Recently, I joined nearly 100 other members of the manufacturing community and attended a 3D printing open house hosted by Computer Aided Technology Inc. (CATI), in Buffalo Grove, IL. CATI is a dealer for Objet Geometries Ltd., which makes three lines of 3D printers: desktop, Eden and Connex.

“The parts made by 3D printers often are ready to use immediately, while others might need some additional post-processing,” Derek Ellis, digital prototyping specialist, told the crowd to open the event. “Many manufacturers use 3D printing because it lets them revise a prototype many times before investing in mass production.”

Ellis then noted several other key benefits of 3D printing. The technology:

1. Prints various types of parts (i.e., multiple jobs) at once, although a manufacturer can’t add to a printing job once it is started.

2. Allows for creating multiple-component and multiple-material parts.

3. Increases and improves collaboration between the design and production departments.

4. Speeds up field test applications through rapid tooling and the quick creation of casting patterns.

5. Improves customer satisfaction. “Architects, for example, constantly redesign and makes changes to parts,” says Ellis. “3D printing gives them that flexibility.”

Ellis then took questions from several participants.

>Is it possible to build parts larger than the machine bed in the 3D printer?
“No, but 3D printing can bind together two parts that can be placed on the machine bed,” says Ellis. “An auto manufacturer made a prototype instrument panel in this manner.”

>How stable is the photopolymer material once the parts are made?
“After a part is made, it should be left alone,” says Ellis. “Manufacturers need to make sure the part is never placed in direct sunlight, even if the part was made a long time ago. As a precaution, we recommend manufacturers not ship parts in hot weather if the customer is not there to promptly receive it. Parts left in a delivery truck, like that from UPS, can melt.”

>What is the average material cost of a part that is 3D printed?
“On average, the cost is $5 to $7 per cubic inch for a finished part,” says Ellis.

>How much maintenance does a 3D printer require?
“Generally, the annual maintenance cost is about 10 percent of the purchase price,” says Ellis. “The photopolymer and supporting materials are consumables, as are the machine’s print heads. Support materials cost about half that of the photopolymers. Print heads have an average life of 2,000 hours. However, they can be swapped out between Objet machines and manufacturers can install them.”

To close the event, attendees got to see a 3D printer making usable parts. After a waiting in line a couple minutes, I saw the machine in action up close.

Back and forth the printer’s head went across the machine bed, depositing 16-micron ultra-thin layers of photopolymer material in specific locations to create several types of parts. After about 25 minutes, the finished parts were removed from the machine and displayed.

Like many other attendees, I had been enlightened about 3D printing and how it is changing part design and creation—now and for the foreseeable future.