Are you just 3D Printing?

So you’ve taken the plunge and purchased some new Additive Manufacturing (AM) equipment, but have you purchased a 3D printer or a fully functioning machine tool?’

who is driving your capability and innovation: you, your customer, or the company who sold you the equipment?’

Removing parts from a 3D printer

Nothing beats the excitement of receiving a new piece of technology or equipment and taking it for a ‘test drive’. If you’re a manufacturer, this is the excitement of your first test job, the potential to boost your capability and the potential for new business and future profit, the limits are endless. But is that true?

When you purchase a new CNC mill or lathe (a machine tool), you are buying a platform on which you can install different tools, mills and fixtures to match the part requirements and material you are using. But who has specified that material? The chances are that your customer has approached you with a material in mind or at least with a good idea of the required properties and performance specifications. You may have then recommended a material and said that you can source the material for the job. They may have even said that they will supply the material.

What is not so common is that a customer approaches you to enquire about a job and you have tell them that your machine tool can only use a limited range of materials, these materials have to be purchased from the people who supplied you the machine tool in the first place and the composition and properties of the material can be changed by the supplier at any time without notice.

This second scenario doesn’t sound good for business does it? However, this scenario is representative of the reality you face when trying to implement some of the current AM platforms in your business. Metallic AM systems generally allow you to ‘feed’ it with whatever metal powder you fancy but the system manufacturers can often charge you to unlock the settings on your system if you want to vary process parameters. Regarding the materials supplied by the manufacturer, you get a datasheet and data about the material composition and mechanical performance, they generally don’t know a great deal about the finer detail of the material apart from the fact that it works.

The problem is more common with polymer AM systems. Some of the polymer AM systems such as Fused Deposition Modeling and Stereolithography systems lock you into using manufacturer supplied materials through the use of tagged and chipped cartridges and process parameters that are not user definable. Checking the datasheet with these materials can often reveal clauses such as ‘material specifications subject to change without notice’. The implication of such clauses for your business can be huge, ‘generally’ a block of metal is a block of metal or a block of polymer for machining is going to be same as it was a few weeks ago. Additive manufacturing is often pitched as a technology where you can ‘press print’ and get the same object out every time. The implication of such clauses in datasheets and essentially surrendering control of your material supply chain is that you can ‘press print’ two weeks later and potentially get a part with entirely different performance and you might never even know about it. As a manufacturer and business, not having the freedom to go to different material suppliers and being locked into using one supplier can also be a serious competitive disadvantage.

The other implication for this kind of stranglehold on your supply chain is that your innovation is limited by the system manufacturer. Say that you want to try a different material with superior mechanical properties or better solvent resistance, maybe a customer has requested such a material? If the printer manufacturer hasn’t already formulated a version for use in their systems in their ‘special’ cartridges, then you’re out of luck and you won’t have this capability until they do.

The pitch for this kind of control and lockdown is that your system will be guaranteed to work ‘every’ time and it reduces call-outs to customers. It’s the same scenario we have accepted whole-heartedly in our homes and offices every day when we print out a document, the ink has come straight from the printer manufacturer. It is possible to circumvent 2D printer cartridge lockdowns and refill with your own ink. In fact, if you go into any large print works they will be running large format printers with separate ink supplies, where they have control over what ink they ‘feed’ their printers with. These print works though have identified that they don’t want to ‘cripple’ their machines and are approaching printing in the same way a manufacturer approaches their business.

These days, the terms ‘3D printing’ and ‘Additive Manufacturing’ are often used interchangeably (historically this wasn’t the case and the term ‘3D printing’ referred to a particular technology). Maybe we should think about redefining these terms based on the capability of the equipment used. If the system can only use materials supplied by the manufacturer, it’s a 3D printer. If you can use any material you care to try and are happy to undertake the relevant process optimisation (to give you a competitive edge), then you’re an additive manufacturer!