I’m reading yet another press release on 3D print service expansion and have some thoughts.
The latest news is from NY-based PrintParts. PrintParts is a manufacturing service that’s been around since 2010, and currently offers a number of different 3D printing services, including DLP, FFF, FDM, SLS, and SLA processes.
Their news is that they’ve now acquired 20 brand new Markforged continuous carbon fiber 3D printers, which apparently will triple their CCF capacity to likely 30 machines’ worth.
“CCF” is of particular interest by industry because it can produce parts of extreme strength due to the embedded continuous strands of super-strong carbon fiber.
“Over four years ago PrintParts invested in its first Markforged system and has since added additional machines to support continued and growing demand from customers seeking lightweight, strong, and functional end-use parts. In total, the Company has accrued over 43,000 print hours on Markforged systems alone, approximately five years of continuous 3D printing.”
They say they can now produce around 10,000 CCF parts per week.
This capacity expansion is on top of PrintParts’ acquisition of eight more EnvisionTEC 3D printers just last month.
That’s all good news for PrintParts (and likely Markforged and EnvisionTEC/Desktop Metal, too), but what’s really going on here? Why are 3D print services continually making announcements of this type? Are their businesses exploding with new clients?
I have a bit of a theory, hear me out.
Certainly there has been dramatically increased interest in 3D printing in recent months as companies have been effectively forced into the technology by pandemic-driven supply chain problems. Many of these companies have realized that 3D printing is an effective — and highly flexible — solution for manufacturing parts, as opposed to fragile overseas supply chains.
That’s the obvious driver, but I think there’s more happening here.
One is the increasing breadth of available materials for 3D printing. As materials become available, this lights up the possibility of new applications. Some companies have literally been waiting for specific material availability.
Once enabled, that doesn’t mean they can immediately begin 3D printing. In most cases there is quite a learning curve. To short-circuit the learning curve, companies turn to highly-trained service bureaus to do the work, at least initially.
The increase in service work may imply a future were expanded onsite operations by newly-experienced companies seek their own equipment. The service business we see now could be a massive “try before you buy” scenario.
High-Quality Production 3D Prints
Another factor is quality. Prototypes are one thing, but production parts are quite another. They typically require levels of quality that are sometimes unachievable by companies just starting out with 3D printing.
Quality is achieved through use of specific materials, specific print parameters, specific end-to-end workflows, specific software and a lot of experience. It’s nearly impossible for a company to have all those in place at the start.
Yet if they require 3D printed production parts, what can they do? A popular option is to have an experienced 3D print service make the parts and leverage their long experience in doing so. That could be a big driver of service business, as more companies want production parts.
3D Print Service Processes
Finally, there’s another factor: tooling. As you saw above, PrintParts offers a number of different 3D printing processes. This is now typical among services, as each offers different advantages and disadvantages. To meet the varying needs of clients a service must have the right tool for the job, and that requires fleets of different machines on the shop floor.
That requirement for machine diversity might also be driving the acquisition of equipment by services. Of course, once in place a service might find new gold mines of business with them, as PrintParts seems to have done.
Where is all this heading? It would seem that competent 3D print services of the future are likely to require very broad offerings in order to attract clients and focus them on the best solutions.