The humble, plastic extrusion desktop printer is probably the image most synonymous with 3D printing in the public eye. Your child’s school may have one, local library or makerspace, and every now and again you may even spot one on “special buy” in the electronics aisle of the supermarket for less than the cost of a games console.
Desktop 3D printing, namely in the consumer space, has had its fair share of hitches. We’ve seen layoffs, short-lived partnerships with consumer brands (Did ANYONE buy a Martha Stewart 3D printed napkin ring?) and closures as the consumer 3D printing dream failed to live up to far-fetched expectations.
However, that dip and subsequent disillusionment has allowed for the hardware, materials and software to mature, and useful applications to materialise. In fact, a recent report suggested that as many as 75% of the desktop machines sold in the industry have gone to companies rather than individual users, with engineering departments and designers thought to be the biggest user base.
The poster child of this desktop industrial revolution has to be Ultimaker, a company who in the space of a few short years has gone from being a hobbyist favourite to finding itself an invaluable place on assembly lines at Volkswagen Autoeuropa, where 3D printed tooling, jigs and fixtures are expected to save the company up to 250,000 EURO a year. But there are plenty of other areas where desktop is making an impact on an industrial scale.
Maker to manufacturer
MakerBot is arguably the most recognisable desktop 3D printing brand having gone from being king of the maker community, proclaiming its machine will change the world, to an acquisition by Stratasys, with plenty of highs and lows along the way. Now, with its ten-year anniversary just around the corner, it’s done a bit of a U-turn and found itself a comfortable position serving the education and professional markets. Over 5,000 schools in the U.S. have a MakerBot installed and at his year’s RAPID + TCT back in May, there was no sign of a consumer-focussed past on the MakerBot booth with examples from robotics company KUKA to lacrosse equipment manufacturer StringKing, showing how desktop 3D printers can be an integral part of industrial product design.
“The way that we see it, AM has two big applications, either for actual manufacturing or prototyping,” Felipe Castaneda, Senior Industrial Design Manager at MakerBot told TCT. “With prototyping you need something that’s going to take you to the next step. We are not trying to substitute industrial systems, we are just trying to get you as close as we can to that final part of the prototyping process.”
At KUKA’s Development and Technology Center in Augsburg, its MakerBot Z18 is in operation for around 7,000 hours a year and was recently applied to the development of the company’s small-scale KR 3 AGILUS robot, savings weeks on development time. In environments like this, accessibility is one of the main advantages desktop machines have over large industrial systems. These low-cost, compact systems can be set atop a designer’s desk rather than locked away in a dedicated lab or outsourced to a service bureau which, according to internal studies, MakerBot believes encourages use.
“We did this study last year on bicycle seats. We had a bunch of printers and I was trying to prove a point of what happens when the designer is exposed to as many printers as they want,” Castaneda explained. “The good thing about these machines is the turnaround is about 12 hours, so I was printing, in this case, five sets of bicycle saddles in a week. Whilst that experiment was running we did our service bureaux order, so we had one of the saddles come in after a week with expedited shipment. It’s that story of opening the platforms. They need to be a tool that you can use to just get that idea out of your head and put it in a physical manner.”
Convenience encourages creativity
Mara Hitner, Director of Business Development at MatterHackers, a technology solutions provider specialised in primarily sub 5,000 USD printers and materials, believes that aside from prototyping or jigs and fixtures, giving engineers access to desktop printers in large corporations can be a real access point for creativity. Speaking to TCT back in Fort Worth, Hitner points to a small plastic ring on her finger which was produced on her first desktop machine and ignited her interest in the technology.
“NASA is pretty famous for having a makerspace but I feel like the word ‘makerspace’ used to be a dirty word for a major manufacturer,” Hitner explained. “All these engineers and creative people, they can’t mess up when they’re on the job, they can’t try something new on a rocket and then have it fail. But if they have a certain percentage of their time where they can go down to the makerspace and just play, they can do what they started in their careers doing, just trying stuff.”
MatterHackers is completely technology agnostic, delivering over 50 machines, kits and 700 materials from partners alongside its own range of filaments, to both the education and professional markets. In addition to big machine launches like the larger Ultimaker S5, materials have also benefitted from some serious advancements over the last year as material science has moved on and companies, namely Ultimaker once again, partner with major materials manufacturers such as BASF and Solvay to bring engineering quality to the desktop.
What may once have been the province of larger industrial machines, engineers are now able to print with high-temperature resistant, nylon and carbon-filled filaments to produce functional parts which could potentially save thousands in production costs.
“Volkswagen is a really great example and there are so many more companies that are seeing where this technology fits in their workflow,” Hitner continued. “Most people, once they start seeing these use cases, the wheels start turning and they start to understand how having a fabrication machine on every engineer’s desk just sparks that creativity. It helps people to iterate faster and is really going to bring us to the next generation of products and services that are available to the public.”
Markforged is a company which has always been industry-focussed, bringing engineering-grade materials to the desktop starting with its Mark One 3D printer back in 2014. Unlike the colourful polymer prints produced on machines of a similar stature, the Boston-based company’s machines are designed to produce functional end-use parts in carbon fibre, Kevlar and fibre glass.
Jonathan Reilly, VP of Product at Markforged commented: “I think the general shift to a more industrial focus is very interesting and also very necessary because it expands the capabilities of 3D printing and I think it’s the right place to start pushing towards more and more high-volume applications.”
The company has since turned its attention to developing larger industrial solutions and a low-cost metal 3D printing machine but Markforged’s continuous carbon fibre desktop systems are proving to be an invaluable access point to the technology as they’re leveraged on manufacturing lines to print jigs, tools and fixtures. This flexibility is enabling companies like Centerline Engineered Solutions, a U.S. contract engineering business, to significantly reduce costs and lead times with printed inspection, welding and assembly fixtures and custom tooling. In the recent case of a press brake punch and die used to bend and form a custom sheet steel part, which would typically cost up to 2,000 USD if machined, the company decided to use a fixture, 3D printed in Markforged’s Onyx carbon-composite material reinforced with continuous Kevlar fibres. The part was able to successfully form steel and resulted in an 86% reduction in costs.
Proving the durability of the technology in end-use applications, Humanetics, a crash test dummy manufacturer recently utilised a Markforged Mark Two 3D printer and Onyx material to produce a complete set of ribs in just a week. The company was able to save up to 60% in assembly and labour costs and the printed ribs were still going strong even after over 150 impacts.
Reilly added: “I have this saying, ‘the part is our product, the thing you’re buying from us is a delivery system for your part’, it’s easy to get stuck focussed on your printers or your materials but the customer really only cares about their part at the end of the day and if you can build the right delivery mechanisms that make it easy and repeatable for them to get what they expect, you’ll win and you’ll succeed and grow.”
For the industrial sector which may have once overlooked seemingly simplified desktop systems, it looks like that message is finally getting through.