3D Systems CEO: Speed Is the Enabler to Production

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Speed will change things, says Joshi. When we imagine that additive doesn’t have a role in high-volume production, we have failed to account for all the ways that faster 3D printing affects the economics.

Speed is arguably the most meaningful factor that will enable 3D printing to continue its advance into production. That was the primary point that came out of a conversation I recently had with 3D Systems President and CEO Vyomesh Joshi.

“For production, the durability of the product and the repeatability of the process have to be there, but after that comes total cost of ownership,” Joshi says. Total cost of ownership (TCO) is where we are now in the evolution of additive manufacturing, and speed has a significant impact on this. The Figure 4 technology introduced last year is 3D Systems’ response to this recognition, he says. The production-oriented stereolithography platform builds parts more than 50 times faster than earlier SLA systems from the company.

Many looking to 3D printing for production might say that the technology actually has to advance in two areas, which they assume to be separate: speed and cost. Yet these are related, as speed is the most important factor affecting cost, Joshi says. Greater speed means fewer machines need to be purchased to meet the needed production volume. This on its own reduces cost, but even more significantly, a system consisting of fewer printers running faster reduces the TCO in a variety of other ways.

To illustrate, he notes that a Figure 4 system with 16 print engines could produce at a rate of output that would require more than 200 conventional SLA printers to match. Sixteen engines versus more than 200 machines is an extreme difference, and one that leads to some extreme savings that illustrate additive manufacturing’s ultimate potential. Assuming a production process involving one million parts per year, the application of the Figure 4 solution using fewer, faster machines would yield savings in all these areas:

Floor space. The Figure 4 solution would require only about 4 percent as much real estate over established 3D printers, Joshi says.

Equipment upkeep. The much smaller number of machines would translate to only about 2 percent as many hours given to maintenance.

Production labor cost. Only about 25 percent as much labor would be needed for the same output when fewer machines are involved.

Material waste. Fewer machines means fewer setups and cycle interruptions, likely reducing material waste by one-third.

Designed for production, the Figure 4 platform differs significantly from conventional 3D printers, offering cost efficiencies compared to these machines. Unlike stand-alone printers in which control hardware is a necessary part of every unit, this scalable platform allows one control unit to oversee all the print engines in the system. Savings such as this, combined with the small number of print engines required because of the speed, yields an initial investment in the comparison above that is only about 4 percent of the cost that would be needed to buy more than 200 machines.

Again, some of these savings are extreme. They represent a significant speed increase applied to a large production volume. One thing the comparison implies is that even a moderate increase in speed combined with a moderate production volume could also deliver savings that are significant.

But a more profound implication of the comparison is that we have not yet been using the right metrics when we imagine the prospects for 3D printing in full-scale manufacturing. An assumption that 3D printing is not appropriate for high-volume production is premature. Speed is advancing, and speed will have a multiplied effect on 3D printing’s fitness for production because of the ways it reduces various manufacturing costs.