Friday, October 7. 2011
Let's be honest, 3D printing is pretty darn cool. The possibilities seem endless; one day we'll all sit at home, download designs, and additively fabricate everything we need using our home 3d printer. Well that's the theory, at least.
The reality is that 3D printing, while still cool, has been around for 25 years, is still somewhat limited in it's capabilities and is usually more expensive than traditional manufacturing technologies. But we've been hearing how affordable 3D printing has become, right? Yes we have. If you compare the current prices to those even ten years ago, 3D printing is cheaper. Compared to conventional methods of rapid prototyping (the most common use for 3D printers) 3D printing is often cheaper. If a product is fully or semi-customized, 3D printing might be cheaper. However, for true paradigm-busting applications, such as on-demand manufacturing of standard parts (not everything need or should be customized) 3D printing is most often more expensive than conventional manufacturing. A significant run of 3D printed plastic parts just won't compete on price with injection molding. Ditto laser-sintered stainless steel versus traditional machining. If you want 1 or maybe 50 pieces 3D printing might be your best option, even for standard parts. Beyond a certain number however, more traditional methods will almost always be lower cost. Why is this? The finished product is the same, the materials seem the same; why should there be a significant price difference?
In short, three major factors work to raise 3D printing prices. Some of these are unavoidable, some are by choice but all are serving to limit the development of novel applications for 3D printing. In this post I want to examine one such factor: the price of the equipment.
3D Printers Are Expensive
A primary driver of 3D printing prices is the initial cost of the equipment. For commercial-grade equipment this capital investment starts in the tens of thousands of dollars and can go as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars - or more - for a single machine. These are precision engineered and manufactured machines that are produced in limited quantities. Unlike inkjet printers, microwave ovens and flat screen televisions, they haven't been around long enough or sold in sufficient quantities to have been designed to be affordable; they are designed to work, sometimes regardless of cost. One look inside will convince you of this. Whereas a peek inside an inkjet printer will reveal primarily plastic parts, that of a 3D printer will reveal significant aluminum and steel. Although less expensive and homebrew versions of 3D printers do exist their tolerances and accuracy, while having improved significantly, cannot match commercial-grade machines.
Equipment is Paid for Over the Life of the Machine
To justify such an investment businesses need to at least recoup that investment over the life of the machine. For a simple example, suppose a company spends $100k on a machine that it thinks will have a lifetime of 5 years. That machine better generate at least $20k per year in revenue (this is equivalent to straight-line depreciation). If that company uses the machine to fabricate one item per week, for 52 weeks per year, each item will need to have incorporated into the cost nearly $400 just to account for initial capital investment.Even if the machine is run once a day, seven days a week, each item will still have more than $50 in equipment costs. Compare this, for example, with a similarly priced commercial grade CNC router that can cut into parts, tens or even hundreds of sheets of 4' by 8' plywood per day. Per part equipment cost might only be pennies.
Equipment Cost Contribution to 3D Printed Part Prices
(Equipment Price: $100k, Lifetime: 5 Years)
|3D Printed Parts Per Week||$/Part|
Part Production Capabilities Are Limited
Further exacerbating this is the fact that machine production capability is limited. Build envelopes are relatively small and build times are relatively long. One cubic foot build envelopes are the common so that $400, or $50, or whatever the per part contribution is, ends up being priced into something you can very likely hold with one hand. And unlike conventional machinery with similar build envelopes (e.g. commercial mills) build times can take hours, severely limiting the actual number of parts a machine can produce, even when running 24/7.
Prices Will Drop When More Applications Exist
3D printing equipment prices will likely come down only when the volume of printers sold can justify the development of less expensive methods and materials of manufacture. There seems to be little incentive for existing major manufacturers to truly push down the hardware price point to increase sales, if more applications (i.e. use of consumables) do not exist. Although bottom up efforts through open source and inexpensive printer options may help to economize hardware design and manufacturing, there will need to be broader market applications for 3D printing before equipment prices come down significantly.
3D printing is an exciting technology with great potential. However, the high cost compared to traditional manufacturing limits the development of new applications. Some of the factors to blame for high cost - such as the high cost of manufacturing precision machinery in limited quantities - are perhaps unavoidable. Others, maybe not.
3D Additive Fabrication, Inc. (3dAddFab) is a start up company located in Colorado, USA. 3dAddFab provides high quality 3D printing that is easy to price and order, at a lower cost than existing fabricators.