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Many people who are new to 3D printing can be surprised by the price of a part. But did you know that 3D printing is often the most cost-effective option? Let’s take a look at some of the cost drivers of 3D printing and the scenarios in which 3D printing is most cost effective.

When Is 3D Printing Most Cost Effective?

3D printing is the most cost effective in cases of prototyping. In particular, 3D printing is valuable in prototyping because you can eliminate mistakes or errors in your product now instead of in the middle of a costly mass production.

For physical product development, prototyping is a critical step in the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. 3D printing is often the fastest, most reliable method of creating a prototype. You can quickly 3D print a design, test it, and then make changes or new iterations of the prototype until it’s ready for production.

Jig and Fixture Components

3D printing has also become a cost-effective method for the creation of jig and fixture components. With jigs and fixtures, 3D printing can ensure part quality.

Jigs and fixtures are manufacturing tools employed to produce interchangeable and identical components. Jigs guide tools, and fixtures are work-holding devices. These tools are used extensively for machining, assembling, and validating large numbers of parts.

With 3D printing, jig and fixture costs are reduced significantly through part count reductions, simplified production of complex geometries, and even lightweighting, which reduces the weight of a product and improves worker ergonomics.

3D printed medical device

Medical Products

Beyond prototyping and tooling, 3D printing production of end-use parts can also be cost effective for the medical industry. For example, 3D-printed, patient-specific surgical guides can reduce the time patients spend under the knife, lowering surgical costs and significantly reducing patient recovery times.

Improved Part Functionality

In some cases, we’ve seen improved functionality of complex parts. For example, in the aerospace industry, GE is mass producing 3D-printed jet fuel nozzles. These walnut-sized parts contain a myriad of internal passages that efficiently mix fuel and air. 

A single 3D printed jet fuel nozzle replaces the 20 parts originally needed for the same function. It weighs 25% less than its predecessors, is five times more durable, and is 30% more cost effective.

What Types of Costs Does 3D Printing Eliminate?

3D printing, when applied properly, can reduce or eliminate a number of different costs, including:

  • Material Costs: Through the use of lightweighting strategies, 3D printing can significantly reduce the material used in a part.
  • Assembly Costs: 3D printing allows for part consolidation (i.e., combining multiple parts into one), which reduces both material and labor costs.
  • Tooling Costs: Many objects require custom tools for manufacturing, like an injection mold tool. 3D printing enables direct digital manufacturing, making certain expensive tools obsolete.
  • Production Costs: With design elements like conformal cooling, 3D printed injection mold inserts can reduce scrap rates and cycle times.
  • Inventory Costs: Digital inventories allow for a product to exist virtually. Manufacturers can simply print products on demand instead of stocking physical space with costly surplus.

Cost Factors of 3D Printing

Although there are a number of ways that 3D printing can reduce project costs, it may not be the answer for every manufacturing problem. Here are a few cost drivers of 3D printing to keep in mind:

  • Design Costs: All 3D printing requires a digital CAD file. Typically, a designer or engineer must spend a few hours creating this file, which can radically alter the final cost for finished parts. Optimizing a part for 3D printing may cost more up front, although you may end up saving money in the long run.
  • Labor Costs: While most 3D printers run “lights out” (unattended), they still require an operator to set up, maintain, and unload the machines. Additionally, depending on the design, there may be a significant amount of clean-up to achieve a finished part.
  • Material Costs: In addition to the direct material costs for a part, some technologies may require support structures. Different 3D technologies have other raw material inputs such as argon gas, isopropyl alcohol, or even mineral oil.
  • Downstream Processes: A final part design may require other processes to achieve a finished product. 3D printing is often just the first step in a production chain. For example, in a direct metal laser melted injection mold, the process flow is likely 3D printing, then powder removal, heat treat, wire EDM, mill/turn, sinker EDM, and micropolish. 

traditional manufacturing

When 3D Printing Is Better than Traditional Methods

At 3D Printed Parts, we don’t view 3D printing as a replacement for traditional manufacturing. Instead, we view it as another powerful tool in part production. Here are a few scenarios in which 3D printing may provide an advantage over traditional manufacturing:

  • Low Volume Production: 3D printing of end-use parts can be very economical at different production levels. In initial product investigation or launch, 3D printing saves money over hard tooling in producing minimum viable products. For a part that would traditionally be injection molded, 3D printing can be incredibly cost effective for the first 200 to 20,000 parts. Direct metal laser melting is a productive alternative to low-volume, high-pressure die cast or investment cast components.
  • Mass Customization: Some products suffer from standardization and should instead be tailored to the end user. For example, digital dentistry is a multibillion-dollar industry highly dependent upon 3D printing to produce patient-specific orthodontic appliances.

Is 3D Printing Changing the Supply Chain?

Yes. 3D printing is changing the supply chain by improving companies’ returns on investment (ROI) in virtually all manufacturing sectors.

Companies can be more nimble with capital through the use of 3D printing. Many are finding they don’t need to allocate product budget to tooling without seeing any sales first. It allows manufacturers to follow parallel paths with product launches and ongoing product development and revisions. Testing the product market and making adjustments is so much easier when you’re using 3D printing to manufacture the product.

Creating Equipment on Demand

One of the best examples of this is how our team at 3D Printed Parts was able to print personal protective equipment (PPE) for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the first months of the pandemic, there was a huge increase in the need for PPE and medical equipment for healthcare workers and essential workers. Whether it was a simple face shield or a splitter for a ventilator, we were able to step in and create equipment on demand.

The benefit of 3D printing, in this case, was that we didn’t need a dedicated machine for each part. We could print multiple products from the same machine, decreasing the time frame from need to delivery. You can read more about our COVID response here.

Can 3D Printing Save Money for Your Team?

3D printing offers unique value in typical product development and manufacturing applications through prototyping and manufacturing tools. Most direct costs for design in additive manufacturing can be managed and even significantly reduced. Today, 3D printing is used by many companies to send more innovative, cost-effective products to the marketplace in record time.

Are you ready to take the next step in exploring 3D printing? Take our free 3D printing readiness assessment, or request a quote for your next printing project.