On November 7th, 3D Systems announced several key product launches that promise to bring 3D printing from prototyping to production. Have we finally reached the tipping point for printing parts in manufacturing? In this post, we’ll review those launches in greater detail as well as a few of their implications for engineers. Let’s jump in.
The Figure 4 Platform
At the center of the announcements from 3D Systems is the new Figure 4 Platform. It is meant to be a replacement for production plastic injection molding and comes in four distinct configurations.
- Figure 4 Standalone is a single machine for functional prototyping or low volume production. This configuration requires you to manually load materials and manually clean up the parts. It is a good fit for small companies and perhaps engineering offices. This one is meant to be a one-off machine.
- Figure 4 Modular allows organizations to configure the number of machines. You could start with two and add all the way up to twenty-four running against a master controller. Essentially, it can grow with your needs. This configuration comes with automated materials handling but requires manual post-processing.
- Figure 4 Production is intended for a hands-free production environment. It includes automated material handling and clean-up of parts within the machine, except for part supports. You can add more print engines per four units, eventually hitting the limit of 24 print engines running against on controller.
- Figure 4 Dental is a standalone unit meant for dental applications.
While each of these offerings is interesting in their own right, it is the characteristics of all of the configurations in the Figure 4 platform that is interesting.
- Materials: 3D Systems has developed, and is continuing to develop, new materials for production parts. These are not functional prototypes. They are parts made to be put into products that are delivered to customers. During this release, they introduced 15 new materials. The same materials can be used in the Standalone, Modular and Production configurations, and NextDent-only materials in Figure 4 Dental
- Speed: Speed as a theme that was emphasized repeatedly. Parts can be produced in minutes, matching the production rates of plastic injection molds.
- Centralized Control: With the Modular and Production configurations, there’s a master controller that can manage all the printing jobs. A new cloud-based software solution, 3D Connect, will monitor this production system for maximum uptime.
- Automation: Some of these configurations offer interesting automation. The Modular and Production configurations provide material handling, which is desireable when using certain materials or when the units need to be in a clean environment. The Production configuration includes inline cleanup, meaning that other than part support removal, there is minimal need to work these parts.
So, now for the magic question: why would you want to print parts instead of mold them? Well, there are a few reasons.
- Mass Customization: In industries where products are being customized to individual customers, parts are customized as part of that process. With the Figure 4 platform, that means just sending a different model to the printer. With molds, you need new tooling. There’s a lot more flexibility here.
- Eliminating Design Constraints: If you’re printing parts, suddenly your engineers can be less constrained by the reality of subtractive manufacturing. Need a void in the middle of the part for weight reduction? Printing supports it. Molding doesn’t. Tired of making sure your parts can pull from a mold? You don’t have to worry about that with printing. We’ll touch on this in much greater depth in a separate post.
- Cost… Maybe? The entry-level price for a single module is $25,000. Depending on the type of plastic work you do, and the type of equipment you’re using to do it, that could be more or less than a production plastic injection molding machine. Outsourcing part production? There will be service bureaus popping up offering that as a service. From a cost perspective, this truly is a viable alternative.
3D Systems’ Services
In the eyes of 3D Systems executives, the application of 3D printing for production is transformative. But, of course, not every company will be willing to jump in with both feet. In fact, some companies will need some guidance along the way. Given that, those executives have crafted a set of services that allows 3D Systems to act more like a trusted advisor.
As a first step, a company can simply outsource production work to 3D Systems through one of their service bureaus which they refer to as On Demand Manufacturing. That way, there’s no capital expenditure on 3D printers at all: you’re just buying parts. As your company gets more comfortable with those parts, then you move to the next step: you get a single module from the Figure 4 platform. 3D Systems offers some services to help your organization set it up, tune it to your specifications and get it running.
Sound familiar? It should. A step-wise progressive approach to a long-term vision has been used in the PLM industry for over a decade. The idea there, start small – gain success – grow into other areas, is applicable here as well. Kudos to 3D Systems for recognizing that reality and offering support.
So what’s this all mean?
There is incredible potential here going forward, but also immense opportunity right now. In this very first launch, this 3D printing offering for production matches the cost and speed of plastic injection molding. From an initial offering, you commonly see improvements over time. So I expect those comparisons to only get more favorable going forward.
There is a hurdle here however: engineers. If you simply move a part from plastic injection molding to 3D printing with this kind of system, you aren’t going to see a ton of benefits. If and when engineers start designing with tools and methods that allows them to side-step the traditional constraints of subtractive manufacturing… well.. that’s a monstrous win. But furthermore, you can start to design dramatically differently, combining parts for design simplification. I’m going to dedicate an entire post to this topic, so I’ll expand on this there.
Overall, at the end of the day, I’m left with a few conclusions and questions:
- My first assessment tells me that this platform is capable, from a cost and time perspective, of delivering.
- Realizing that production 3D printing is possible, how fast will companies stampede towards this kind of change?
- For those that do move in this direction, do they want or need a trusted advisor? Or will they see it as a commodity plug-and-play solution?
- How much of a change will engineers need to make in their design-thinking to reap some measurable benefit for their companies?
Those are my thought folks. Sound off in the comments to let me know yours. Take care. Talk soon.