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Is It Worth Investing In A 3-D Printer?

Three-dimensional printing is not a new process – it’s actually been around since the 1980s. But in the past few years, the potential uses have exploded as the technology has become refined and more affordable. Today’s 3-D printers (which create an object from a digital model by laying down heated plastic resins in successive layers) are used to create items ranging from prosthetic limbs to toys. User-friendly features include easy-to-use software and Wi-Fi. But does it make sense for promotional product companies? Consider these three factors:

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Price
There are dozens of 3-D printers to choose from, with a wide range of prices, software and filaments (the material used to print the items). One type of 3-D printing is called Stereo Lithography, or SLA, which uses liquid resins that harden when exposed to light. However, SLA printing is typically more expensive. More commonly for commercial use, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is accomplished with plastic polymers that are simply heated to print and cool in layers to form the object. Desktop 3-D printer prices start at around $500 for more personal uses but can be as expensive as $8,000. Industrial 3-D printers start at around $10,000 with some costing more than $100,000. Prices vary depending on the speed and accuracy of the machine, as well as the types of polymers it can print.

Prototyping
3-D printers make the design process shorter and more cost-effective. “They allow us to create very quickly and relatively inexpensively samples of our designs,” says Jason Fogg, general manager at HandStands Promo (asi/59525), which has owned a 3-D printer for six years. While working on designing the Cobra Virtual Reality viewer, designers at the supplier printed multiple versions before settling on a final design. Because it’s difficult to get a sense of size and shape without having a model of the actual product in hand, Fogg says a 3-D printer saves time and money spent on samples from out-of-house manufacturers.

Short-Run Production
Fogg says the company’s prototypes are not suitable for end-users: “They’re delicate and not very rigorous, and will become pretty disposable.” However, that all depends on the type of filament and machine you use, according to Johan Broer, public relations manager at Makerbot, a company that sells 3-D printers and supplies. For manufacturing, Broer recommends using Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, the material that Legos are made from. Industrial 3-D printers can print in materials like nylon that are more impact-resistant. For products that don’t need to be manufactured in bulk, Broer says 3-D printers can be more cost-effective than injection molding: “You would be able to offer a design in a small quantity that you could produce on a desktop 3-D printer.”