Is Flexible 3D Printer Filament Worth the Investment?

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A LulzBot Mini with a FlexyStruder upgrade 3D prints with recycled TPE

ABS and PLA are the two filaments that come most readily to mind when thinking of commonly used 3D printing materials, but there are plenty of others even in just the desktop 3D printing market. How frequently are those filaments used by at-home 3D printer users, however, and, as they tend to be more expensive than ABS and PLA, how economically viable are they to use regularly? That’s the question that Dr. Joshua Pearce and Aubrey Woern of Michigan Technological University asked in a new study entitled “Distributed Manufacturing of Flexible Products: Technical Feasibility and Economic Viability,” which you can read here.

Pearce is the author of several studies looking at the economics of 3D printing, including an overall look at at-home 3D printing and a report on 3D printing in the toy industry recently. In this new study, he and Woern focus on flexible filament, which tends to be roughly three times more expensive than standard 3D printing materials. Is it worth the cost?

“This study is the latest in a series where we looked at the economics of people 3D printing products in their own home,” Pearce told 3DPrint.com. “Our first study used self-built RepRaps and showed jaw-dropping ROIs, but critics pointed out that most consumers did not have the technical skills necessary to make that work on a wide scale. So we repeated the study with a commercial self-calibrating plug and play Lulzbot Mini – and showed again that a 3D printer is an excellent investment. Recently, we showed that even limiting 3D printing to toys obtained similar results and was already saving 3D printer users millions of dollars a year. We had previously shown that Ninjaflex had some pretty impressive mechanical properties, so in this study we wanted to look at more advanced flexible materials that opens up a huge new application space for DIY manufacturing in the home.”

3D printed hammer grip

The study investigated 20 common flexible household products, including a watch strap, an ice cube tray, and several automotive components such as O-rings, 3D printed with NinjaFlex on a LulzBot Mini. The 3D printed items were inspected and sometimes tested to make sure that they functioned properly, and were quantified by print time, energy use and filament consumption by mass in order to determine the cost of their fabrication. That cost was then compared to the low and high market prices for comparable commercially available products.

“Flexible filament is much more expensive so it was not as clear that it would be a huge economic winner,” Pearce told us.

“The results, however, were favorable and showed a 75% savings when compared to the least expensive commercially equivalent products and 92% when compared to high market priced products. Justifying upgrading a desktop printer to use flexible materials is straightforward. People are not used to thinking of products as an investment, but 3D printers  ‘pay for themselves’ and then provide an excellent tax free rate of return.”

There’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to starting to 3D print with flexible filament, however, Pearce continued.

“Printing with flexible materials is more challenging than more common FFF plastic filaments like PLA,” he said. “You need to be patient — the printing time is much longer as the deposition rate is much slower. In addition, you do not have quite as much geometrical freedom as sacrificial supports made out of flexible material need to be cut away rather than ripped off with easily.”

3D printed GoPro Session camera case

The savings that the study found can be increased even more, too – to 93% when using a pellet extruder and TPE pellets, and 99% when using recycled TPE made with a recyclebot, an invention of Pearce’s which creates filament out of plastic waste.

“I think NinjaFlex is just one the first of many flexible filaments that will be available to consumers,” he told us. “For me one of the most exciting areas is for consumers to start making their own filament with some version of the recyclebot from recycled waste. We demonstrated this is possible in the paper — it will cut the environmental impact of manufacturing as well as really destroying the costs — e.g. 99% reduction in costs for consumer items.”

For those wondering if 3D printers are worth the cost, Pearce’s studies show that they do end up paying for themselves if you use them to 3D print things you would ordinarily buy at the store. With a LulzBot Mini, for example, you’d only need to 3D print one item per week to see a 100% ROI. We may not get to the point at which there is a 3D printer in every home, but for people with a good 3D printer and either solid design skills or access to good 3D models, money can be saved by manufacturing at home.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[Images: Joshua Pearce and Aubrey Woern]

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