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Does 3D Printing Belong in the In-plant?

As in-plants seek new services to add, they may find 3D printing to be a good fit.

December 2013 By Jim Corliss
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One challenge every in-plant faces is maintaining relevance to the parent organization. In-plants have to prove their value continually.

As 3D printing technology becomes more accessible, many in-plants are wondering whether adding this service might help them meet this challenge and increase the value they bring to their organizations.

Here are some points to consider.

  1. 3D printing is a relatively easy service to add. You already have skilled people, a network, servers, an FTP site and are comfortable receiving files. A 3D printer is just that: a printer­—not completely unlike other printers and imaging devices that you are already sending files to.
  2. The cost of a 3D printer is not prohibitive. The Stratasys Dimension 1200 that my company put on our floor about six months ago cost less than $35,000. Some of the smaller units targeted to the hobbyist and school market are well under $4,000. And the price of 3D equipment will only drop going forward.
  3. For certain organizations, 3D services are a natural fit, and in many cases 3D equipment may have already been purchased by your parent organization. 3D is definitely a natural for public school systems, universities and manufacturing operations. Obviously, not every type of organization may have a compelling need for 3D. But for others, 3D is a truly great fit. And who better to provide the 3D service than the in-plant?

The demand for 3D services will continue to grow, and will probably grow explosively. Because of all the media attention given to 3D technology recently, many people are looking at ways 3D technology can fit what they are doing.

Microsoft has added native 3D support to its Windows 8.1 operating system. So in the future, when you purchase a computer running Windows 8.1, the drivers for the most common 3D printers will be included in the system, with the hopes of making 3D printing plug and play.

3D printing can be the perfect fit for an in-plant because of centralization. The 3D needs of an engineering or manufacturing company with multiple divisions or operations would be much better served by centralizing the 3D printing operation. If each segment of your parent organization has its own equipment, there will inevitably be utilization issues. There would be either bottlenecks or under-utilization.

3D Applications by Industry

Let's look at how 3D printing could be offered by in-plants in some specific industries.

Insurance and Financial Services: Uh…you tell me. May not be a fit at all.

Colleges and Universities: If the university that your in-plant supports has an engineering department, it's a natural—and it's a sure bet that they already have 3D equipment. So why would 3D services be needed in the in-plant if the university's engineering department already has 3D equipment? Simple. The engineering department will not be the only department in the school that will want 3D services. What about a liberal arts college with no engineering department? Given the creativity of young people, even a college with no engineering or design course offerings will find plenty of need for 3D services.

Public School Districts: A school district with, say, one or two high schools, a couple of middle schools and a bunch of grammar schools will have a need for 3D but it will be a different need than a university might have. The end product is important at the university level while the whole process of 3D will be of interest to the teachers in a classroom setting. We would hope that in-plants in the public school setting now would not only offer printing and mailing services but also act as an educational resource for the school district. If the in-plant were to offer 3D printing services, your plant could be an educational lab for the students in your district.

Manufacturing or Fortune 1000 Companies. Any company that designs and manufactures a product is a natural for 3D. The key is to centralize the 3D services in the in-plant rather than having the equipment scattered throughout the organization. There is real value to centralizing 3D services because it will reduce bottlenecks and minimize under-utilization.

Also consider that there are many different types of 3D printers that print in different ways using different materials. The engineering department may want to print using ABS plastic, which can be used for dimensionally accurate usable prototype parts. The finance people or the package design people may want to print prototypes in full color.

Every in-plant supports an organization that has unique needs and requests different services, be it large-format posters, mailing services, full-color offset, publications, etc. It is up to each in-plant to evaluate which services it will offer to the parent organization. In-plants would be well served to explore the possibility of adding 3D printing to their service offerings.

Jim Corliss is the owner of Braintree Printing, located in the Boston area. Braintree Printing is a trade printer servicing printers, brokers and the overflow needs of in-plants. Braintree Printing was one of the first printers in the country to offer 3D printing. Corliss can be reached at (781) 848-5300 or a



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