Not so long ago, some people were anticipating that desktop 3D printers would be a part of every home. Their vision was: if you need a cup, you 3D print a cup. Much effort was dedicated to creating desktop 3D printers that would be accessible and attainable to the average household. This vision has since subsided and for good reason. Just like we don’t print our photos on home grade printers, we go to have them printed on a professional printer, so too 3D printing is much more suitable for use by service providers using industrial 3D printers. However, as the desktop technology matured, other possible applications and business models became a reality – just not in the home…
The Limitations of a Vision
There are a number of pain points when it comes to the “3D printer in every home” vision centered around technical limitations such as the quality of production and the range of materials. Desktop companies tackled the technical aspects, developing the technology itself, creating user-friendly interfaces that don’t require professional knowledge at an affordable price range. Yet alongside the technical pain points there are business model issues – does a printer in every home really answer a need? Can it go beyond the novelty of the idea? The model of a 2D printer in every home (combined with fax and/or scanner) doesn’t really apply in this case. At the same time as the disillusion of the “3D printer in every home” sank in, the industrial use of 3D printing was shaping up to be a reality.
As it became clear that 3D printing is a production technology, industrial machines, industrial-grade materials, plastics, and metals moved to center-stage. Additive Manufacturing (AM) as a term, encompasses not just machines and materials, but perhaps more importantly, real-life applications and business models such as on-demand manufacturing and virtual inventory. But what is the place of desktop printers, which started with the home vision, in an industrial setting? For companies developing desktop 3D printers, it makes sense to adapt the desktop printers to also address a more industrial setting, for specific applications that suit industrial needs and desktop printers.
One of the most prominent needs in industrial manufacturing that can be addressed with a desktop 3D printer is tooling. 3D printed tooling, jigs, and fixtures for the production floor can cut costs and manufacturing time, enabling factories to become more agile, react faster to changes in the production lines, create specific tools to improve productivity and even safeguard the workers. At the same time, tools for production don’t necessarily need a smooth surface finish, making the characteristic FDM print lines a non-issue, and most tools fit the size limit dictated by the typical desktop 3D printer.
Volkswagen Autoeuropa has recognized this potential and has been working with Ultimaker on tooling solutions for quite some time now (up top). With 7 desktop 3D printers, 93% of their previously outsourced tools are now additively manufactured in-house, leading to a 91% reduction in costs and a 95% reduction in development time. Volvo also additively manufactures tooling for Volvo’s Trucks production line, enabling the company to cut lead time of tool production by 94%. Using Stratasys machines, what previously took approximately 36 days to machine in metal is now 3D printed in a couple of days. According to estimations, in some instances, the cost of 3D printing a tooling part can go as low as 1% of the costs of the same tool machined from metal. Stratasys, recognizing the role AM is currently playing in tooling production has just launched a new Nylon-based material compatible with the F370 3D printer, specifically suited for tooling applications. As you can see, 3D printed tooling is readily adopted in the automotive industry. Ford just recently won the Automotive Application Award at TCT for its automated design of jigs and fixtures (below), collaborating with both Trinckle and Ultimaker. According to the company, in the production process of one vehicle model, there are over 50 custom 3D printed tools being used, I can only imagine the headache of the logistics and costs when outsourcing those tools. Of course, the use of 3D printed tooling isn’t limited to automotive, Heineken is another user of Ultimaker desktop printers for tooling. By 3D printing the necessary tools for their production line, they have already managed to cut both costs and lead time by approximately 80%.
Adapting to an industrial setting means recognizing the specific needs of the industry, reevaluating existing knowledge and its possible applications. CEL Robox, a 3D printer company, demonstrated this approach by teaming up with an electronics printing company, M-Solv, creating a spin-off company called Q5D. One of their potential applications is 3D printing circuits on top of mass-produced parts (above). This collaboration shows the potential of implementing the knowledge of a desktop company such as CEL Robox in a specific industrial application.
Another way desktop 3D printer companies are moving to the production floor is by adapting the printers to small-batch industrial production. Ultimaker for example just released its S5 Pro Bundle, which is said to function unattended 24/7. While still under the desktop 3D printer category, these printers are aimed for automated professional workflows. Stratasys branded their F120 printer as industrial-desktop – offering, on one hand, a more affordable solution compared to industrial printers, yet on the other hand, industrial-grade results. DesktopMetal is another example, as it was founded from the realization of the need for industrial-grade yet not huge-sized machines (below hinges 3D printed by DesktopMetal). When terms such as on-demand manufacturing are gaining traction, industrial does not necessarily reflect the quantity of production, it can also reflect industrial-quality of production. By doing so the desktop 3D printers are answering the needs of smaller manufacturers as well as bigger manufacturers interested in becoming more agile.
The AM ecosystem is defined by its agility, agility in production but also in understanding and adapting to the needs of the industry. The recent adaptations and developments of the desktop 3D printers prove just that.
What is your take on the new role of the desktop 3D printer? Tell us about it in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.