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The hidden benefits of reducing 3D printing material costs

Whenever a new manufacturing technology enters the market, it’s inevitable that professionals will want to know how much it will cost to implement. It’s not surprising. With any sort of large-scale manufacturing, costs must be tightly controlled in order to ensure the operation delivers the best possible return-on-investment. Additive manufacturing has been no exception to this rule, with the long-term costs being an ongoing concern for manufacturers, despite the considerable benefits different AM technologies can provide.

With additive manufacturing, a key concern is the cost of materials. For example, while the dream of 3D printing with metal has now been made a reality, the materials involved are still quite expensive. This means that manufacturers are still reluctant to implement metal printing on an industrial scale. Material wastage must therefore be considered carefully as part of the overall business case for AM as a production tool.

The following areas represent a good starting point for reducing material costs within your own operation:

 

Consider material savings during the design stage

Any solid area of a 3D-printed part will increase the overall material costs, so where possible, look for opportunities to hollow out your part.

 

Minimise the need for support structures

Support structures remain a necessary evil for a number of 3D printing technologies. As these are typically printed using the same material as the finished part, they represent a hidden material cost that should be kept to the minimum. While certain AM processes can now make use of dissolvable support structures, these (and the solvents used to dissolve them) will still represent an ongoing material cost.

Modern CAD software platforms offer specialist tools for generating support structures and optimising part orientation to keep their use to the minimum. We would recommend taking full advantage of these features, both in terms of speed, and because these programs will calculate the optimal part orientation for minimising supports automatically, and may well arrive at a solution that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to a human user. As always, take full advantage of opportunities for strategic automation!

 

Recycle material wherever possible

One major advantage additive manufacturing offers over traditional subtractive techniques is the lack of scrap material that must be thrown away at the end of a project. However, if the goal is to completely eliminate material waste from the process, we still have a long way to go. The issue of material contamination during printing means that reusing 100% of the leftover material is not possible with powder-based printing, for example. While leftover powder can be mixed with new material and reused, it requires careful sieving first to ensure particle size remains constant. Research is ongoing into finding a perfect solution to this challenge. In particular, Renishaw are conducting ongoing research into printing conditions that will minimise any physical or chemical changes to printing materials, although these will require specialist printers, such as their AM 250 model.

For filament-based printing, some researchers have proposed reducing material costs by creating new filament out of recycled plastic, although this technology seems more suitable for the hobbyist market at this stage, as the resulting materials will not be fit for industrial applications. Nonetheless, the concept is a good one and warrants further investigation, both in terms of reducing production costs and improving additive manufacturing’s overall sustainability.

 

Measure rates of build failure

If a build fails during the printing process, it doesn’t just result in a loss of time for the engineers’ the material used in the failed build cannot be reused. We would strongly recommend that you log any instances of build failure as part of your day-to-day operations in order to identify any ongoing issues. Ideally, this process should be automated, both to increase the chances of identifying any issues before full-on build failure, and to allow all build data to be collated in an actionable form. This will not only help avoid any unnecessary material waste, but also enhance the efficiency of your entire operation.

 

Increased sustainability helps additive manufacturing enter uncharted territory

While there is still work to be done in terms of optimising the reusability of additive manufacturing materials, the potential rewards are great. As material science improves and new methods of 3D printing enter the market, we expect to see far more efficient, sustainable AM operations establishing themselves. This will not only help minimise production costs, but also provide new opportunities for utilising AM in new ways, in new settings. For example, we might see tools and spare parts generated on-site in challenging or remote locations on an as-needed basis, used once, then broken back down into printable material when they are no longer needed.

As such methods become viable and become reflected in industry best practice, we are sure to see additive manufacturing enter a new stage in its evolution, in ways we’d never have predicted.