that can print them. Which one is the best?
There are some generalities when looking for an appropriate printing technology for your application. Most architectural or visualization/ presentation models are printed with a powder-based color jet technology (formerly known and Zprinting). This allows for full color representation and true bright whites. Also, because architectural models tend to use a large amount of material, color jet technology is used because of its low cost to operate. Prototypes for production, tools or patterns are difficult to generalize because of how specific the necessities are for each unique application. Some production parts are printed with color jet technology while others use Sterolithography (SLA). SLA prototyping allows for a huge variety of materials that cover just about any production application you may have. Prototypes for any design application including form and fit or functional models are often printed with Multijet Modeling (MJM) technologies. Multijet Modeling allows for extremely high accuracy and detail — which is ideal because adherence to the exact dimensions of a design is critical for these types of applications. This quick breakdown of typical uses of these types of technologies is not set in stone. The very best way to know what will work for you is either experience or to consult someone with experience.
Secondly, you will need to consider your budget. All 3D printing is not created equal. Generally, the lower the cost of the printing, the lower the quality. UPS stores are going to offer 3D printing services to anybody that walks in (http://www.webpronews.com/ups-store-to-offer-3D-printing-services-to-small-businesses-2013-07). This is a great idea in theory, but the hobbyist (plastic jet printing) 3D printer they will be offering is an inferior technology to the rest. UPS will have to set the expectation to their customers about what they can expect from their 3D printing. If you end up paying for a prototype that is a little higher cost, you will get a prototype that will last longer, have better accuracy and present much better. Though plastic jet printing does not offer the capabilities that many of the other technologies offer, it still has a place in the prototyping world. They are perfect for inexpensive models with simple geometry, or a preliminary check set prototype. They do have some good tensile and flexural properties, especially in relation to the cost to print.
If you already know a lot about the different types of 3D printing and the many types of technologies, http://www.shapeways.com is the perfect place to outsource your needs. The majority of people and businesses have little experience with the prototyping world and may require some help from an expert. The best way to determine what is the optimal fit for your application is to collaborate with someone who is familiar with all of the technologies. That person will be able to recommend a technology and materials that will work best for your application. You will also need to locate a company for outsourcing that has a large number of different 3D printing technologies. No one technology will do everything well. You will find that different types of printers and materials have their positives and negatives. The goal is to find the printer and material combination that has all the positives for your application. A good rule of thumb, if the company you are working with does not offer you options, and cannot tell you why one solution is better and why another may not work: look elsewhere.
By: Jack Wolf – Imaging Support Specialist