Should you finish your 3D-printed parts in-house?
10 August 2017
We’ve looked at a lot of different aspects of the finishing process for 3D-printed parts over the past few months, from cleaning away waste material and removing supports to achieving a smooth finish and adding specialist finishes, such as metal plating. With such a wide range of options available, a tremendous range of looks and mechanical qualities can now be achieved for both prototypes and production parts.
But how do you actually put all this into practice? The reality is that time and resources are a precious commodity, and a number of cutting-edge finishing techniques involve specialist equipment and skills that may not be available in-house. It’s therefore important to consider your long-term goals carefully and decide whether it may be (at the present point in time) a better option to outsource some or all of your finishing process.
Let’s look at the possible approaches and their potential benefits…
Finishing 3D-printed parts in-house
Finishing parts in-house theoretically provides the greatest level of flexibility, as your teams can utilise any techniques currently at their disposal. In practice though, it’s a bit more complicated. Finishing exclusively in-house means you are limited to the finishing options that you have the equipment and the internal expertise for. You therefore need to decide which specific services you will use most frequently, and whether there is a strong business case for bringing them in-house and investing in the associated technology.
For example, vapour polishing and tumbling are both highly effective techniques for finishing large quantities of 3D-printed parts, but will require specialist equipment, which staff would need training to make full use of. If these techniques are only to be used in limited capacity, the potential benefits may not justify the initial investment. By way of contrast, mono-colour spray-painting for simple parts requires very little specialist equipment beyond the painting supplies and a properly ventilated spraying area, so this can easily be done in-house.
Outsourcing your finishing
There are an increasing number of companies providing specialist finishing services for additive manufacturing applications. Germany’s DyeMansion, for example, provide a wide range of finishing and colouring options, specifically for 3D-printed plastic parts. This means you can have full confidence that your parts will be finished to the highest standard, although it does mean you will have to arrange them to be shipped to your chosen specialist, which will need to be factored into your project workflows. And of course, the ongoing costs must be considered if these services will be deployed on a regular basis.
Bear in mind that you do not necessarily have to work with a dedicated AM specialist for certain finishing options. For example, if you are looking at adding metal plating to a part, an electroplating specialist will be able to deliver the required service to the standard you require, provided you are clear about your requirements and are able to supply them with all the necessary information about your 3D printing materials.
Combining both approaches
It’s quite feasible to combine both approaches to finishing parts on an as-needed basis. For example, simple production runs that will only require cleaning and polishing could be done in-house, while one-off parts that require multi-colour finishing or metal plating (for example) could be outsourced to specialists.
So which approach is right for you?
It all depends on what sort of 3D-printed parts you are producing, the volumes they need to be produced in, and the resources and expertise you are able to access. Above all, we would advise you to consider your options carefully and be realistic about the quality you are able to achieve in-house before making a decision.
It’s also important to remember that what’s right for your operation may change over time. If you are currently relying on AM technology for prototyping and limited-run production, outsourcing any complex finishing work would be a logical choice. But should those parts and prototypes be moved into large-scale production in the future, you may reach the point where bringing more work in-house would prove advantageous.
This is very much part of a wider trend within our industry. As additive manufacturing continues to establish itself in production workflows, we expect to see manufacturers start bringing more aspects of the finishing process in-house, and even begin creating specialist roles within their operations. The challenge will then be to ensure that the new technology and processes has been successfully folded into the existing workflows, in order to deliver the best possible return-on-investment.
There will certainly be a learning curve involved, but our industry can only benefit from this process in the long run, as AM professionals are empowered to deliver more sophisticated results, in the most efficient, cost-effective manner.