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May 23, 2014 — A weekly look at Wyoming business questions from the Wyoming Small Business Development Center (WSBDC), part of WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz, a collection of business assistance programs at the University of Wyoming.
By Cindy Unger, WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz business adviser
“My start-up business is manufacturing parts for custom cars. Would 3-D printing be an option for small manufacturing runs?” Ryan, Casper
3-D printing is the process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. The process is known as “additive technology,” and objects are built up with many very thin layers.
The first commercial 3-D printer was based on a technique called stereolithography and invented by Charles Hull in 1984. Two other types of 3-D printing technology include material jetting and material extrusion. Objects can be made out of exactly the same thermoplastics used in traditional injection molding. Most 3-D printers can print with both ABS plastic, as well as a biodegradable bioplastic called PLA, produced from organic materials.
In addition to printing plastic objects, some material extrusion printers can output other semi-liquid materials, such as cheese, chocolate or concrete. There is even a printer that can build objects from a form of synthetic stone. Other printers build objects by sticking plastic powders, sand or even metals together.
A process called direct metal laser sintering can create metal objects that can be used in place of traditional metal parts in the vast majority of applications. As in the traditional lost-wax casting process, a wax mold is 3-D printed and a plaster mold is poured around it. When heated, the wax melts and is poured away, and then a liquid metal can be poured into the plaster. Other 3-D printing techniques can melt powder granules to form a final object.
So, the answer to your questions is, “yes.” Would the process be affordable for you? Prices for most commercial/industrial 3-D printers start around $10,000 to $20,000 and can go as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars for very high-end machines that can build fully dense metal parts.
Also, most commercial models are large and often floor-standing. Less expensive options include kits and pre-assembled personal hardware. The “Micro,” billed as the first truly consumer 3-D printer, is on the way, with a theoretical $200 price tag. The company manufacturing the Micro managed to top its $50,000 funding goal on Kickstarter within 11 minutes after launch.
If you aren’t ready to purchase your own machine, there are a number of online service providers that can be used to upload your 3-D model and design printed.
To determine whether a 3-D printer is your best manufacturing option, you need to compare prices for traditional manufacturing versus purchasing or assembling your own 3-D printer or using a 3-D printing service.
To make an educated decision, you also need to compare raw material cost, software expenses, quality, production speed, required volume, shipping alternatives, maintenance and operation expenses, long-term goals and other factors.
A blog version of this article and an opportunity to post comments is available at http://wyen.biz/blog1/.
The WSBDC is a partnership of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming. To ask a question, call 1-800-348-5194, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write 1000 E. University Ave., Dept. 3922, Laramie, WY, 82071-3922.