In-House vs Outsourcing
It’s reasonable to wonder whether or not you should purchase your own 3D printer or 3D scanner and bring these capabilities in-house. You might see all the money being spent on outsourcing and wonder how much the equipment really costs. Maybe you’ve even received a quote from an equipment re-seller and the number seemed reasonable. But, as we’ll show below, there are number of hidden costs to bringing 3D printing and 3D scanning in-house.
Cost of Ownership – 3 Year Period
Below, we’ll review the typical cost of ownership, based on our own experience, for a single piece of industrial 3D printing or 3D scanning equipment over the course of 3 years. There are smaller, more affordable printers and scanners available, and a number of our regular customers have them in-house, but they are typically not suited to industrial applications. When deciding whether or not to purchase equipment or outsource, most people aren’t aware of the costs beyond the equipment itself. As we’ll show below, this is just a portion of the overall cost.
A thermoplastic or photopolymer 3D printer is suitable for the majority of applications. This includes technologies such as fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography (SLA), PolyJet and MultiJet. Top-of-the-line equipment using these technologies will give you access to a large build volume and a variety of materials. These machines typically sell for around $250,000, but other technologies, such as selective laser sintering (SLS) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), can cost significantly more.
For a high-resolution 3D scanner capable of inspection and analysis, you can expect to pay round $130,000. Most industrial 3D scanning uses either structured light or laser scanner. There are more affordable options available, but they are often incapable of capturing enough detail to get the data you need..
Not many people are aware of the post-processing equipment necessary for just about any 3D printing technology. Nearly all plastic printers use support material to keep free-standing structures and overhangs from collapsing while printing and this material must be removed once the print is complete.
FDM uses a plastic-like material that is removed by a wash tank filled with a mildly corrosive solution. PolyJet coats and fills the entire part with a waxy substance that is removed by a combination of hand tools, pressure washing and a corrosive solution. MultiJet support material is also wax-like and is baked away in an oven.
While not as extensive, 3D Scanning also requires additional equipment in order to operate. Depending on the type of scanner, you will need a FARO arm or a tripod as well as the tools needed to properly calibrate your equipment.
Consumable materials are a significant portion of the cost of running a 3D printer. The build materials which your parts will be made from typically cost $7 to $15 per cubic inch and are purchased in large canisters costing anywhere from $600 to $1,200. Additionally you have the cost of support material for each part, which typically costs half of what the build material costs, and any materials used in support removal.
Consumable materials aren’t as significant for 3D scanning, but they still exist. Usually this will include the coating sprayed on each part to make it easier to scan as well as the tracking dot stickers that allow the scanner software to stitch multiple scans together.
Finally, you’ll need someone to run your equipment. Here we are assuming $45,000 per year compensation for one full-time employee per piece of equipment. One person can run several 3D printers, but again, we’re looking at the cost of just one piece of equipment. Running one 3D scanner, however, is a full-time job if you have enough volume to justify purchasing one in the first place.
There is also the matter of training. It will typically take a new hire about two months to learn the basics of operating any of our 3D printers and how to post-process parts without damaging them. Similarly, it takes about 4 months to be able to consistently produce quality 3D scans. However, for both printing and scanning, every part is a unique case and learning is a never-ending process.
Maintenance and repairs for 3D printers is not insignificant. Most 3D printer manufacturers offer maintenance plans for their machines that typically cost $15,000. If you opt to handle it yourself, someone will have to learn how the equipment works and parts are expensive. You could easily spend upwards of $10,000 fixing a single problem.
Conversely,there is little in the way of repairs or maintenance for 3D scanners, short of dropping or otherwise physically damaging the scanner. Because there are no moving parts, there is less to worry about.
Even if you buy a 3D printer, you still only have one 3D printer. There are many different technologies, each suited to particular applications. If you buy an FDM printer, for example, you’ll probably still find yourself outsourcing any highly detailed parts you might need printed. You could easily still be outsourcing $10,000 per year.
A 3D scanner by itself is all but useless. There are essentially two thing you can do with 3D scans: reverse engineering and analysis. Both of these processes require advanced software packages costing roughly $8,000 per seat and an engineer who know how to use them.
If you have one 3D printer or 3D scanner shared between several departments or locations, you may still find yourself outsourcing any overflow. We frequently do work for customers that have our services internally but don’t have time to wait for an open slot.
Again, you could conservatively be outsourcing $10,000 per year in either printing or scanning. Alternatively, your volume of work might be low, leaving your equipment and personnel sitting idly and driving up the marginal cost of each job.
As you can see, the cost of owning and operating a single industrial 3D printer or 3D scanner can quickly add up and the equipment itself becomes just a fraction of the overall cost. And this doesn’t include other minor costs, such as delivery and installation, the occasional part damaged in post-processing, or delays while engineers wait for machine availability.
Ultimately, it’s only economically viable for a large company with a large volume of work to bring these services in-house. Most small and mid-size business are better served by outsourcing their 3D printing and 3D scanning needs to an experienced service bureau, who can marginalize all of the additional costs.