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Small 3D Printers Provide Huge Opportunities in Manufacturing

A recent Formlabs webinar provided the benefits of low-cost additive SLA printers and where to implement them.

In 2012, the Boston-based Formlabs introduced the first desktop SLA (stereolithography) 3D printer, the Form 1, on Kickstarter. The going rate was $2,500, and the team of MIT researchers who invented it promised higher quality and more speed while bringing down cost and frustration level. Engineers hungered for a machine that could actually improve their manufacturing workflow without spending a small fortune, but until then all they got were relatively flimsy hobby machines. It was the equivalent of ordering spaghetti with marinara sauce and getting egg noodles and ketchup. Not very appetizing.

The Kickstarter was an overwhelming success, garnering nearly $3 million from a little more than 2,000 backers. Now Formlabs is taking orders for their third additive incarnation, the Form 3 (build size: 5.7 x 5.7x 7.3 in.), starting at $3,500. The bigger Form 3L (11.8 x 13.2 x 7.9 in.) is priced at $9,999. These Low Force SLA printers are in hot demand. Overall Formlabs has shipped more than 50,000 printers that have produced 40 million parts.

The continued demand and use infer that there are many benefits to these low-cost industrial 3D printers, but they aren’t readily apparent. In a recent webinar put together by Formlabs and moderated by NED, Inside a 3D Printing Factory: How Modular Production Enables Agile Manufacturing, sought to make the advantages clearer by revealing in-depth best practice and several use cases.

Joe Sinopoli, Formlabs’ print production manager, kicked the hour-long session off with an intro to the company’s Ohio production facility that is developing new agile manufacturing and continuous improvement techniques. In general, an agile manufacturer has added some muscle to its lean principles to provide more value and respond better to its customers. To prove their skill, Formlabs provides sample parts to customers from a pool of 23 materials. They currently make about 18,000 per month, relying on 11 employees and 250 Form 2 printers.

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This mass production method has allowed Formlabs to decrease labor cost per part by 60% while increasing production by five times over the last two years.

“Really, this has enabled us to offer potential customers higher value samples,” said Sinopoli, showing intricate parts ranging from a generatively designed pen to a human bust that required no support structures.

Enablement at the Ohio facility, which opened in 2017, was the theme of Sinopoli’s lecture. He touched on five key areas:

1. Redundancy: Ten printers making 100 parts may be the equivalent to one making 100, but if one small machine goes down, it can easily be replaced, and at worst production is only minimally disrupted. When a big $100,000 machine goes down, production completely stops. Using smaller, less costly machines allows for the creation of satellite production sites to meet customer demand faster.

2. Scalability: You don’t use a fire hose to fill a glass of water, but that’s what may be happening when you choose a high-volume printer but only have moderate demand. The modular approach aims to achieve higher utilization per unit, keeping your glass full but not overflowing. This lets a business meet exact demand, while using less capital investment and less space. Now the business can grow into greater demand by adding only the amount of new printers needed.

3. Flexibility: Along with having a backup fleet to avoid a work stoppage, Formlabs has found with an arsenal of small format units, it’s easier to split production across multiple operators who can specialize in a specific workflow. Utilization comes up here, as well. Large format printers lock your team into a certain job, which can put pressure on operators at the end of the day to finish.

“Instead you can use 60% of your fleet, and then you can save the rest of the fleet for last-minute requests,” Sinopoli advised.

4. Lean Enablement: Fine-tuning operations is the heart of this strategy. You specify the amount of space used, the placement of workstations, and the movement of operators. Stations can be set up to focus on specific materials, so there’s less changeover. And due to batching, you won’t need actual inventory on hand. In the end, it all adds up to a more efficient schedule and operation.

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5. Ease and Convenience: Because of the cost, an R&D department can afford to supply each team member with their own unit, giving newer employees time to get more experience and increase the overall skill level of the team. And any new insights gained or feedback received can easily be shared with everyone else and immediately implemented. Sinopoli said this methodology ultimately can “create a culture of excellence.”

Next up, immediate ways 3D printing can make an impact on the factory floor.

Manufacturing Validation:

3D-printed parts can be used as stand-ins, surrogate parts or to quickly configure assembly lines. When Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) wanted to develop a new wearable device but was experiencing a supply chain bottleneck. Their in-house team used the Form 2 and High Temp resin material to make surrogates for previously overmolded parts that had embedded electronics. This method allowed ATAP to avoid possibly thousands of injection-molded tests using live electronics.

The lead time was dropped from three weeks to three days and the cost of the part ended up dropping from $100 to $0.80. Overall, Google saved more than $100,000.

Production Tools:

Making jigs, fixtures, and tools on the factory floor is a growing trend that several additive companies have touted and many manufacturers are adopting. In-house advantages include no minimum order quantities and no toolpath programming, fewer hours of preparation and a wider material selection. In the presentation, Formlabs noted how Pankl Racing Systems, a provider of drive trains for aerospace and automotive customers, needed to make gearbox assemblies with several automatic lathes using multiple jigs. They used three Form 2 printers and Tough resin to cut costs from $300 to $25-30.

End-Use Parts:

When Formlabs formed, this was merely fantasy. Now it’s provided companies a competitive advantage by seizing the current customization craze. Gillette allows consumers to pick from 48+ designs and emboss their names on the razor handle, (though significant others everywhere will still probably steal them and dull the blade).

New Balance has also integrated latticed EVA midsoles made of a Rebound resin that holds up better, a key feature for people who inexplicably choose to run several hundred miles a year. The shoes are also 10% lighter, so even non-athletes will feel faster.

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For more info, watch the webinar or visit Formlabs.com.

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