Which 3D Printing Option Is Right for Your Small Business?

by Kevin Ackerman, Staples® Contributor

Keyboards aren’t just for typing, touch screens aren’t just for tapping, and mice aren’t just for clicking. These computer peripherals are about more than their actions — they help you turn thoughts into expressions, images into experiences and interfaces into information. In essence, computers, and all the tools that attach to them, give you remarkable, transformative powers. And no accessory demonstrates that concept better than 3D printers.

3D printers give you the ability to turn ideas into objects within hours. Whether it’s with your own printer in the office or one operated by in-store experts, 3D printers can help you and your small business make more happen, literally.

So when should you invest in your own machine to 3D print in house and when should you take your files to a professional 3D printing service? Here’s how to determine which 3D printing option is best for your small business’s needs.

Choosing to 3D Print on Your Own

Chris Milnes, a product designer from Teaneck, NJ, has used both professional services and 3D printed from his home studio, but most recently, he’s mass-produced his own products using his own MakerBot 3D Replicator Desktop 3D Printer. “I’ve been able to produce items that go right into retail,” he says. “The quality is that good.”

By doing his own 3D printing, Milnes has been able to scale his business without increasing labor costs. “The amazing thing about scaling up with this versus any other business is that I can just keep adding 3D printers side by side and use the same files that I did on day one,” he says of his one-man operation. ”I now have seven machines that are printing 24/7.”

But whether it’s one 3D printer or a dozen, frequency of prints is a big factor in deciding whether to invest in a 3D printer for yourself or your business. And tied to that frequency is the question of cost. Put simply, will you use a 3D printer enough to justify its purchase price? “If you’re printing frequently, it almost always makes more sense to bring your printing in house than send it out to a service,” advises Erin Arden, a training manager at MakerBot.

“With fused deposition modeling (also known as FDM), the cost of material is definitely on the lower side of the bunch,” she adds. The plastic used in FDM averages between $50 and $65 for a large spool. According to Arden, you can 3D print more than 400 chess pieces with one spool of filament. So, for the cost of having someone else print your designs, you could be printing dozens more in house.

Joey Neal, vice president of digital products for MakerBot, adds that if you’re going to go the self-printing route, “you may want to use some of the lower-resolution settings to see how it’s printing and make sure it’s exactly what you want. Then you can crank it up to the higher-quality settings once you’ve done a rough print.”

When In-Store 3D Printing Is Best

Rest Devices makes a wearable baby monitor called Mimo with sensors that attach to the infant’s onesie. And while founder Thomas Lipoma admits the company does its 3D printing in-house, he says that if they had had the option to print at a location as convenient as the local Staples® store, they might have gotten their start there. ”In those really early stages when we weren’t using our printer all the time, that would be exactly when we’d want to go to a retail location like Staples to have them print out a couple of prototypes,” he says.

One benefit of printing in store is having access to experts who frequently work with 3D printing files. “If you’re not working with a 3D printer all the time, there’s a lot of things you don’t really catch,” says Lipoma. “Having somebody that’s worked with the printer is so valuable.”

For instance, experts can match how you’ve designed your object with ideal ways to print it, like tilting the print in a certain direction to improve its strength or quality. “Early on, that would’ve been amazing — it would’ve saved us so much time printing parts,” he says.

In addition, if you outsource your small business 3D printing, you also put the responsibility of the printer’s upkeep on someone else. ”Since you’re not an operator, you don’t have to deal with the intricacies of some of the basics of leveling build plates and things like that,” says Neal.

But even if Rest Devices had gone with in-store printing in its early days, today the business would certainly output its objects exclusively in-house, a decision arrived at by gaging the volume of prints they produce. However, the formula for making that decision is different for everyone, says Arden. “There’s really no magical number other than taking a step back, thinking about what your output is, what your priorities are, and whether it’s worth making this investment.”

What Is Best for You?

For Lipoma, the priority wasn’t to own his own 3D printer. It was to do more and move faster. Without 3D printing, it would have cost the company millions more to develop their device and probably would have taken two more years to bring it to market. “We probably went through a couple hundred revisions,” he says.

And now that their product is perfected, they still find ways to incorporate 3D printing into their daily activity. “Instead of hitting that wall where we can no longer make anything, we can make our own parts. We don’t have to actually run into that wall,” Lipoma says. So they continue to innovate by also using 3D printing to create parts to aid in the assembly process, like the assembly robot they designed and 3D printed for one of their manufacturers.

“We can actually use the 3D printer to make machines to then help us make our devices,” says Lipoma.

And that is how one small business does more using 3D printing.

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