It is now possible to print high quality and accurate prototypes at low cost using desktop 3D printers – and even stack them to create an extensive 3D printer network, as Chris Elsworthy, MD and lead mechanical engineer at CEL-UK explains
3D printing has already established itself as the disruptive technology that, perhaps more than any other, can truly revolutionise the design workflow. Quite simply, it gives design engineers the ability to unleash their creativity and realise prototypes at a speed that would be unthinkable with traditional tooling. So why is it that 3D printers are yet to be a common sight across UK workshops and offices? The answer that many design engineers would probably give is: ‘too big and too expensive’.
With today’s desktop-sized 3D printers, however, it is possible to print high-quality and accurate prototypes at a cost most small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) could afford. Furthermore, a prototype that is larger than a printer’s build volume is no longer an obstacle.
Networking desktop 3d printers
A small, desktop-sized 3D printer can normally handle anything with a footprint that is smaller than an A5 sheet of paper. Prototypes are rarely bigger than that, but sometimes larger prints can exceed the build volume. Even then, however, a large 3D printer isn’t necessarily the answer.
Thanks to software such as Windows 3D Builder, a model can be divided into several smaller parts that can be printed, all in one go, through a network of connected, desktop printers. Once the process is completed, all parts can be reassembled. The beauty of this technique is that it helps speed up the prototyping process – if one print fails, only that print will have to be restarted while the others will continue at speed.
A network of desktop 3D printers also enables design engineers to print and test multiple ideas in parallel and tweak designs as they go. This can, of course, speed up the design process and greatly reduce downtime as engineers don’t have to wait in a queue before they can start their next project. Smaller printers are also generally faster than larger machines: a printer with a large print bed of 200 x 200 x 200mm, for example, can take hours if not days to print one object.
The other advantage is reduced footprint. Unless the workspace is massive, a large 3D printer with a footprint of, say, 1600mm x 800mm x 700mm will be simply too large to sit on a desk. By contrast, a small printer is generally designed to sit on a desktop and also lends itself to stacking. By placing printers one on top of the other, using a ‘piece of furniture’ such as CEL’s Stacker or the floor standing Tree, design engineers can put into place an extensive 3D printer network while keeping footprint to a minimum.
Size often goes hand in hand with price; and the cost of a good quality large-scale 3D printer can range from over £5,000 to £20,000 or more. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, UK companies see cost as one of the main barriers to adopting 3D printing.
By contrast, desktop printers are generally cheaper but no less sophisticated. A good small dual extrusion system can cost as little as £1,000 – meaning that a business could easily afford up to five small 3D printers for the price of one large machine. This is where scalability comes in.
Once a small network of desktop printers is in place, it can easily grow and evolve in line with a business’ needs. Today, integrating new printers into an existing network and controlling them through one interface is quite easy. Ultimately, when it comes to 3D printing in design and prototyping applications, businesses don’t have to be big to think big.
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