3D Print Farms — Benefits of Scaling Production with Additive Manufacturing
When you first hear the term “3D print farm,” your thoughts might jump to additively manufactured barns or tractors. But we’re not actually dealing with agriculture at all. A 3D print farm uses a large number of 3D printers all …
When you first hear the term “3D print farm,” your thoughts might jump to additively manufactured barns or tractors. But we’re not actually dealing with agriculture at all.
A 3D print farm uses a large number of 3D printers all working in unison to produce prototypes, parts, or any other 3D printable objects. The goal of running a 3D print farm is to quickly and effectively scale up manufacturing production in terms of volume and speed.
And 3D print farms can deliver on that goal. To quote Pedro Mier, advisor and a member of the Board of Directors of Premo Group, print farms scale up prototyping and production while lowering lead times.
In this article we’ll explore what 3D print farms are how they can benefit your manufacturing operation. We’ll also briefly cover how to overcome the challenges of setting up a print farm, and what printers are the best for print farmers.
3D Printing Farms Explained
In essence, a 3D print farm is any additive manufacturing (AM) operation that continuously runs two or more 3D printers at one time. That said, a two-printer workshop seems a bit too tiny to call it a farm — perhaps we could call such a small operation a “3D print garden” instead?
When a print farm is scaled up, the number of printers can grow to be truly astounding. The world’s largest 3D print farm — owned by U.S. 3D printing firm Slant 3D — features 800 printers operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Many major companies have already embraced print farms. Among them are Boeing, Caterpillar, Ford, GE, and Porsche. Porsche, for example, used 3D printing to supply spare parts for its cars, including out-of-production models.
But, as we said, you don’t need hundreds of printers to operate a print farm. Even a small “print garden” will achieve its purpose — bypassing 3D printers’ problem of single-volume production by simply running more printers at once.
Every printer in the farm doesn’t necessarily produce the same part. In the hands of a skilled operator, each printer could be running a separate job with different materials.
Benefits of 3D Printing Farms
In the name of honesty, 3D printing is generally more expensive than traditional manufacturing when it comes to mass production. However, AM through print farms provides a whole slew of other benefits over traditional manufacturing methods. These include:
Traditional manufacturing becomes economical only when you need to produce large quantities of uniform parts. AM, on the other hand, can produce small batches of parts on demand. There’s no need to produce hundreds of thousands of parts and then figure out a way to cheaply store them — simply run a batch through your printer farm whenever an order comes in.
Like we mentioned in the previous entry, traditional manufacturing relies on uniformity. Since all you need to start a print job is an easily editable 3D model file, AM allows you to offer customizable products for your clients. This is a great advantage for producers of both consumer goods and industrial part producers.
Shorter Time to Market
When you’re developing new products, a print farm allows you to produce potentially hundreds of prototypes in a few hours. Thanks to the ease of customization, each of those prototypes could be a different one. This allows manufacturers to significantly cut back on the time it takes to develop a production-ready design — if a prototype doesn’t work, you can quickly edit the 3D model and try again.
We said traditional manufacturing is cheaper when it comes to mass production, but AM blows it out of the water at smaller scales. In metal parts manufacturing, for example, Markforged has been able to use print farms to produce metal parts functionally identical to traditionally made parts at a lower price point. Print farms can also be used to create a low-volume first wave of products that will later be sent for mass production if the market reacts positively to them.
Challenges of 3D Print Farms
Despite all their benefits, it’d be dishonest to claim 3D print farms are a problem-free silver-bullet solution to scaling up production. They have their own set of challenges, including:
- Automation: A print farm will be efficient only if it’s automated to the highest possible degree. Ideally, you’ll want to minimize post-processing and make sure that one operator can run the farm.
- Startup Costs: 3D printers can be expensive, and the initial investment to set up a print farm can get very high.
- Maintenance: Every minute a printer isn’t running costs a lot of money. Your printers will need regular maintenance, such as changing nozzles and material tanks.
- Technological Limitations: FDM printers, for example, have been pushed technologically pretty much as far as they can go. Luckily, new printing technologies — like SLA — are more precise and are being constantly improved upon.
- Technological Variability: Practically every printer works differently, and unless your farm uses only one kind of printers, your operators have to know the ins and outs of every single machine. Conversely, if you use only one printer, your operation will be bound by its material and technological limits.
- Volume Utilization: In an ideal situation, you will constantly use every last millimeter of available print volume. It can be challenging to prepare your 3D models so as to fit as much material in every print chamber as possible.
Best Printers for 3D Print Farms
You might be considering setting up your own 3D print farm to reap the production benefits. If so, here are a couple of 3D printer suggestions.
Formlabs Form 3
Formlabs is the leading name in SLA 3D printing, and for a good reason. Its Form 3 desktop printer is an affordable, high-precision machine that can quickly produce quality parts from a great variety of resins. The Form family also has other printers available for more volume and advanced materials.
Ultimaker is another famous name, and their S5 filament printer bring to the table both a large print size and great material compatibility. The printer’s ease of operation makes it simple to integrate into a print farm, and it can produce professional-quality prints. Note that it does come at a professional-quality price, though.
Markforged Onyx Pro
We already mentioned Markforged and their metal printers, but the company makes other 3D printers as well. Their Onyx Pro is a relatively affordable printer that’s capable of creating extremely durable parts from fiber glass-reinforced filaments. It might not print the level of details as some other printers, but for a print farm producing industrial parts, it’s the machine to go for.