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3D Printing: The Impact of Post-Processing – Part 3 of 3-Part Series – Impact: Secondary Issues

Excerpt from White Paper by Todd Grimm

In last week’s blog, Todd closely examined the primary impact of post-processing on time and cost at six automotive, consumer product, medical device, sporting goods and architecture companies. This week, he outlines what those companies considered to be secondary, yet important, issues associated with post-processing.

Post-processing’s impact is far more widespread than the cost of labor and the delays to schedules. While considered to be secondary issues by the six companies, the impact on quality, staffing, facilities and safety cannot be ignored.

Quality

Ultimately, the quality of 3D printed parts is in the hands of the part finishers that wield X-Acto knives, sandpaper and spray nozzles for media blasting or water jetting. The medical device company noted that maintaining consistency and accuracy across many copies of the same part is difficult when manual labor is involved.

For intricate parts with delicate features, a consumer products company said that it often opts to build a duplicate just in case the original is damaged or broken. Making duplicates increases cost and consumes valuable 3D printer capacity.

Staffing

For those that have the budget to hire post-processing personnel, the issue becomes one of finding the right talent. According to a consumer product company’s engineering manager, “Post-processing is kind of an art form.” Part finishing requires a unique skill set and a unique personality.

To maintain the quality of a 3D printed part, the post-processing personnel must have model-making skills: manual dexterity and experience with the tools at their disposal. Yet, they must demonstrate those skills while under intense pressure to delivery rapidly. Of the entire labor pool, only a small percentage possess this combination of skill and temperament, which complicates the hiring process.

Facilities

Floor space is required to house the staff, workbenches and post-processing equipment. As stated earlier, a ratio of one-half to one square foot per square foot of 3D printer space will be needed in many cases. This space can be an impediment for those that don’t have an option to expand into existing areas; an expense for those that have to take on construction; or an ongoing cost for those that have internal cross-charges for floor space used by the department.

Another cost consideration is the purchase of the workbenches and equipment, which will run into the thousands of dollars for the typical, yet small, 3D printer lab. There is also the additional cost to run utilities, such as electrical, water and air lines, to the equipment.

Safety

Safe operations, safe handling and safe disposal are sources of hidden costs that many do not account for until after the implementation of a 3D printer. According to the medical device company, the organization has a rigorous safety program, which means that more safety resources are required for each employee added to the post-processing staff. Additionally, it noted that the 3D printing operation is the largest generator of hazardous waste in its entire R&D facility. Proper disposal of hazardous waste, generated during post-processing, is quite costly.

OFFICE OPERATIONS

In a lab environment, the issues and limitations created by post-processing are impediments to throughput and part quality, as well as a drain on budgets and resources. In a design or engineering area, these issues are significant barriers to adoption.

Three of the six companies expressed an immediate desire to deploy 3D printing in office areas while maintaining the existing 3D printing lab. The advantage of distributed 3D printing is that a designer or engineer would have quicker turnaround — both for office-built and lab-built parts. Placing 3D printers in the office, the self-serve model is more responsive because it sidesteps the work queue of the lab. Meanwhile, the lab is more responsive because it offloads the work for basic models and prototypes.


Office deployment is not reasonable when primary post-processing is required.

Yet, all agree that office deployment is not reasonable when primary post-processing is required. The architecture firm cited a messy and unsightly work area; the automotive company cited chemicals and equipment; and a consumer products companies cited the high burdened labor rate for engineers to execute part finishing.

For 3D printing in the office to become realistic, it must mimic the workflow of a full-feature 2D printer or a digital camera. It becomes realistic when a single device outputs ready-to-use items with no requirement for additional labor, equipment and floor space. It becomes a viable option when skill, temperament and safety are no longer considerations.

Eliminate post-processing and it becomes feasible to place 3D printers within the workgroups that need the models and prototypes. Eliminate post-processing and 3D printer labs become more efficient, more responsive and less costly.

CONCLUSION

Post-processing is a non-value-added function that is both a burden and a bottleneck. Without it, as Rize has accomplished with their Augmented Polymer Deposition (APD) 3D printing technology, the promise of a simple, fast and automated digital workflow becomes a reality for all parts, whether simple or complex in design. In that new reality, 3D printing adoption will accelerate, and the breadth of applications will expand — for organizations of all types and sizes and for every industry and market.