When to 3D Print In House and When to Outsource

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Prototyping with 3D printing helps teams communicate with stakeholders and ultimately results in better end products. At a relatively low cost, teams can show 3D printed prototypes to customers, business partners, and people across the company. Designers can receive feedback and quickly iterate designs. High quality visual prototypes can be used for marketing and sales. Functional prototypes can be user tested and quickly revised, resulting in an end product that meets customer needs.

Prototyping with 3D printing helps teams communicate with stakeholders and ultimately results in better end products.

There are three main methods of prototyping with 3D printing: you can outsource to a 3D printing service bureau, 3D print in house with industrial machines, or 3D print in house with desktop 3D printers.


3D Printing Service Bureaus

Service bureaus are best for low quantity and high complexity. Choose this option if you need less than 5 parts per month, especially if those parts are large and call for non-standard materials. Service bureaus are most useful when you are often dealing with very different materials or applications that might call for access to multiple 3D printing technologies. For cases where you're printing many similar parts, a service bureau is by far the slowest and priciest option.

In-House Industrial 3D Printers

In-house industrial 3D printers are a solid option for large batches of parts (200 a week or more) made of the same material and over 30 cm3 in size. Still, many businesses don't use their industrial machines frequently enough to make the equipment cost worthwhile, unlike their less expensive desktop counterparts.

Desktop 3D Printers

Desktop 3D printers are great when you need parts quickly. If you print a large batches of parts (200+) on a weekly basis, then a print farm of multiple desktop machines is less costly and just as effective as an industrial machine. Owning multiple desktop 3D printers offers more flexibility and means you can print in several materials at once. Service bureaus can be occasionally used to supplement this flexible workflow if you need larger parts or uncommon materials.

Learn how to set up and manage multiple 3D printers in our free white paper.

Pros and Cons

Method Pros Cons
Service Bureau Usually have several technologies in house, such as SLA, FDM, and SLS. Higher cost per part than in-house desktop and (at a high throughput) industrial 3D printers.
More materials available than an in-house system. Much slower than in-house 3D printing (can take several weeks instead of one day).
Staff can offer advice on the best materials and their limitations.
Industrial 3D Printer Better management over settings in industrial technology. Significant investment: about $30,000 for an entry-level system, $300,000 for a true manufacturing system.
Quicker than a service bureau. True manufacturing systems require over 30 m2 of floor space, industrial HVAC, finishing stations, cleaning stations, etc.
Lower cost than a service bureau at high throughput. For a true manufacturing system, accounting for all costs, a single build would cost more than a desktop 3D printer (approximately $3,000 plus usage and labor).
At a low throughput, higher cost than both service bureaus and desktop 3D printers.
Higher cost per part and higher TCO than desktop 3D printers even at a high throughput.
Limited range of materials compared to a service bureau.
Material cost for industrial machines ranges from $45 to $360 per pound.
Requires a full-time operator.
Desktop 3D Printer Lowest upfront investment. Lower reliability and repeatability than industrial machines.
Lowest cost per part and lowest TCO. Smaller build volume.
Quickest time to part. Many desktop 3D printers don’t have great warranties or support.
Lets you take a deep dive into the technology.
Smallest form factor, lowest setup requirements, and least required space.

Which option is best for me?

The 3D printing technology you choose should be tailored specifically to your workflow and project goals. Here are some factors to consider before choosing the a solution for your team:

  • How many parts per week will you need?
  • What materials will you need?
  • What is the function of your parts — visual display? Functional prototyping? Casting into end products?
  • How many of your parts can you fit into one build volume of a desktop and an industrial machine?
  • Order sample parts from various service bureaus and 3D printer manufacturers such as this free sample part from Formlabs to evaluate surface finish and detail. Ask each company to provide more information about the sample part, like how long it took to print, how much material was used, and the layer thickness.
  • Calculate cost, machine usage, and time to part.
  • Attend 3D printing meetups and ask printer owners how happy they are with their machines.
  • Go to 3D printing events to speak with vendors and service bureaus about service contracts and TCO.

For most teams, the best choice is to have several in-house desktop printers and to outsource to a service bureau for large parts. This is almost always the most cost-effective choice for not only small design and engineering teams but also large multinational companies. Industrial machines are often under-utilized, so they are not as likely to pay for themselves over time as more affordable desktop 3D printers. Industrial printers are most useful when you need large parts with high compliance, for example, in the aerospace and healthcare industries. Whatever option you choose, your 3D printing system should be tailored to your team's needs.

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