The 3D printing industry has been inching closer to mass production for the past few years thanks to growing investor confidence, more user-friendly workflows, and increasing print reliability. The number of large-volume 3D printing facilities, or 3D printer farms, is growing rapidly and participants are finding what was once a risky venture only a few years ago to be gaining real viability. All of this has allowed more consumers to engage with 3D printed products than ever before.
But those 3D printer farms are still hampered by the cost of high-volume mass production using 3D printing technology versus injection molding. Part of that cost is the time required to 3D print and post process products as well as the manpower to work the hundreds of machines in a large-scale 3D printer farm. Essentially each printer generally needs to be started and monitored individually or have third party networks set up, which aren’t always an easy solution to implement or maintain.
But San Leandro, California-based 3D printer manufacturer Type A Machines is introducing a pre-networked cluster of 3D printers that they say can make sub-10,000 unit 3D printed manufacturing more affordable than standard injection molding. Their Print Pod system is a bundled set of their their Series 1 Pro 3D printers that can all be operated as a unit on a single screen. The Pod is being introduced at the RAPID 3D printing conference in Long Beach, California and the Type A Machines booth will be demonstrating a bank of 18 printers running at the same time from a single screen.
“This will affect anyone in the plastics market working to improve supply chains, launching product, or providing customized goods. We’re effectively bridging [a gap] between prototyping and manufacturing, making it faster, cheaper and less risky to go to market. We see the overall speed of the system as a big competitive advantage. It’s possible today to build large additive manufacturing systems capable of printing a custom phone case every 30 seconds, but for the million dollar capital equipment cost of such a system, we could sell you 50 of our Pods and print a phone case every 10 seconds,” explained Type A Machines CEO Espen Sivertsen at the RAPID 3D printing conference.
The Series 1 Pro 3D printers each have one cubic foot of build volume, so each printer can accommodate large parts, or multiple parts on a single platform quite easily. This allows users a considerable amount of flexibility in their print production scheduling, and allows for multiple print jobs to be performed at the same time with only a single operator monitoring the Print Pod Control Center. This advanced printer management system can control up to 60 printers simultaneously, allowing the production of thousands of parts a week, making the Print Pods highly competitive with injection molding techniques capable of producing 1,000 to 10,000 parts.
“Affordable 3D printing has reached a tipping point where it is not just a prototyping tool, but also a volumetric manufacturing tool. To support this, we built a backbone of modular, evolving and scalable hardware. Our Print Pods offer flexibility and scalability simply impossible with traditional manufacturing,” said Type A Machines founder and CTO Andrew Rutter.
Each of the Type A Machines Print Pods will include support services, training, and certification programs for operators. They also include an easy-to-use operating system, workflow management software, and 3D printer maintenance kits. Each Series 1 Pro includes a heated bed and has been optimized to 3D print in more than 40 materials. It also has a high-temperature extruder that is easily compatible with a wide variety of exotic and advanced materials like carbon fiber, PLA, nylon, PET, IGUS, and conductive plastics.
The flexibility of mass production using comparatively low-cost equipment can virtually eliminate many of the financial risks involved in launching new or niche products. While injection molding for high-volume production is still the king, and that probably isn’t going to change for a while, it looks like for many products medium- and low-volume manufacturing done on 3D printing equipment is now a very real and affordable option.
While it is still a new area of manufacturing it should be interesting to see if other 3D printer manufacturers produce similar products and equipment bundles. What do you think about mass production using 3D printers? Come discuss it over on our Type A Machines High-Volume 3D Printing Print Pod forum thread at 3DPB.com.