Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are Open Source 3D Printers Really Suitable for Business?

Guest post by Mark Cook, Z Corp. VP of Research and Development

I have to make a disclaimer before going further with this blog. Much of what I will write here is my own viewpoint from what I have read or from conversations I have had with others in the field of 3D printing. The topic is open source 3DP. There are a number of FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers available now in “kit” or open source form. This basically means that anyone can search the internet and find all of the components necessary to build their own FDM printer. Some have assembled the components and offer them for purchase as a kit that you assemble. At first I thought this would be a great way for technical schools to teach about using 3DP as a design tool while at the same time teaching about basic electronics, motion control, and programming. But then I started wondering how many times the kit could be disassemble and reassembled as new students enrolled in the appropriate course. Open source clearly is a way to buy into 3D printing technology at a relatively bargain price. Still, the cost is in the thousands of dollars and from what I can gather the printed part quality is not, at present, all that impressive. Layer thickness is about .012 of an inch which means distinct vertical lines throughout the part. Feature size limit is .080 of an inch which means that many small features simply cannot be printed.

In his blog last week, Al Dean of Develop3D had this to say:

"Many have been talking about the mass adoption of 3D printing for sometime, but I’m not entirely convinced it's going to turn into that world where everyone has a 3D printer in their home for a good long while, if at all. At present, there are dramatically lower cost options available, but these are aimed at the hobbiest looking to take on some new technology and give it a whirl. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but when you’re a professional organisation looking to bring your prototyping needs in house, you need something that’s lower maintenance, that produces more repeatable results and that you can get high-level support for when problems occur. Z Corp admitted that its not looking to dramatically erode the price levels (with the new ZPrinters 150 and 250) rather continuing to lower things gradually as it can conduct cost economics and redesign work to bring the cost down in increments. After all, these products are aimed at professionals, as they most likely will for many years to come, and that means that a robust product that produces the results, is more desirable than chopping the margins out of the machines in a dramatic manner."

Who then is buying open source FDM printers? It isn’t clear to me that there is an industrial, true business application for open source 3DP. Do you agree? Let me know.


  1. Basically Falling prices are bringing 3D printing to smaller business but 3D printing is already affordable for small business if they use the smarter option of outsourcing their 3D printing to an online service.

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  2. The problem is that the open source 3D priners aren't meant or suitable for business applications in many respects. Out sourcing is much too time consuming and expensive compared to bringing 3DP in house. Someone who has our ZPrinter in house can produce a model for $2-$3 cubic inch, on demand in a couple of hours, which not only means that the printer pays for itself very quickly, it also means that designers can iterate more often and much faster, resulting in better designs.