Clusters of Fully Automated Desktop 3D Printers and the Future of Manufacturing


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Industrial additive manufacturing machines have been used to manufacture at scale for a number of years now. Especially in applications such as dental, surgical guides, hip cups and hearing aids, millions of end use parts have been made.

Stratasys Fortus 900mc

DLP machines from EnvisionTEC, SLS machines from EOS, Stratasys Fortus systems and 3D Systems machines lead the way in polymer manufacturing using 3D printing. In metals EOS, Arcam EBM, SLM Solutions, Concept Laser and Renishaw machines have been widely used. These industrial 3D printers are able to, with a high degree of precision, manufacture thousands of unique parts per day. In regulated environments such as medical and aerospace, these machines can control or mitigate many of the variables in a 3D printing process. Selective Laser Sintering (Powder Bed Fusion, SLS, LS), Stereolithography (SLA, SL) and DLP were all commercialized and improved upon over decades to serve this purpose. To make the unique in a highly automated way. To produce shapes that could not be made by any other means. In the future of aerospace and medical these types of technologies will continue to be strong.

I believe, however, that for general manufacturing applications with a larger part size another technology will be used at scale. I believe that the predominant 3D printing technology for manufacturing will actually be clusters of automated desktop systems using FDM (and SLA and DLP variants but I’ll leave that for another post). Fused Deposition Modeling is the technology invented and pioneered by Stratasys. You can now buy rather large Stratasys Fortus machines. They are reliable and give good repeatability and accuracy. The materials and the machine are optimized to work together. They are made to build and they do this well, delivering on surface quality and uptime.

By having control over the machine, settings and materials, Stratasys is able to deliver a well rounded, coordinated manufacturing and prototyping tool. The parameters for the material and how it will print work well straight out of the box. The Stratasys family is a contender for manufacturing using 3D printing, as are EOS and the other technologies. In some cases there is a perfect fit for what a customer needs and what these types of machines can provide. In other cases, however, the tight control these technologies have over their materials and machine ecosystem leads to companies not being able to industrialize 3D printing.

The pool of available materials for closed systems is limited and generally also far too expensive. Often the particular material required for an application isn’t available. It would be difficult to convince Stratasys to make this material and would be difficult to make an SLS, SLA or DLP material with the same characteristics. Compounding a material and then turning it into a desktop FDM filament is comparatively easy. Furthermore, there are hundreds of companies that do this. If they have a polymer that they absolutely must have, then they can quite cost effectively get a compounder or filament company to make them a specific filament for their application.

A LulzBot Cluster, not the conditioned enclosure.

Open materials are the key element driving growth and advancement in desktop 3D printing. The fact that hundreds of filament vendors are developing new or inexpensive materials for you to print makes all desktop systems more valuable. Do you think for a moment any of the desktop OEMs had even considered flexible filaments before they came out? There is a wide universe of choice in materials available, from high end suppliers to very inexpensive ones. The competition in this market is intense. Industrial companies can use these filament suppliers to make unique materials that are suited to their own 3D printing applications.

Since the industrial company buys directly from the filament supplier (or in some cases from the polymer company or a compounder) their cost per Kilo is far lower than industrial 3D printing materials. Depending on the application it may be several hundred percent lower. Also there is no lock in. If the filament vendor would go bankrupt then there will be an alternative. The company can negotiate and shop between several suppliers. They have a redundancy in their supply chain.

They can also choose amongst a number of desktop 3D printer vendors for their machine. And with these vendors there is also no lock in. If at one point they want to move to another then they can do so, there is choice. They could also move to a new vendor and keep their existing materials supplier.

The advantages of desktop 3D printing for manufacturing are:

  • Open materials
  • Choice and redundancy in vendors
  • No lock in on materials or machine
  • Lower cost per part
  • Custom materials are easy to make

The advantages of industrial 3D printing systems with a managed or locked materials eco system are:

  • Experience in manufacturing
  • Dialed in materials and machine
  • One partner
  • Higher reliability and repeatability
  • Higher Accuracy

It is clear to me from the above list that in the medical industry paying more per part is not an issue, and a locked and regulated system would actually prefer to work with locked materials and a predictable partner. In general industry however, I think that companies will opt for desktop 3D printing for manufacturing.

Voodoo Mfg has introduced automated production lines for FDM.

The lower cost per part will let companies toss many misprints before they get anywhere near the costs per part that industrial systems would charge. If a desktop system has a lower uptime at 90% and 10% of all parts fail but the material is not $300 per Kilo but $20, what do you think they’ll choose? In a hip cup they may not even care because the part is small and the material cost component is small also. Above all else they want all printed parts to be perfect. But, what if we’re making car bumpers, cases, consumer electronics? All parts that pass inspection should be perfect. It is not super duper Kaizen, but we can toss out a lot of parts and it still will be cheaper to use open systems. If we’re talking about anything smaller than a softball it would be a toss up which technology would win. But, if we are talking toaster or bumper sized objects the material cost starts to weigh in and open systems make more sense.

Often when I’m doing consultancy jobs 3D printing business cases just don’t add up. If you look at costs more closely there are two main factors that cause these business cases to fail: unexpectedly high labor costs per part or high material costs. Everything could make sense for the client but the high cost of the material makes the implementation cost prohibitive. It is at this point that I often advise customers to consider clustered desktop systems for manufacturing. They can take a desktop system and improve it to such an extent that it performs to their requirements. They can then directly get the filament made for them and presto, your impossible 3D printing business case all of a sudden is doable. A lot of companies think desktop systems are cute little toys. There is a Darwinian process happening now where desktop manufacturers have to increase their capabilities in software and hardware rapidly in order to survive. Those companies who are thriving are on the high end of the desktop segment. They’ve made the requisite investments in support, higher quality parts and more reliable machines. They’ve responded to what the market wants, and this is to print reliably. These types of machines coupled with comparatively inexpensive material are now being increasingly used to manufacture consumer electronics parts, molds, other intermediate parts and parts for aerospace. They’re not ideal and still must be improved further but this is emerging now.

A Coobx automated 3D printing cluster

German company Coobx has introduced its Exigo modular production lines which can include up to 240 build platforms in a dispenser, 12 printers, post production and a robot arm to remove parts and platforms.

Other solutions are now being brought to the market which take care of the labor component. Support removal, part removal, post processing, file preparation, bed replacement all can add 30% or more to a cost of a part. Stratasys, Ultimaker, LulzBot, Type A Machines, Coobx and Voodoo Manufacturing are all working on clusters of desktop 3D Printers that are meant to manufacture. By automating part removal, automating QC, including more sensors in their systems and reducing labor these types of tools will reduce the cost of 3D printing even more. For the right sized parts (think toaster sized), FDM parts are faster and cheaper to make than any 3D printed alternatives. The time to part overall is lower.

This to me indicates that the future of manufacturing is in fully automated 3D printing clusters of desktop machines. A cluster will give you redundancy and flexibility in producing 3D printed parts at scale. A lot still has to happen in software and hardware for this to be a simple solution to implement for many parts. But behind tall factory gates, desktop 3D printing is being industrialized for large scale manufacturing of end use parts.


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