How and why set up a 3D printer farm? What are the things to think about so as not to make mistakes? And what are the mistakes regularly made by companies that equip themselves with a 3D printer farm? It is to answer all these questions, and many others, that we met the experts from Volumic 3D, a French manufacturer of professional FDM 3D printers.
WHEN DO WE SET UP A 3D PRINTING FARM?
Often, businesses start with a single 3D printer. This makes it possible to realize ideas and create prototypes. And then by using 3D printing, we realize the potential of the machine. This is usually when the operator will want to test other materials. The gears then fall into place: as soon as we bring a project to fruition, we want to broaden our horizons and produce even more and differently. Arriving at this moment of awareness of the possibilities of the 3D printer, the various departments of the company frequently monopolize the machine.
Once the company has done some tooling and prototyping, it realizes it can do even more. To be able to carry out intensive production in small series, it will therefore have to equip itself. She will therefore keep her machine for prototyping single parts and use 1, 2, 3, or even 5 additional 3D printers to gain productivity, precision, and the ability to 3D print even more technical materials.
At Volumic 3D, we intervene a lot at this stage, with F3DF in the role of 3D technology integrator. We provide these companies with ergonomic and reliable 3D printers. Our advice when launching a 3D printing farm is to have 1 machine dedicated to intensive production and 1 dedicated to single parts.
WHAT MAKES SETTING UP A 3D PRINTING FARM NECESSARY? DO YOU HAVE EXAMPLES OF SETTING UP 3D PRINT FARMS TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THEIR INTEREST?
The observation as a manufacturer is that a customer who uses a 3D printer at 80% is at a critical stage because his entire production process can be interrupted from one minute to the next by the slightest problem. Such a company monopolizes its 3D printer, and therefore the margin for error is so small that the slightest defect will be fatal. He will therefore have to work urgently, which will create a lot of pressure on him and the machine. A company whose 3D printer occupancy rate is around 80% is then typically a company that should consider developing a 3D printing farm.
To give you an example, a little over 2 years ago, a company that manufactures orthopedic prostheses (heel cups in particular) needed to better equip itself to adapt its production to demand. She therefore built a 3D printing farm including 5 Volumic 3D printers.
TO INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY, IS IT BETTER TO CHANGE THE SIZE OF THE 3D PRINTER OR GET SMALLER 3D PRINTERS?
When a company reaches its production limits, the mistake is often to seek to acquire a larger 3D printer. However a larger 3D printer increases printing time, and therefore the risk of errors. With a farm of 3D printers, we can increase the work tenfold to optimize the use of each machine.
We recently had a concrete example, which perfectly illustrated this choice, with a large automotive group, which had to print a dovetail. The customer was doing this on a machine capable of printing in one go, but the printing time was relatively long. He therefore preferred to print on 3 Volumic machines simultaneously for a time of less than 20 hours on each and assemble the parts in a second step. In addition to the time saved, it has thus limited the risk factor, because the printer prints 70 hours: it only takes the slightest error to lose 70 hours and has to start all over again. As a bonus, printing on 3 printers simultaneously wastes much less material in the event of an error because you don’t have to start from the beginning.
This configuration requires adding an assembly step in the production process, but often this constraint is marginal compared to the overall productivity gains. Thanks to this implementation of a 3D printer farm, we will perhaps lose 20 minutes in design (adding assembly areas, adapting my part to assembly, etc.), but we will limit the risk and divide the production time by 3.
With a 3D printing farm, we therefore potentially gain in 3 key aspects:
- Limit the risks of overconsumption due to waste of materials,
- Gain productivity,
- Reduce delays.
When the specifications require it (impossibility of assembling, modeling again, cutting the part for example), it is of course sometimes necessary to go for a larger machine despite everything. This is especially relevant for very large volume parts.
WHAT DOES A 3D PRINT FARM CHANGE IN MANAGING A BUSINESS’S MANUFACTURING PROCESSES?
When you have several printers, there is a whole organization to put in place at the human level, storage of materials (such reference, such time, etc.), optimization of production, etc.
When setting up a 3D printing farm, there are a large number of little things to know, which seem trivial, but make the daily life of businesses much easier. For example, you have to realize that when you set up a 3D printing farm, you start to have a lot of files so you have to classify and name what you launch into production. For example, you should not use standard file names but create names that include dimensions such as the name of the machines or the diameter of the nozzle. These are points that allow you to gain in productivity, and not simply in production capacity
We must learn to manage and optimize production times and flows, but also – and perhaps above all – to protect humans. Precautions are necessary to ensure the safety of the environment in which 3D printers are located and in particular their operator. The use of 3D printers equipped with live information transmission systems on the state of the machines (like Volunet on Volumic 3D printers) is a prerequisite in terms of security, but here is some additional advice that we give to our clients :
Install 3D printers in a healthy and bright room,
Equip the 3D printing room either with a specific surveillance camera on each machine (which allows rapid identification of error codes on 3D printers), or with a global view camera (which provides visibility of the indicator lights). green or not),
Equip the 3D printing room with an air quality filtration system, either directly on the 3D printers with a filter cover (to contain harmful emissions from certain materials such as ABS or carbon) or with a global filtration system in the room because of the degree of PPM in the air.
Have air conditioning. The printers must be left in a temperate environment ( between 17 and 23 degrees ) because the slightest air fluctuation can deform the object, especially when it comes to a detailed sector (jewelry for example). On the latest generations of Volumic 3D printers, different sensors help protect your prints and alert you if an anomaly is detected, such as an excessive temperature variation.
There are also basic safety precautions, but it is never useless to remind them, such as limiting access to the room to only those responsible for the 3D printing farm or wearing gloves, protective glasses, and a safety coat.