With the expiration of patents on some of the original closed platform printing equipment, open platform 3D printing is fast becoming an accessible and innovative tool that is revolutionizing industrial manufacturing. This trend was the topic in the latest M. Holland Company and Plastics News Fireside Chat series, featuring Justin Finesilver of the 3-D Printing Store, Peter Ho of Ultimaker, Dan Lentsch of Composite Drivelines LLC, and Haleyanne Freedman of M. Holland. The panel discussed the opportunities and limitations of open platform 3D printing as well as how open platform 3D printing machines and materials have advanced in the industry to become a major processing technology.

Endless Opportunities & Benefits

According to a report by Wohler’s Associates, an independent consulting firm that specializes in 3D printing, additive manufacturing has grown 21 percent since 2017, reaching $7.336B in worldwide sales, with a growing number of companies worth between $1-5B investing in additive manufacturing research and development technologies. Additive manufacturing for industrial use, however, is no longer an experimental technology for large companies. Due to the affordability and accessibility of open source printing, it is now available to manufacturing companies of all sizes.

The panelists highlighted several benefits of open platform printers, software, and materials, including:

  • Versatility of Materials: Open platform printers allow for the use of a wide variety of materials and colors. They also work with various slicing and computer-aided design (CAD) software technologies, which enables multiple approaches to the production of end-use products or applications.
  • “With an open platform 3D printer, you have a huge versatility on what sort of applications you can create – you can do end-product designs or something along the way such as manufacturing tools, other types of aides, etc.,” said Peter Ho of Ultimaker. “Open platforms allow companies to choose their materials and get more into a product’s design – blowing open their potential while increasing the time they can work on it and reducing time and dependability on external sources.”

  • Application Agility: Incorporating 3D printing into manufacturing allows companies to make real-time modifications to each product’s CAD file. They can quickly print and test new versions of those applications without the need for additional investment in tooling or completion of a time-consuming fabrication process for each iteration.
  • Attracting Younger Talent: STEAM curriculum in schools has exposed students to the basics of 3D printing at an earlier age, which in turn has led to an incoming cohort of talent that is already equipped with a foundation of 3D printing and knowledge of CAD software.
  • “Schools and libraries are investing in 3D printers and working to get students designing for the 21st century,” said Justin Finesilver of the 3-D Printing Store. “It will be interesting to see how the industry will grow with these students and it’s impressive to see what they can already do at age 12 or 13 with no formal CAD training or education.”

  • Affordability & Sustainability: 3D printing is also a cost-effective and more sustainable option for companies. Panelists discussed how, not only are open platform printers, materials, and technology more affordable than closed platform options, but they also produce less material and energy waste than traditional manufacturing.
  • Introducing Efficiencies: Lastly, 3D printing can help fuel collaboration and serve as a useful communication tool. Because 3D printing and CAD software allow for the sharing of digital CAD files, siloed teams or companies operating in multiple geographic locations or across different departments can access and implement the same processes and designs and introduce efficiencies.

How To Navigate An Increasing Number Of Options

The sheer number of open platform printers, materials, and software options may appear overwhelming, making it seem difficult for companies to find the right fit. Panelists recommended companies take a design-and-materials-first approach and consider the desired properties of their part before exploring printer options. Haleyanne Freedman of M. Holland stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all printer or material to accommodate a single application. Depending on the part or application a company is creating, it may require multiple printers using different methods and materials to produce the desired final end-use product.

Dan Lentsch of Composite Drivelines LLC added that companies should invest time in conducting research and speaking with unbiased experts to assess their 3D printing options before making a purchase decision. This upfront investment can help companies ensure they are getting the greatest value from their printers. “One of the biggest downfalls I see is underutilization of printers,” said Lentsch. “3D printers are very capable, but the research to determine what you need is extremely important.”

While there are many printer manufacturers and materials providers that offer a wealth of knowledge for companies deciding on machines, it is important that companies consider each source’s bias. Companies might be better served if they seek out consultative yet agnostic sources like 3D printing consultants, associations, and online communities or forums that can offer advice without partiality towards one method, printer, or material. Unbiased recommendations and knowledge transfer paired with continuing education are imperative in helping companies save time, money, energy, and materials.

“If you get in touch with the right people, they will train your staff on how to use your 3D printer,” said Ho when discussing the importance of continuing education. “Then it’s about getting used to it. With that comes experience and with experience, you develop expertise.” Ho continued stating that education and an upfront time commitment in training employees can give companies and their teams a head start as well as ensure they are effective in their 3D printing efforts.

Lastly, panelists recommended that companies set realistic expectations. For example, due to the amount of time and materials required, 3D printed houses and cars are not yet realistic possibilities. Instead of 3D printing running the entire process, companies need to think about where it can be incorporated throughout to deliver significant cost and sustainability advantages. This is especially helpful for companies creating jigs and fixtures, prototypes, and custom or limited-availability parts.

It’s an exciting time for 3D printing, with many of the possibilities in industrial manufacturing yet untapped. To learn more about what is possible, click here to watch this latest Fireside Chat.

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