EIght Reasons (Small)
A decade ago, there were predictions that AM service bureaux would disappear. The premise was that as system costs declined, every company would have in-house capabilities, rendering service bureaux obsolete.
There are eight reasons that the demise of service bureaux will not occur. In these eight reasons, there is also a cautionary tale for those trying to justify the purchase of a new AM system. The bottom line is that a proposal based on the elimination of service bureau expenditures will threaten the success of your operations, as described in reason #1.
1. If all you have is a hammer... everything looks like a nail.
To keep things simple, consider a company that now just one AM system. Can it do the job for all applications while meeting all requirements? There is no need to identify the system because in all cases the answer is, “No.” If there were one technology that could do it all, there would be no need for alternatives. And AM labs around the world would not need an arsenal of systems that include multiple technologies.
A system justification based on the elimination of service expenditures forces all project onto that one system, whether or not it can do the job. The outcome puts your AM initiative in jeopardy. Internal customers become dissatisfied, and they either return to the old standby processes for all future work or take matters into their own hands and buy parts on the outside. Meanwhile, your new system sits idle.
The hammer and nail analogy builds from reasons #2 and #3.
For the most part, AM technologies are not competitive. Although they may overlap, few share the same strengths and limitations. Use service bureaux to fill the capability gap between what you have and what your customers need. Pairing a technology with the project’s requirements will produce optimal results.
Materials are the life-blood of AM. Without the right material for the job, AM is not a viable option. To expand its use and broaden the applications, manufacturers have introduce a lot of materials, spanning plastics, metals, ceramic, sand and even glass.
There is no technology that can make parts in all these material classes. So, buy a system that makes parts in the most commonly used material class and outsource projects for all others.
Another reason to turn to service bureaux is to have access to all the materials for your technology. To meet your customers’ needs, offer the materials with the highest demand and turn to a service bureau for those you don’t carry.
If you have the internal resources to handle all your AM jobs, you have too much capacity. In off-peak periods, your systems sit idle for hours on end. That is an expensive proposition, and I can guarantee that management has taken note of this fact.
A better, and more cost-effective approach, is to own just enough AM equipment to handle the average daily workload. When the peak demand occurs, outsource the overflow.
Turning a raw part into a pretty showpiece, pristine pattern or beautiful product takes a lot of hard work. The labor hours can add up to big costs. If you are doing this work as a sideline to your real job, there is also a very large opportunity cost.
Make a wise financial decision and offload this time-consuming and tedious task to a service bureau. They have the staff and the skill to take your STL file and deliver a show-quality piece or market-ready product.
6. Secondary processes
With the growth in the low-cost, personal 3D printers, service bureaux have lost much of the early model and prototype work. Those basic applications, where speed of delivery is valued over quality, are well served with in-house systems.
In response, service bureaux offer skill and expertise in the processes that convert a part into something much, much more. Urethane castings, plated parts, investment castings are just a few of the secondary processes offered.
Rather than building a supply chain and gaining the expertise, outsource this work to a company that already has everything in place.
7. Try before you buy
You will never know everything about a technology until you start using it. Therefore, a purchasing decision may be ill advised if it is based on what you read and what you hear.
Before making an investment, trial the technology through a service bureau. Discover what is realistic in terms of part quality and uncover the operational considerations. The service bureau will likely reveal the truths that only an operator will know in an attempt to convince you to keep outsourcing.
Armed with the facts, you will be making an educated purchasing decision.
8. Contract manufacturing
With each passing year, manufacturing end-use parts will grow substantially. When it is your time to take this step forward, ask yourself it makes more sense to outsource the work to an contract manufacturer that uses AM. Turning a prototyping lab into a production operation isn’t a simple matter. AM’s unique qualities and inherent limitations require a top-to-bottom process change and a shift in measurement, monitoring and control practices.
Qualified service bureaux have already done the hard work. Why take on this challenge when best practices and standards are still being developed? A better approach is to contract the services until such time that your demand is predictable, investment is justifiable and process is stable.
Using service bureaux in conjunction with your in-house systems will give you the best results and lowest overall costs while extending your capabilities and AM applications. That, in turn, will make your internal customers and management very happy, which will entrench AM in your design, engineering and manufacturing processes.