The 3D printer; an expression, a symbol, a icon. I got on board the additive manufacturing awesomeness express 12 years ago and the ride just keeps getting better. Wonder why you can’t think of the last time you saw a lava lamp? Because seeing that extruded molten plastic methodically placed layer by micro layer as your part grows out of thin air is a thousand times more mesmerizing. Just so we are clear, I am a fan.

Sure, they can be used to create iterations of your final product to show a clear linear evolution. But that is thinking small because there are so many more potential benefits. With additive manufacturing complexity comes at no extra cost. This literally changes the way you think. Over time, your brain has adapted to conform to the rules of three-axis CNC milling and learned to think in terms of tool paths and corner radii. Without that limitation; you start to think purely about the desired function – and not the process – and that is when quantum leaps can occur.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult thing to explain and quantify, which is why your company doesn’t have a 3D Printer yet. Queue sad trombone. The good news is that I am going to tell you what you need to do to make it happen.


First, I am going to introduce the concept of Think Like a Manager (TLAM). You want me to buy an expensive piece of capital equipment for which the exact benefits to the bottom line are nebulous? TLAM. Even if the project is a huge success, there is no way to pinpoint it directly back to the printer and my daring leadership decision to get one. High risk no glory. TLAM. I have “adopted” technology in the past and got burned. I can’t watch any movie made after 2009 because I have a LaserDisc player at home. TLAM. Nobody is going to know how to use it, it won’t get used much, and we will end up with a rusting piece of technology that slowly gets covered with dust, then cobwebs, and finally a hobo will move in. TLAM.


Understand the Real Reason You Need One

You don’t need one because they are cool, or trendy, or because you like new toys. You need one because they are amazing leveragers of your time, ability to communicate and creativity. You can outsource additive manufacturing and this would seem to have the benefits without the risk, not so kemosabe. At very best, you can gets parts next day. But this game is all about rapid fire, whack-a-mole style iterations and with an in-house printer you can do multiple iterations on the fly in the same day. That means five iterations would take a week, versus a day. Also, adjusting the build parameters and orientation can greatly impact the appearance and strength which is something you can control in-house. Outsourcing involves more people and has more visible cost – which could inherently make you act a little more cautiously when going for that crazy, radical and ultimately game-changing design.

Finally, trust me, that there will be a day when you need something not tomorrow, but today and the consequences of not having it will be dire. And there in spandex tights with a cape flapping in the wind will be the 3D printer.

How do you know when the technology has hit that perfect sweet spot of cost and performance? What if a machine comes out right after you buy yours that would have been exactly perfect? TLAM! Caught you. All technologies improve over time, soon I will be able to read SolidSmack on my morning commute while my car drives me. But in the meantime I still need to get to work.


Do Your Homework

Get online and start understanding the different technologies and the specifics on how different companies are implementing them into their printers. You have to consider: material cost, space requirements, power requirements, safety, chemical storage or disposal, maintenance schedule, and cost and calibration. These are things that you will get asked about.

There is not a one size fits all machine. The consensus is to try to find the one that will do 80% of what you need. What is important to the kind of work you do; color, accuracy, robustness, or something else? I recommend looking at white papers and the unique applications that have already been developed. Someone may have already thought of an application for your industry that you haven’t. In which case, you need to catch up.

You will likely want to call to ask specific questions, but don’t bring in a sales person until you have selected the one you think is best. Companies sell certain brands and technologies that may or may not be best suited for your application. You bump and set, they spike.


It’s All About the Benjamins

Try to find a way to partially justify the purchase on a strictly financial basis. As mentioned, that is not where the real value is. It is an apples to radioactive mutant mega oranges comparison. But try anyway, as this will help make the decision easier for others, and simultaneously serve your devious self-interest, queue organ music. See if there are parts that you currently make that can be printed and used directly (Direct Digital Manufacturing). Companies have printed parts with their printers; that can be used in their printers. Mind blown, next stop robot armies. Fixtures and tooling are great applications and ways to save costs. Assembly fixtures tend to be low volume, complex, and involve ergonomics; so are costly to make using traditional machining methods. Really look around, think about applications you have now, and for the not too distant future, and work up some real numbers. And for sales, Instead of ending the facility tour with your pals, Moppy and Sweepy, in the old utility closet — show your clients what a hi tech and forward thinking company you are by ending with, queue drum roll, the 3D printer.


No Turning Back

3D printers are VCRs (or smart phones for you kids). There was a time when these things didn’t exist. And the world continued to turn, and we all went about our merry days, whistling in blissful ignorance. Then we got these things, and we wondered how we lived without them; and now you can try to pry them out of our clenched, vice like claws. Use cases will continue to present themselves and everyone will wonder how they used to get along without one. The black and white world will become color and the croissant will become deep fried and injected with cream.

Now go watch Glengarry Glen Ross (available on LaserDisc) and get ready to sell. Wait for budgeting time or whatever the best time is for your organization. Then remember, try to put yourself in the shoes of the decision makers. Understand the machines and their various pros and cons and be ready to answer questions. Espouse the direct applications and benefits to others, knowing that there will many many more to come.

At the time of this writing, I have no affiliation, financial, or otherwise, with any 3D printer companies. I am just a person always trying to make better stuff, and want you to too.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.