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Some SMEs Have Big Troubles Navigating The 3D Print World

Where does a company look for industrial 3D printing advice? [Source: Image by Tobias Dahlberg from Pixabay]

The challenges facing SMEs as they enter the 3D printing world are deeper than I had imagined.

I had a conversation with a representative of an unnamed small business hoping to set up a 3D printing operation. They were seeking some advice on a purchase.

Most of the calls we take on that question relate to relatively small purchases of desktop equipment. However, this call was quite different. The caller explained they were about to purchase a rather large set of industrial 3D printers to make low volumes of parts for their product.

Apparently the parts had previously been manufactured in Asia, but recent difficulties in the overseas supply chain caused the company to consider building their own factory. After all, they correctly believed that 3D printing technology could produce the parts they require. Even better, they would be viewed as advanced through their use of additive manufacturing, as well as gain direct control over their production.

It’s all good so far. But then, knowing the skills, hardware and facilities required for advanced metal 3D printing, I asked how much experience they had with 3D printing.

“No one here has done any 3D printing.”

Oh.

I feared they didn’t yet understand the incredibly complex world they hoped to enter. 3D printing, particularly metal 3D printing, involves highly complex job setup by skilled engineers, sophisticated post-processing done by more experts with advanced CNC machining gear, and expensive facilities with numerous safety procedures.

It turned out the caller knew some of this, but certainly not all. They expected to quickly outfit a facility by reusing some HVAC gear that may or may not have been suitable.

They also expected to “just hire someone to operate the machines.”

That’s simply not a thing you can do easily these days. With the ever-expanding use of 3D printing tech by industry, the very few experts able to properly run industrial equipment are already taken up by other companies.

Learning how to use the system properly yourself is a possibility, but that would take some years of trial and error to gain expert level, even with the assistance of a vendor. Unfortunately, this company’s priority was on speed, not cost.

I had my doubts as to the success of their purchase-and-operate-immediately strategy, so I suggested instead they consider using one of the many very competent manufacturing services. They could offer not only the 3D printing capability, but also other making processes and post-processing functions, and do so almost immediately. Over time when more familiarity with the technology was established, then they could consider getting their own gear.

Manufacturing services could produce low volumes of parts at a cost somewhat higher per unit than one could do so with owned equipment, but that’s only if you know how to run it and have everything else lined up. That was not the case here.

The caller had discounted use of services because “they can take weeks to deliver parts”. That might have been true years ago, but today’s manufacturing services are far more efficient and effective. The learning curve for a new additive manufacturing operation in a company would surely be longer than a few weeks.

The caller also had done a cost analysis of “outsourcing” the 3D printing versus doing the same with internal equipment. They found that it would be 15X less expensive to use their own equipment.

I was quite skeptical of this figure, and asked which service provided the quote. The answer was surprising.

It came from the seller of the equipment!

I’d say there might have been a very slight conflict of interest there, and recommended they check out several other likely services that could provide accurate costs and production time estimates.

I asked why no other parties were contacted for estimates, and the caller said they were “unable to find anyone else.”

To those of us in the industry, this might appear quite surprising. There are dozens of 3D printer manufacturers and competent manufacturing services available, with several being quite prominent. In fact two of them, Protolabs and Xometry, are near the top of our largest companies in 3D printing tracker.

I’m not sure where this particular situation will end up, but I am sure there are things to learn here.

First, it seems there are indeed many small manufacturing businesses desperately trying to establish on-shore manufacturing facilities, hopefully using advanced technologies. But the problem seems to be they don’t really know where to start.

You might say it’s “easy to find the leaders”, but it’s not if you don’t know their names or where to look. In this case the company was able to find only one reseller and gained all of their knowledge of 3D printing through them.

My suspicion here is that there may be a great many other companies in the same position: interested in production 3D printing, but with no idea where to start or what it takes. Many of them could end up buying equipment they won’t know how to operate, and potentially failing.

I have great fear this may end up in a scenario similar to what we saw years ago with consumer 3D printing. Then, individuals were enticed to buy rudimentary desktop 3D printers, because “everyone is a maker”, and most ended up as doorstops because the buyers couldn’t figure out how to operate them. As a result, the entire market for consumer 3D printing crashed.

And it’s still crashed today.

Could that happen to industrial 3D printing for small businesses in today’s scenario?

My thought is that these small businesses need to get good advice prior to them undertaking major purchases. There should be a clearly visible place for them to find that information, and obviously that doesn’t exist at this moment. Such services certainly exist, but the problem is that they are not clearly visible to these businesses.

I think a major marketing program is required here, perhaps led by industry associations.

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