Protolabs Offers 3D Printability Analysis: Will it Suffice?

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Digital manufacturing provider Protolabs (NYSE: PRLB) has unveiled design for additive manufacturability (DfAM) analysis within its online quoting tool. The tool examines part printability, modifying and optimizing designs for production with 3D printing. The tool is available for metal and polymers, analyzing such issues as the maximum bounding box, gaps, and thin walls.

“Protolabs was one of the first digital manufacturing companies to launch automated manufacturability analysis on molded and machined parts—a tool that quickly became essential for our customers during their iterative design process. We’re excited to expand our design for manufacturability suite into 3D printing so customers can take advantage of the same speed and cost-reduction benefits,” said Oleg Ryaboy, Chief Technology Officer at Protolabs.

“Our DfAM capabilities significantly improve the 3D printing quoting experience, enabling customers to easily engage with our broad technical offering. I am delighted by the initial customer response,” contributed Rob Bodor, Protolabs’ President and CEO of Protolabs.

If it works right, this tool could save engineers an awful lot of time. We will have to see if it’s a true DfAM tool that can guide users or more of a simple pass or fail uploader that filters out models, since those have been used in 3D printing for over 16 years or so. After all, the features discussed sound like standard thin wall checks and other analysis tools that automatically highlight part printability errors. Based on what Protolabs has shown us so far, AM consultants like John Barnes aren’t yet quaking in their boots for fear that someone is going to automate them.

If we do look at the online 3D printing service landscape, we can see that a need for something like this is sorely needed. Upload tools have not really become much more useful in the past decade. Fire and forget is still potentially possible, but the tools are usually boring by simply pricing you and potentially failing your model. Perhaps, you’ll get some feedback to guide you, but this hasn’t really been extremely useful.

I know this because I´ve seen the endless upload streams of people with successive file names like: Left_Front_Housing.STL, Left_Front_Housing2.STL, Left_Front_Housing15.STL, Left_Front_Housing_final_final_2.STL. Sometimes there’s a palpable sense of immense frustration emanating from these file names.

One feature that would really help would be an add-on service with a dialogue box reading, ¨For $199, we will fix your file and make it printable.” It is remarkable that, with all the 3D printing services out there, there isn´t a truly global service for getting parts designed for 3D printing. A true DfAM guide tool that not only indicated errors but also point to classes and webinars to help you with DfAM would be amazing for many people.

We must also realize that a lot of constraints are machine-, material- or parameter-specific—like something as simple as wall thickness could depend on a user, machine, angle, part feature, material or the risk tolerance of an operator. In theory, different geometries or machine models could have very different wall thicknesses.

Overall, more of a holistic understand of DfAM would be the main desire that many AM users really wish to have now. Could we automagically fix many more things much easier? Like a kind of Magics-on-steroids that would fix a much broader set of errors using parameters?

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