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3D Printing: Buying In-House vs. Outsourcing to 3D Printing Service

Through this article, we will break down the options for you in simple terms to help you make a choice. First, let us understand both the existing options of buying and outsourcing.

MakerBot 3D Printing Professional Solutions
MakerBot 3D Printing Professional Solutions

Due to its versatility, 3D printing is rapidly being adopted by more companies across sectors around the world. It provides the capability to iterate designs quickly, experiment with multiple ideas, and build functional prototypes that can help in efficiently scaling products. 

3D printing has been proven to reduce time-to-market while also reducing the costs associated with the designing, prototyping, and tooling stages of manufacturing. 

While some companies are adopting it efficiently, it remains a puzzle for many, torn between investing in an in-house solution or outsourcing to 3D printing service bureaus. Companies who face this conundrum often spend far too long making a decision and may incur tremendous costs. 

Through this article, we will break down the options for you in simple terms to help you make a choice. First, let us understand both the existing options of buying and outsourcing.

Buying Equipment

Buying equipment is an investment. The company invests in physical assets like machinery and equipment, skilled labor, and talent to operate and manage those machines, and associated processes.

But it’s also more than that. Bringing the production in-house has significant benefits, such as saving on production costs and achieving better margins. The product quality can be controlled, and the production schedule can be controlled and optimized as per the other production schedules to match right-on-time manufacturing.

Outsourcing

Outsourcing means subcontracting your work to a third-party to get it done for you without going through the hassle of setting up the required machines, corresponding investment, and associated labor & skilling. Outsourcing reduces your manufacturing load while sacrificing profit margins. It is a great option for small and medium enterprises that cannot commit to heavy investment for machinery and labor. 

But outsourcing also brings its vices, and even though the manufacturing aspect is reduced, the management inconvenience increases manifold. A lot of labor gets involved in the associated sourcing and vendor management where the company has to constantly track and manage the movement of the required parts coming from multiple outsourcing partners.

Buying In-House vs. Outsourcing to 3D Printing Service

Whether to buy an in-house 3D printing solution or to outsource to a 3D printing service bureau is a complicated question to answer. Companies who are willing to adopt 3D printing to manufacture some of their parts can adopt the technology in three ways:

Outsourcing to 3D Printing Service Bureau
Buying an Industrial 3D Printer
Buying a Desktop / Office 3D Printer

Let us look at them one by one.

Outsourcing to 3D Printing Service

Outsourcing to a 3D printing service bureau is the ideal option to explore for any organization looking to try out the benefits of getting 3D printed parts for the first time. This “trial” can be a great learning experience allowing your team to explore material options, evaluate complex design manufacturing, analyze the relative strength of 3D printed parts vis-a-vis the traditional parts, and validate the incorporation of the technology into your manufacturing workflow.

Materialise Factory of the Future/Courtesy: Materialise

But as with every outsourcing job, the manufacturing burden is reduced but the management oversight and control is also reduced. Being a new technology, the outsourced 3D printed parts need to be carefully analyzed. The selection of the outsourcing partner plays a vital role. Also - due to the higher costs per part with using a 3D printing service, teams are likely to be limited as to what they will print – often waiting until the design is further along in CAD before ordering up the job. In many organizations, the procurement process can be a further blocker, further slowing down the cycle to seeing and holding a physical prototype.

Outsourcing of 3D printing jobs will increase the lead times, eat some of the margins from the product, and require the quality to be monitored regularly as 3D printing is still not fully standardized. The organization will have to manage this new technology by implementing a standardized evaluation process to validate the products received from the outsourcing partner.

Advantages

Easiest option to start with for organizations with no background in 3D printing
Access to a vast set of 3D printing technologies
Access to a wide range of materials
Access to technology experts to develop new products
Eliminates upfront capital equipment investment

Disadvantages

Cost per part increases due to the addition of the outsourcing partner
Slower than other buying options
Takes longer to iterate and implement those iterations
Gets costlier with each iteration and modification
No direct learning for engineers and designers of the customer
May involve procurement blockers for each model, further slowing down process

Buying an Industrial 3D Printer

Depending on the scale, size, quantity of products to be manufactured, and the depth of incorporation of 3D printing in the manufacturing process, a company can invest in an industrial 3D printer. The cost of industrial 3D printers can be pretty high, and these machines demand a lot of technical know-how to efficiently operate. They also require skilled labor to handle the machine and deliver consistent quality products.

Buying an industrial 3D printer makes sense if the company management is fully committed to the 3D printing technology and wants to implement it factory-wide and scale up its use.

Stratasys Fortus 900 Large-Format 3D printer:Courtesy- Stratasys

Also - certain certification thresholds may only be met by select industrial 3D printer / material combinations. Stratasys is one example of a manufacturer of industrial 3D printers producing products ranging from the refrigerator-sized F123 Series up to the powerful room-sized F900.

Advantages

Supports large batch production
Delivers great quality compared to desktop 3D printers
Reduces the dependence on service bureaus
Helps in reducing manufacturing costs or maintaining profit margins for the chosen products
Rapid iterative capability helps in reducing time-to-market

Disadvantages

Requires huge capital investment  
Requires skilled labor to operate
Requires large space and a clean environment to operate efficiently
Costs not justified by short batch productions
Not an ideal choice for companies just trying to explore 3D printing technology

Buying a Desktop 3D Printer

Buying a desktop 3D printer is, economically, the ideal way to proceed while deciding between buying in-house vs. outsourcing to a 3D printing service bureau. It is the perfect option for companies exploring 3D printing technology for prototyping purposes. These 3D printers have a shorter learning curve and are affordable for all organizations.

Additionally, if the prototyping job increases over time, multiple 3D printers can be incorporated and can be simultaneously controlled through printer management applications. They can also be efficiently monitored and controlled remotely.

MakerBot METHOD X 3D printer
MakerBot METHOD X 3D printer

While many desktop 3D printers of past were DIY hobbyist kits that required patience and technical skill, newer generations such as the MakerBot METHOD Platform is are more akin to professional tools such as a laptop.

Advantages

Cost-effective option to start for organizations of all sizes
Shorter learning curve
Delivers quality output
Reduces the prototyping costs and time
Can be handled and operated with limited training
Offers greater flexibility
Affordable materials and easily available across the globe
Wide-range of materials can be printed on single platform
Easy to monitor and control, even remotely

Disadvantages

Some desktop 3D printers cannot print with high-performance materials
Size restrictions may be limiting
May not be best choice for mass production depending on platform
Employee training is required (comparatively lower than industrial 3D printer training)

CONCLUSION: Buying In-House vs. Outsourcing to 3D Printing Service

In conclusion, the buying in-house vs. outsourcing to 3D printing service bureaus debate depends on the stage an organization is in and what it expects from the technology. The organization needs to keep a focused approach and define its goals. It needs to think about its current requirements and future expectations. It also needs to know how it will scale the entire 3D printing operations and what it will be 3D printing in the future. All this should also be aligned with the overall management goals to make sure that the expectations match the reality. 

For some organizations, buying a desktop 3D printer is the best option while outsourcing is the better choice for others. It entirely depends on the organization’s comfort with buying in-house vs. outsourcing to 3D printing service bureaus.

Want to find out which is going to be the best fit for you and your organization? Talk to a MakerBot 3D printing expert today! 

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