3D printing: Manufacturing on demand

Manufacturing on demand – a game changer for small businesses

Our mission is to give businesses a competitive edge in new product development and empower even the smallest business to do big things! For many of our smaller clients that means finding creative ways to save costs and get the cash rolling in quickly. One of the ways we do this is by exploiting cutting edge technology. It can take many thousands of unit sales before you see a return on investment when manufacturing a new product, but we reached a very economical scale for one of our clients when manufacturing only a few hundred parts. Manufacturing and launching a new product can be so expensive that it is largely inaccessible to small businesses, but new 3D printing technologies are changing the game. 3D printing is opening up a world of opportunities for inventors, entrepreneurs, start-ups and SME’s in the product arena. The cost of tooling can be many thousands of pounds and the economies of scale can stretch well into the tens of thousands of units. This makes launching a new product a big risk for companies without very deep pockets. Although 3D printing as a technology has been around for some 30 years, the costs have been almost as prohibitively high and inaccessible to small businesses, however the technology has begun to get cheaper which is changing the game for everyone. Our industrial Objet 3D printer made by Stratasys lets us put the power of manufacturing on demand in the hands of small businesses.

When Acrogen, a design and build advanced electronics company, approached us to produce their product they only had a few basic 3D printed models of what they wanted which had been made on a hobbyist 3D printer. The models were sufficient to demonstrate the basic function of the parts – simple (but critical) connectors for joining LEDs to fibre optics and mounting them to a printed circuit board. Acrogen needed the high quality and accuracy of injection moulding as the tolerances of the hobby machines can be unreliable (as much as +/- 0.3mm) and the surface finish is poor. Common FDM hobby machines such Makerbots can also only print one part at a time making them too slow to be practical for any form of high volume production. Acrogen needed a solution to produce a few hundred components for a new device they planned to launch and getting to market quickly without overspending was critical.

How does it stack up with injection moulding?

A run of 200 parts was less than 20% of the cost injection moulding at the same volume

Having initially approached us to cost up the parts for injection moulding, we offered Acrogen a comparable quote to 3D print their parts. What they found was that a run of 200 parts was less than 20% of the cost injection moulding at the same volume (it wasn’t until the unit volume exceeded 2000 that injection moulding became a more cost effective and viable option!) This was down to the high upfront costs of injection moulding. Tooling and setup costs can run into many thousands versus 3D printing which has no setup or tooling costs. Our Objet 3D printer was able to print more than 300 units simultaneously in a single print run and with a cycle time of just 2 hours, well over 1000 units a day were possible. Since the only cost was the material used, runs of several hundred were a very fast and economical way of producing the parts on demand.

The 3D printed parts were approximately £2 per unit vs £1 injection moulded per unit (based on 1000 units) but more than £2000 was saved in tooling costs. 3D printing was still a third cheaper than injection moulding at this volume.

The parts which come off an Objet machine are hard with a smooth, glossy surface finish, almost indistinguishable from injection moulded parts, and with tolerances of below +/- 0.1 the accuracy is more than enough for general applications. The real benefits can be seen in the lead time and cost though, the 3D printed parts were approximately £2 per unit vs £1 injection moulded per unit (based on 1000 units) but more than £2000 was saved in tooling costs. Then consider the lead time which, on average for injection moulding is around 4-6 weeks for first samples, compared to a leadtime of just 2-3 days for 3D printing.

When is 3D printing suitable for manufacturing end use parts?

It is a great option for small to medium sized, general purpose parts where the required volume is hundreds or less

3D printing is not always the most suitable option for manufacturing parts, but where it is it provides huge benefits for businesses who need to minimise initial investment and risk, and/or trial multiple product variants before committing to tooling. It is a great option for small to medium sized, general purpose parts where the required volume is hundreds or less, and where further testing/alterations may be needed. It offers great flexibility on budget, colour, variations modifications and lead time.

  • Very short lead times
  • Ideal for small parts
  • No tooling costs
  • Highly consistent and repeatable
  • Lower comparable cost on volumes of a few hundred units
  • No minimum volumes
  • Comparable accuracy and surface finish on general purpose parts
  • Flexibility to modify the design at no additional cost to tooling
  • Range of material colours and properties
  • Complex/unmouldable parts can be easily acheived
  • Tolerances may not be tight enough for demanding applications
  • Surface finish may not be high enough for cosmetic parts
  • Mechanical properties may not be suitable for extreme applications
  • Becomes less economical than injection moulding in higher volumes
  • Fewer choices of materials and colours versus inection moulding