Three BIG Challenges for Using FDM 3D Printing at Scale
FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) is by far the most common 3D Printing technology used in the industry. For many users, it is the first Additive Manufacturing technology they use when they get started with 3D printing. It’s also the first image that pops into your mind when you think of 3D printers. The applications, from a microscopic scale to 3D printing houses, are endless; every day we see a new use for 3D printing. Not only do we see FDM applied to different scales of objects but also to new industries, the potential is limitless! When we take FDM 3D printing from theory to practice we find its application in a number of settings. Schools, internal production labs, and service bureaus are just an example of the versatility of FDM for different use cases and users. While each of these use cases presents unique challenges for the application of FDM 3D printing, it’s clear to see why FDM is usually the first choice when it comes to selecting a 3D printing technology. In this blog we will take a closer look at the production challenges of FDM 3D printing and consider how scaling the quantity of parts produced affects the operation of a school 3D printing lab, an internal lab, and a service bureau.
Why choose FDM?
FDM is well known for its flexibility and versatility; the technology itself is quite cost-effective with 3D printers starting as low as $200 USD. With both desktop and industrial versions, FDM is highly adaptable to a variety of settings and can produce parts to any standard of finish, from quick prototypes to end use. In addition to the fixed costs being low, the variable costs of this technology are also highly economical. For general upkeep and maintenance, repairing and replacing parts and motors, and electricity, FDM is by far the most cost-effective 3D printing technology to use. One of the strongest selling points for FDM 3D printing is the variety of materials that are available. From chocolate to plastics and metal, just about anything that can be made into a filament can be used in some type of FDM printer.
Challenges of FDM 3D Printing
With all these benefits, come some clear drawbacks. While it’s easy to use, mastering FDM 3D printing requires a lot of tinkering and patience. There are many print quality issues common to FDM such as warping, step lines, stringing, under/over extrusion, layer shifting, and many, many more. While there are solutions to all of these problems, it can take multiple attempts in order to get the desired finished look. FDM machines have a lot of moving parts and settings which need to be adjusted according to the geometry of the part, the environment the printer is in, and the expected print quality.
Another clear disadvantage comes with printing more parts or batches of items. Since most desktop FDM 3D printers are designed to print one part or a small number of parts at the same time, it can be a challenge to scale the volume of production. For industrial FDM 3D printers, which can have a much larger print bed and can handle more parts per batch, the challenge is to ensure the right settings are used or risk the failure of an entire batch of parts and the associated costs.
The Problem of Scaling FDM 3D Printing
When using FDM 3D printing technology in a school, internal lab, or service bureau setting, the above-mentioned challenges multiply as the amount of parts processed increases. Little issues that are quickly resolved when printing one or two parts per day become great challenges when you’re working with hundreds of parts, dozens of users, and multiple machines.
Dealing with A LOT of 3D files
When it comes to scaling production, the first thing to consider is how to manage the increase in the amount of 3D files you will process. A general problem of the 3D printing process is that it requires a lot of steps to ensure a 3D file is printable. Reviewing and repairing 3D files, checking for common problems in geometry, and analyzing the printability with respect to specific materials requires some expertise and several software. If you’re only processing 1-2 parts per day, this isn’t a huge concern and using some free tools will work just fine. When you start to process more than 10-15 parts per day or even hundreds of parts, you can quickly see how frustrating and time consuming it can be to use multiple software.
Specifically related to FDM, the biggest challenge of dealing with a lot of different 3D files is dealing with a lot of different FDM settings. As we have discussed, FDM 3D printing requires a lot of fine tuning of settings to ensure a quality print. Ensuring the right settings for each material, machine type, expected quality, and geometry takes time and doing all this for hundreds of parts in an efficient way is no small task. You might also consider how to store past printer settings in the case of re-orders, printing batches of the same item, or iterations for prototyping. File management and workflow efficiency are significant issues for FDM 3D printing at scale. These problems are of particular importance for internal labs and service bureaus.
For internal labs, the greatest challenge is managing file versions, print settings, and managing different machines. When prototyping or tooling, you will have multiple versions of the same file with various modifications or optimizations. You might also have multiple attempts at printing with different FDM printer settings as you iterate. And to make things just a little more complicated, you will likely have different FDM machines for different materials or processes, such as for metal or plastic.
For a service bureau, the biggest challenge is optimizing the production workflow from receiving a file from the client to reviewing and repairing the files, to production, and ensuring good communication throughout the whole process. In the case of re-orders of the same part, having a record of the FDM printer settings simplifies the experience for customers and staff.
Managing Multiple Machines
Alliteration aside, managing multiple machines in any 3D printing lab is a real challenge when it comes to FDM technologies. Because of the small batch sizes for many FDM printers, it becomes increasingly important to identify which machines are available according to the material type and to be able to assign parts to a printer. First, let’s take a look at identifying available machines. While you might have many printers to accommodate your many parts needing to be printed, not every FDM printer can print every part or material. Here is where it’s important to determine which part is best suited to which machine. Let’s take a quick example, imagine you have three FDM printers, A, B, and C. Each printer is set with a different material and has a different size printbed. Now, you have 30 parts to print; clearly, you can’t just divide them up evenly, with each printer assigned 10 parts. Some of the parts are too large for printer C, some require metal which can only be done on printer A, and some have been printed successfully on printer B in the past. To manually go over each part and assign it to a printer would take valuable time from your team and present opportunities for mistakes or missed information. And once you’ve decided which printer will print which part, you will also have the challenge of deciding which part to print first and when the part is expected to be completed. Because of these specificities, managing multiple 3D printers is a particular issue for FDM 3D printing.
In a service bureau, traceability is of the utmost importance. Being able to quickly identify which part is where can be the difference between loyal, repeat customers, and lost customers. Clients want to know where their part is within the workflow and when they can expect to receive the item. Managers and owners want to know how machines are being utilized, which technologies are causing problems, and the ROI of each 3D printer in the fleet. Production engineers want to know which machines are best suited to which type of project and how they can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of every production run. For all of these cases, traceability is the answer and finding a tool that can do it, is the million dollar question.
In the case of a school 3D printing lab, it’s common to have multiple FDM 3D printers located in different classrooms of a building or even on different campuses being managed by one program coordinator. The challenge, in this case, is to know which machines are available without being physically present.
Coordinating Multiple FDM Users
As discussed earlier, FDM 3D printing has a lot of settings and configurations which need to be adjusted depending on the project, material, and machine. When you have multiple users using the same machines, this can create an issue of traceability, present a challenge for collaboration, and be a blocker of knowledge sharing. Knowing which machine is being used by which person at which time is important in every 3D printing lab. Whether it’s a makerspace, fablab, school, internal lab, or service bureau, machine and user traceability is a key aspect of management. If you’ve ever consulted a support forum, you know how important collaboration is to learning and developing a skill set. It’s no different for 3D printing; with multiple FDM users, being able to share knowledge of optimal print settings, experience with certain materials, or just knowing the quirks of a certain machine can make all the difference between a successful print and a flop. Additionally, if your FDM machines are located in different buildings, campuses, or even on different continents, your team will face a particular challenge of knowledge sharing.
We’ve seen this with a lot of MNC (Multi-National Corporations) who are evolving their traditional prototyping methods with Additive Manufacturing and looking for ways to share their knowledge with colleagues in different business units. Given that Additive Manufacturing is just beginning to show its true potential and applications, it’s clear to see why sharing knowledge within a team is so critical to the success of any Additive Manufacturing program.
How can you manage the challenge of FDM 3D printing at scale?
Now that we’ve taken an in-depth look at the problems of FDM 3D printing with a large volume of parts, let’s take a look at a tool that is addressing these needs. Fabpilot is built by the team at Sculpteo to handle industrial production scales and optimize their own production. With streamlined file analysis and repair, file management and versioning, auto-routing for machine scheduling, direct FDM machine integration, a historical record of settings and configurations, and traceability, Fabpilot is an ideal solution for the challenges of FDM printing.