Generally we would reserve general impressions and observations for the end, but it feels important to start this write up by discussing the current state of affordable 3D printing technology. Despite being around for some time now, access to 3D printing services is still sparse. While there may be 3D printing technology available that has an incredibly high success rate without active monitoring and management from the user, those features do not carry over to consumer grade printers.
Affordable 3D printers severely impact the ability to provide a fluid, and successful 3D printing service for two reasons:
- 3D printing is very slow, and larger jobs can even take a few days or more of non-stop printing.
- Compared to printing on paper, 3D printing has a relatively high failure rate.
These two drawbacks also perpetuate each other.
Since printing anything in 3D will take several hours, at a minimum, the opportunity for and impact of failure is much greater. The longer a print job is takes, the more opportunity the printer has to malfunction during its print. If a malfunction occurs on hour 14 of a 15 hour print job, then you have just extended your turnaround time for that object by at least 14 hours. Those 14 hours do not include the time it takes for you to investigate and resolve the issue before beginning the print again, which can add a substantial amount of time depending on the problem.
While there are many ways you could offer a 3D printing service, if you are considering offering a pay for 3D print service similar to ours, then your minimum requirements are:
- Tech savvy staff (dedicated 3D printing staff would be best) who have received significant hands on training, and have time to prioritize troubleshooting when jobs fail
- A patient customer base, without requirements for quick turnaround time
- The willingness to give up on any submitted job if it just isn’t working
If you cannot fulfill these requirements, then our version of a 3D printing service will not be the right one for you. That being said, the information shared here should be valuable to anyone considering offering a 3D printing service, no matter the format.
College Library offers a variety of printing services that are used on a daily basis by many customers. Large format printing was a successful pilot organized by some of our predecessors, and is now one of the most heavily utilized services we offer. It was only a matter of time before we began the investigation in offering a 3D printing service.
Currently we are still in the midst of piloting our paid 3D printing service. We accept submissions of 3D model files through face to face interactions, then print it for them using our Ultimaker 2+ printer, and contact users via email once the job has been completed.
Choosing a Printer
Picking our printer was definitely the easiest part of organizing this pilot. During our investigations, the Ultimaker 2 was a clear winner. It was highly favored due to hardware design, ease of use, and excellent technical support. At this point in time, 3D printing has a pretty substantial learning curve, but the Ultimaker 2 was one of the few printers on the market that was forgiving to the new and unfamiliar users.
The MakerBot use to be the go to for consumer grade printers before they moved too far in the direction of ease of use. While they made replacing the extruder (essentially the print head) much easier by combining all the components into one piece, they also completely removed a user’s ability to troubleshoot when experiencing issues. This meant that each time you had extruder problems, the only solution was a brand new extruder. The extruder is by far the most finicky piece of the 3D printer as it has hot plastic running through it, so it requires frequent attention. As a result, maintaining an MakerBot printer was simpler, but astronomically more expensive.
While troubleshooting the extruder of the Ultimaker 2, or any other piece of the hardware, is a bit more involved, it was constructed so that the user could do it with available documentation and little guidance. As far as owning a printer that allowed the user to start a job and walk away until it was finished, the Ultimaker 2 was the printer that was closest to offering that nicety.
Since our purchase a couple years ago, there have been advances to the Ultimaker product line. An extruder upgrade was offered that allowed us to upgrade our Ultimaker 2 to an Ultimaker 2+ by manually installing the new piece of hardware. We saw some improvement with this upgrade (troubleshooting the extruder became simpler), but not much. Ultimaker has also released their Ultimaker 3, which I’ve heard is a substantial upgrade to the Ultimaker 2, and has a much lower failure rate. If this pilot is considered a success and we continue to offer the service, we would consider upgrading to the Ultimaker 3.
Building the Service
Before actually offering a 3D printing service, we had to make sure we could learn to use the 3D printer, and that it could meet high use demands. This involved months of running the printer as continuously as possible to test the durability of the hardware. We wanted to create problems, whether they were technological or procedural, that could occur when running the actual service, so that we could solve them. The Ultimaker 2 performed admirably, and we ran into few issues. This proved to us that the Ultimaker 2 could reliably assist us in providing a service.
In order to mimic offering a 3D printing service in it’s simplest format, we opened up the service to our student staff and started doing one free print job for each of them. We tried to offer as little guidance as possible with regard to where our staff could find 3D models to print, so that we could get an idea of what kind of files we might receive from regular customers. Doing this also gave us an idea of what we could expect for turnaround time when we have a queue of customers waiting for prints.
Offering this service definitely complicated things, and resulted in print jobs that needed more attention and maintenance. We were able to fulfill all requests, while learning a lot about troubleshooting problematic prints in the process, and working with things like build plate adhesion and supports. It also revealed to us what kind of printing material we would have the most success with. It turned out that PLA filament was much more reliable than ABS filament, so we decided to only print using PLA.
After we satisfied our student staff with our out of office, free 3D printing service, we decided that it was time to formalize it a bit, and try offering it to our customer base. We decided to offer the service for free initially to manage customer expectations, determine whether a paid service would be feasible, and gauge interest. We constructed a survey for customers to request a 3D print job using Qualtrics, which is a licensed survey service available on our campus.
In the survey we asked users to submit a file in .stl format along with their color preference based on the filament colors we had in stock. Since we were offering the service for free, we also took the opportunity to collect some extra data in exchange for providing the service. The data we collected was:
- What they were using the service for (personal, academic, or commercial use)
- How they were going to use the printed object (Decorative/Aesthetic or Functional – heavy load vs light load)
- What users would expect to pay for the service
- The turnaround time they would expect
- A Rank of the importance of quality vs.speed vs the cost of 3D prints
Unfortunately we no longer have this data, so I cannot share it with readers.
The free service ended up being popular and successful, so we moved on to offering the paid service. We decided that online submissions via survey wasn’t ideal, and that we would prefer to have a consultation when accepting print jobs like we do with large format printing. Having quick consultations would allow us to look at the customer’s 3D model with them and discuss possible issues, or suggest adaptation to the model. We transitioned to using Google forms to track submitted print jobs, and used a shared google drive account to store files to be printed.
Cost was based on per meter of filament used during printing. We determined this cost by factoring the average amount of staffing time each to complete each print, and the cost of a spool of filament. We were very conservative with our estimate because we were only trying to break even, and didn’t want the service to generate revenue.
As of today we are still offering our 3D printing in this format. A customer brings their file into our lab, has a consultation with one of our staff members, and is contacted once the print has finished, or if we run into issue printing their object.
Impressions and Observations
In its current state, 3D printing as a service is possible, but not easy to offer. Our large format printing service is something that is handled by every member of our staff. Any member can accept a job, and print the file. Ideally we wanted to offer our 3D printing service this way, but 3D printing is so temperamental that it requires extensive training, constant practice, and a general tech savviness to be successful. 3D Printing failures occur much more when less practiced hands are running the service. Because of this, we had to limit the staff that could handle 3D printing because providing training and practice to almost 30 staff on a consistent basis was unrealistic considering all of the other duties they are responsible for.
We ended up only offering the consultation piece of the service during hours where our student supervisors were present. Despite limiting the members of staff that actively provide the service, some still receive much more practice than others. This results in the success rate of a 3D print varying depending on the person who configures the file and initiates the print.
Fortunate for us, we have a patient and understanding customer base. Generally they are grateful to have the service available to them at such an affordable price, and we only charge them if we were able to successfully complete their print to their satisfaction. There are times where we have to work closely with customers beyond the initial consultation to adapt the model they gave us due to consistent print failures. Overall our customer base has been content with and impressed with the service we have been able to provide, but we feel the service still lacks adequate fluidity.
While the service can be difficult to provide due to the amount of management that can be required, we successfully complete most jobs that we receive. Our staff are content with continuing to offer the service, but the reason it has not moved beyond a pilot at this point is because we limit the staff that can offer the service. Eventually the staff who are most experienced with 3D printing will graduate and move on, and we are unsure of whether or not the service will continue to succeed beyond that. If we get our hands on new hardware that makes 3D printing procedures simpler, then we may be able to have any of our staff run the service. At that point we could assume the service will continue to run to a satisfactory level, and we could consider it beyond the pilot phase. Until then we will continue to monitor the service closely.