Nov.6, 2014 | By Alec

It goes without saying that 3D printing is a very productive and accurate manufacturing method. Even a basic FDM 3D printer is an excellent and affordable prototyping and design tool that can easily be used in the privacy of your own home, so it's hardly surprising its popularity is growing every year.

So far, however, 3D printing technology is hardly being used to produce marketable products. Sure, there are wonderful small-scale production initiatives out there already (just take a look at Shapeways), while several larger companies have moved to industrial-strength Stratasys 3D printers. Nonetheless, the vast majority of plastic objects are still being produced using the age-old injection mold production methods, that have been the gold standard in masse plastic parts production since its inception in 1872.

Why? Well, as most experts will tell you, because 3D printing technology is too expensive to properly compete with this older production method. But is it really? The California-based production company Type A Machines has been exploring the possibility of FDM 3D printing production volumes, and has just shared a whitepaper arguing that their printers are theoretically capable of outcompeting injection molding by a small margin.

Of course, this doesn't mean your own desktop 3D printer is capable of outcompeting major production companies, as these promising results are only achieved in very specific circumstances.

The key is volume. Type A Machines has been using 3D Print Farms (or 3D Print Cells) to achieve these results: a 'production floor' consisting of numerous of their Series 1 affordable 3D printers working in sync to produce plastic objects in a large scale (up to 10,000 objects). When effectively set-up, working together and in specific circumstances, these printers have proven to be capable of outcompeting injection molding methods where complexity, speed and cost are concerned.

As they excitedly announced, this could lead to a new age of plastic manufacturing: 'Don't get me wrong: there are still plenty of kinks in 3D Printing to iron out, but it's the dawn of a new, customized volumetric manufacturing age.'

Their 3D Print Farm has proven to be especially adept at optimizing production in the sub 1000 units range, a range that has traditionally been problematic for producers. One of the main laws of production states that the more you produce, the lower the costs per unit becomes, and this is especially true for plastic objects. Investing in Injection Molding is very expensive, and the iteration and innovation costs can become unfeasibly high for smaller lines of products.

That's where this new 3D Print Farm comes in. Not only is it capable of producing objects at a far greater rate (up to 10-20 times as quickly), the production investment is also substantially lower: you can purchase about twenty 3D printers for the cost of one injection system. This should enable producers to achieve higher rates of production, more efficient use of labour, more room for innovation, and better resilience to bankruptcy.

This whole test revolves around the Series 1 Desktop 3D Printer, that has been theoretically designed to go straight to low-volume manufacturing. As Espen Sivertsen, CEO of Type A Machines stated: 'The new 3D Print Cell capabilities draw on the Network and wifi­ready abilities of the Series 1, a massive build volume and economical, modular design: it's a powerful combination.'

This is all very exciting and promising, but as the research data reveals, the differences are minimal for now. The graphs below show data based on three different types of 3D printers, one external 3D printing service and one type injection mold production system. It is assumed that the machines are purchased (which is included in the per-part price). Calculations have based on a sample of three different parts.

As the data shows, Type A Machines' Series 1 Desktop Printer (Blue) can, under very specific circumstances outperform injection modelling in all categories. While the advantage is considerable in lower-range production, as is expected, the differences unfortunately becomes minimal the closer volumes come to the 10,000 mark.

As they explained, 'The reality that 3D printing outperforms injection molding is not surprising in the sub 100 part volume. With all classes of Additive manufacturing being significantly cheaper on a per part basis than injection molding. However the much higher capital costs of the additive industrial systems mean that they cease to be price competitive at volumes between 100 and 200.'

However, the differences between Blue (Series 1 under specific circumstances) and Red (ordinary functioning Series 1) should be closely watched. Once you reach a manufacturing level of 800 parts, 3D printing cannot go on to compete in normal circumstances. Only when running twenty printers under a single operator, while running 'lights off' production, can 3D printing theoretically go on to compete with traditional production methods. When moving beyond 10,000 units, however, even that advantage ceases to count, while you can expect that most large scale production companies easily reach that number.

When operating on a large scale under optimized circumstances, 3D printing doesn't exactly blow injection molding out the water. But these results are nonetheless very impressive and better than most would have predicted.

And they only become more impressive when other advantages of 3D printing technology are considered. Not only are production speeds higher, 3D printing with multiple printers also allows for a far greater level of customization and modification. Doing so with injection molding would dramatically increase the prices. And, of course, 3D printing can achieve levels of geometry that traditional production methods cannot easily reach.

And finally, 3D printing technology is a sector that is still fully in development, with new innovations and optimizations being introduced every month. This should, in the years to come, provide 3D printing with an even greater advantage. This means that FDM printers are nothing to laugh about.

So to come back to the question: Is 3D printing technology a viable and affordable alternative to injection molding production? The answer is, as this study suggests: yes, just about. While traditional production methods are still the better option for large scale production, FDM 3D printers are perfectly capable of competing or even outperforming them on a lower level (sub 1000 objects).

For more on Type A Machines' 3D print farms, see this short clip:

Posted in 3D Printing Company

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Ace McAceFace wrote at 10/6/2016 9:42:38 PM:

Who is the girl in the video and why shouldn't she want to be with me?

Matthew Hyslop wrote at 6/14/2016 1:47:27 PM:

"FDM 3D printers are perfectly capable of competing or even outperforming them on a lower level" Firstly this article is brilliant for so many cost-effective reasons however this statement is true for parts with what mechanical strength? It's been 2 years since this article was written and Type A Mahcines have not introduced any industry-grade plastics which can match the uniform strength of injection moulding plastics. You would not use injection moulding to print the organic parts I think are being talked about in this article. This article is not valid as injection moulding is used to create industry grade parts, not organic models like the model of a church/ city shown on the left side of the image in this article.

Chrigui wrote at 1/9/2016 5:11:19 PM:

whats the name of the 3d printer in the photo please ?

Lloyde Mencke wrote at 11/3/2015 3:33:37 PM:

Can 3D printing be used with biodegradeable materials.

Johnson McGee wrote at 9/15/2015 11:57:22 PM:

I didn't realize that 3D printing was so much more affordable than injection molding. My friend works at a warehouse that does injection molding. He says that the market is stable for injection molding. Despite 3D printing becoming more mainstream, it will hold strong. What're the differences between printing and molding?

Nick wrote at 11/8/2014 10:31:28 AM:

This only seems to address cost, it doesn't address strength, surface finish, accuracy or and other of the major pitfalls of 3d printing. Yes, some FDM machines may appear to rival SLS, but SLS does not even nearly rival the quality of injection moulding. What about labour and and maintenance? If you have 50 machines, you have 50 machines to go wrong, you have 50 machines to calibrate too - what it one machine is printing above the required tolerance and another below? However, this is still exciting despite being a little utopian.

S wrote at 11/7/2014 2:13:56 AM:

with resin casting can you cast multiple colours into the same item? such as a two or three coloured phone case? thanks

Brett wrote at 11/6/2014 5:14:12 PM:

Lets not forget that we can use our 3d prints to make the molds in which we do our resin castings. Its just too expensive and time consuming to print multiple parts from my printer. All i have to do is make one part and cover it with silicon and use that mold for my resin. Molds also will not last forever so whenever I need a new one I have the original copy on hand.

Laird Popkin wrote at 11/6/2014 1:58:42 PM:

3D printing is fantastic for small-volume production, and having software to manage farms of printers "lights out" is great, but realistically it's far too complex to be a reasonable option for large volume production. Once an injection molding machine is running, it can stamp out parts for near-zero cost, with minimal operator effort compared to 3d printing. The other option they leave out is resin casting. For manufacturing small volumes, resin casting is much faster than 3d printing - you can cast a part in 5 minutes that might take many hours to print, making it the right option for making dozens to hundreds of copies. 3D printing's advantages are low entry cost, and ability to produce unique items. The advantage of being able to set up a 'factory' for the cost of a few printers is very real. And the ability to make things that injection molding can't, such as personalized items, is fundamental. Better to focus on that.

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