During Inside 3D Printing 2017 in San Diego, one big issue that kept coming up was 3D print post processing and how it has become one of the causes of the delay for the progression of the industry. Post processing in 3D print can be defined as painting, finishing, dyeing, plating and polishing. All of which involve coordination with other sources that will translate to logistics issues and timeline expansion. This is the reason why most product designers think that 3D print post processing is missing its mark, because it is still not in that place where it can make products on demand and come out exactly how customers want them. Find out more of the struggles and the solutions and how you can help to make things happen for 3D printing.
3D Print Post Processing: The Designer’s Viewpoint
We’ve been thinking a lot about this subject recently with our own client work we’ve been doing using 3D printing especially with using commercial outsources service bureaus. Recently, we were at the Inside 3D Printing San Diego talking with a lot of people about what might still be holding back certain advancements in the industry or in adoption of additive manufacturing, and this subject has really risen to the top as a big issue. Unless 3D printing is completely relegated to the industrial model which is a mistake and that’s our position that we come from. With this viewpoint that it’s missing the mark if it can’t make on-demand end user product and come out exactly like you want it. From that viewpoint, if your business is all completely industrial or completely “prototype business” where somebody is still going to have some guy paint it in some shop somewhere, they’re going to coat it or do whatever that might be to it, you’re limiting the market. There’s a bigger viewpoint and that’s what we’ve always been expressing from the moment we started this podcast and the moment we started 3D printing decades ago. We saw it was great. It just wasn’t going far enough. For us, it wasn’t turning out a completed prototype. It actually wasn’t useful a decade ago or a completed product. It was a model.
What we’re talking about is post-processing of 3D printed parts. This is a struggle for us as designers. Let’s define that. 3D print post-processing might be painting, finishing, coming out in color, coming out with textures, dyeing or plating or putting a texture on something. It could be polishing or tumbling. In the history of industrial manufacturing, there are all kinds of different finishing processes that are used. Oftentimes, they are very labor-intensive. That’s why the industry, as it exists today, has been very resistant to adopt different post-processing processes or techniques because they’re not easy to do. In order to produce a product that someone is going to want to buy outside of prototypes or putting that to the side, even including prototypes if you’re making an appearance model or a one-off prototype, obviously you’re going to have to finish it. This is where lower-cost labor countries especially in Asia and India have been kicking the US’ butt for a lot of years. Lower-cost labor things that are very labor-intensive move offshore. As additive manufacturing is bringing a lot more manufacturing back to North America and other industrialized countries around the world, Europe, etc., this issue is coming back and we have to address it. The more post-processing or final finishing that can be done on 3D printed parts in these high-labor countries, the more easily we are all going to be able to succeed at this additive manufacturing goal and produce end consumer products.
Let’s think about it from two viewpoints. We’re going to talk about an example from one of our clients that we came across and it honestly highlighted a problem with Paperless Parts, which we had a done a show about. I did make a note that we found a gap. We have a client who wanted to do four different designs, a decorative design of something that we are going to eventually injection mold. We wanted to do four designs and test market them. We were going to actually sell a 1,000 pieces across the four designs. We needed quite a few parts, 250 of each, and we needed them in specific colors and specific designs. We 3D printed the original parts and they looked great on our printer. You get the layer lines because it was FFF 3D printed to start, but then we went to an outsource to make the next generation of one-off samples.
In this particular case, we used Shapeways. I’d like to give them credit because their price was the best. They did one-off and they came out beautiful. They came out with really beautiful rich color. The layer lines were hardly there. They looked fantastic and our clients were so happy with that. Then here’s the problem, we can’t order 250 pieces at a good low rate like you should be able to get from Shapeways. We couldn’t order them from any of the larger outsource through Paperless Parts. We went to Shapeways and the quality of the parts they produced and the standard finishes they offer which are post-process, in this case these were nylon parts that were made through the powder bed fusion process and they have some post-processing where the parts get this really nice even texture and they dye the parts one of a number of different colors. There were three or four of the standard colors they have that were really ideal for our clients and they were happy with them.
We produced a set of parts to ship directly to us and a set of parts to the client. We could all talk about them and say, “This is great. This is what we want.” We could check fit because this also had to fit on an existing part. It’s holding an electric circuit board. There’s an existing injection molded back cover and the part had to fit, the printed circuit board, the battery. It has a switch and an indicator LED light or something. It was all designed to do that. These 3D printed parts from Shapeways, dimensionally were dead-on accurate. Some really thin sections of a groove that had to fit in a slot and lining up these bosses for screws with the holes, it fit like a glove and I was thrilled.
During this project, we had done this interview with Jason of Paperless Parts. We said, “He’s really geared more on business-to-business sales and larger volume commercial 3D printers. Let’s give it a try. This sounds ideal,” because they had significant volume discounts. In fact, some of these parts that we had quoted on Paperless Parts, the pricing that we come back with was fully half for the quantity we’re looking for fully half of what it was on Shapeways but the problem was the finishing. I could absolutely not get them to create the same kind of colors and finishes. They wouldn’t do it. It’s not even an option. They didn’t want to match it. They didn’t want to do anything. They didn’t have any process to make anything but white. It got too complicated and outside of their narrow box of business-to-business prototype only. I think it was very shortsighted.
I went back to Shapeways and negotiated and they did give a little bit of a volume discount, not near what I was hoping for our client. Still it ended up being worth it to them to do it and make all these parts. It’s cheaper than making an injection mold. Shapeways did them all and we had to go back there. It was really an opportunity loss for some other companies. To me, to be able to standardize on finishes that are available by other suppliers and you’re offering more volume discounts, here’s a big gap and opportunity for someone to fill. I want to think about this from the prototype standpoint as well. If in fact, you’re making final prototypes for your clients and other things and let’s say you have processing that’s metal, we don’t just want it to come off. We want it to come off polished. We might need to anodize it. Having to handle all of the different processing and coordinating, sending parts out and getting that, it makes it hard to choose to use an outsource of 3D printing unless they’re integrated. Unless you have an anodizer right next door, they’re going to take care of it for you. We haven’t found anyone who does that.
You do have to coordinate a bunch of different resources and vendors in order to be able to deliver a final product in many cases, which makes it not worth it. When we do products over in China, we do final prototypes. We get bases that we create for chairs that are completely CNC routed. If it’s a plastic part, these are huge parts the old school way. Actually sometimes still the most efficient and cost-effective way is you just machine it out of a solid block of ABS. It looks like the real thing and it gets painted or finished so it will look like the real part.
When we used a shop there, it only takes a couple of weeks and they’ve got the whole understructure put into it. They’ll put it in so it’s structurally sound so you can actually physically test it. They’ll have it painted in the final finish. Not only are we checking the style, the look, it’s the final color, it’s the final finish. It can almost be approved by our clients right from there before we go into full production. In this process, we have to start again. Instead of going to one source to get it done, you’ve now got to deal with multiples and it becomes a logistics issue and it expands the timeline. It’s really traditional prototyping versus, “There are so many advantages of additive manufacturing in 3D printing.” I agree 100% and I’m a big advocate for it but at some point, you’ve got to deal with the details. I don’t think it’s reducing cost. If you look at this from a standpoint of a very large industrial design firm who had a sample shop way back when and lots of them do. They have their own shop because it’s easier. It’s also IP controlled so they can control the intellectual property and not let it leave the house. They like to do that for their clients and it’s always a big plus that they have their own shop. They’ll tour you of it every time.
They haven’t made any significant improvements getting 3D printing over the years because they still have to have all these post-processing. They still have to have people who will do that who are skilled in that and that’s expensive labor. They haven’t made a lot of cost improvements there in that. Now, they just do more volume as well. We found that they do. They pump more volume through it and the shops are really busy because they do model after model after model and iterations because that’s easier to accomplish. I don’t think that it’s really overall improving the cost in the prototype and it’s doing a disservice to the independent designers who are cropping up and who we need to do more business. We have a designer shortage. We need designers without a shop to be able to access someone who’s actually going to take it all the way through and deliver for their clients in a timely manner. If we had to do this, have them 3D printed, get them dyed somewhere else, coordinate all of that, we’re talking a month’s waste of time just making all that coordination and finally getting it to a client for something that should just printout and be done in a couple of days.
At some point, it does defeat the purpose and you might be better off if you have a good prototype resource in Asia or in China for instance. I’d still get prototype resources soliciting me on LinkedIn weekly if not more than that who would be all too happy to handle all those logistics. Make a prototype for you, they probably wouldn’t use additive manufacturing and you’d have to pay to ship it to the US, but it might get done faster and often would than what we’re dealing with here in the US right now of additive manufacturing. Then, “How are we going to finish it? Is it going to be like it would be in production?” You have all these issues again. I do think the industry needs to improve and that commercial 3D printers need to adopt more post-processing options, automated within it too, and provide swatches and sample cards, whatever it is of the finishes available. Cross-referencing even finishes that other suppliers provide. Why not standardize on some? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. You can produce the same ones that others are doing. There are lots of options out there.
As we get more into actual distributed manufacturing for consumer retail in this country, the vision we have, that’s what’s going to have to happen. There is going to have to be some amount of labor. It could still be a small amount of labor. I remember back in Connecticut when we were working with BIC Pen. Now, they’re molding plastic and there’s printing involved in some of it, but they had very automated manufacturing and would have one or two full-time workers for hundreds of machines. You can get to that level. I think you can do that with finishing and post-processing too. Especially if you’re using an anodizing machine or something like that. You’re dropping them in and there’s a bath. It’s not something somebody is doing a lot of physical labor over except for loading the parts and unloading the parts and maybe some light assembly. You can have very versatile worker that is maybe a packing and shipping person as well as a post-processing and assembly person and at different times they do different things.
We have to look at this as an ecosystem of providing on-demand product. Without post-processing, it just falls short. There are some products that you can design and make that come off the machine ready to go. I love that and we’re advocates for those types of products, but it doesn’t work in every situation. There needs to be a broadness to it so we can really put in and install this on-demand ecosystem at distribution centers around the world and make that happen. This is where we really help the industries taking off. Our mission is to make this happen and inspire and aspire to do it ourselves as well and find innovative ways to do that.
We hope that we’ve inspired you to do that. If you’re working on things and you know of some things that are happening in post-processing, please message us. We’d love to interview you, your company or a scientist or whoever is working on, whatever they might be in this arena. This is a big mission for us this upcoming year. We love to hear from you and get you some exposure and share that with our audience. Don’t forget to go find us anywhere on social media @3DStartPoint and also go to 3DStartPoint.com where you can leave us a comment or you can find ways that you can reach out to us to send us a message there as well. Thanks again for listening. This has been Tracy and Tom on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
- Inside 3D Printing San Diego
- Paperless Parts
- BIC Pen
- interview with Jason
- 3D Start Point
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