Time to read: 9 min

One of the most popular questions I get from hardware companies concerns the pros and cons of 3D printer ownership. The question generally goes something like, if i’m iterating all the time, doesn’t it make sense for me to buy my own machine that I can access whenever I need it?

That’s precisely the question I asked myself when I worked at Ford’s Silicon Valley Innovation Lab. Frustrated by how long it took to manage quotes and receive parts from vendors, I came to the conclusion that machine ownership would allow me to reclaim my time, reduce operational inefficiencies and lead times, and ultimately shorten development cycles for faster innovation.

So I went ahead and purchased machines for the lab, both desktop and then eventually professional machines once I realized the resolution of the desktop machines was too low.

But what I realized after maintaining and operating these machines for a few months is that the true cost of machine ownership is much more complicated than the price tag alone, and operating these machines is extremely time-intensive.

As a result, the lab spent significantly less time and mindspace focusing on our mission: innovation.

In this post I’m going to cover the major variables that contribute to the true cost of machine ownership to help you make an educated decision as to whether or not ownership is the best, and most lucrative, path for your company.

The Three Tiers

The first and most visible factor to take into consideration when purchasing a 3D printer is the price tag. Let’s break out the three basic categories:

Tier 1: <$10K

These machines typically have small to medium-size print beds and print at 100 micron (0.1mm) layer resolution. For solo entrepreneurs and companies who do opt to buy a 3D printer, this is typically where they start.

Names like Form 1, Makerbot, Printrbot, B4 Creator, and Type A fall into this category.

Tier 2: $10K – $50K

The machines at this level are intended for professionals, tend to be more reliable, and have better resolution; the actual resolution varies by machine and technology. Names like Uprint, Mojo, Objet 30 (pro and prime), and 3D System’s entry-level ProJet machines come to mind.

The kinds of organizations that use Tier 2 machines include industrial design firms, universities and colleges, and companies that develop physical products. Their budgets are larger and there’s a real business need or at least a user base that supports the 3D printer purchase.

Tier 3: $50K +

These are the powerhouse machines, with the largest print beds and the highest (read: finest) resolution. A great example of the level of artistry that can be achieved with these printers is Moddler—their printers produce a resolution of 16 microns. Brands and models include Eden, ProJet, Connex, EOS, and Fortus.

The types of companies that typically buy these types of printers are the Fortune 100, 500, and 1000 companies, and large service bureaus—companies with a large budget that are printing multiple products in parallel.

So as you can see, 3D printers are not cheap, even at the low end. But the price tag is just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous embedded costs lurk beneath the surface—so let’s dive in.

Part Resolution and Printer Technology

If you’re considering a 3D printer purchase, you should first think about the resolution of the parts you need.

Desktop printers are great for iterating on basic size and form, but if you need functional parts with greater dimensional accuracy, you’re going to need a higher resolution printer.

The four core 3D printing technologies can be ranked as follows, by level of resolution, which is really the physical height of each layer of material the printer lays down:

  • PolyJet: 16-micron layer resolution
  • SLA (stereolithography): 25-200 micron layer resolution
  • SLS (selective laser sintering): 60-150 micron layer resolution
  • FDM (fused deposition modeling): 50-300 micron layer resolution

You need to be clear on the purpose of 3D printing for your organization and then choose the quality that corresponds to your needs.

Maintenance, Personnel, and Facilities

Once you’ve established which type of printer you should purchase, you need to consider the maintenance requirements of that machine.

3D printers require real expertise, especially the higher-end machines. They’re finely tuned performance engines that not just anyone can operate; when it comes to printer operation, the area where I see the greatest lack of expertise and attention to detail is maintenance.

Over time, any printer will start to degrade, like anything with moving parts. The print heads, the build bed, the pumps inside the printer—all those parts and pieces need to be cleaned on a regular basis.

So who will be responsible for maintaining your printer?

You could do it yourself, or if you’re a startup or design firm you could train one of your engineers to do it. But think about the time this will really take—time you could be spending on your dev cycles, your business, your marketing, or time your skilled engineers could be spending on, well, engineering.

Here’s a shortlist of the ongoing tasks required for 3D printer maintainance:

  • Preparing and loading digital files
  • Loading material (build and support) into the printer
  • Selecting and purchasing the material
  • Cleaning and, if required, finishing the printed parts
  • Inspecting the final product to ensure it meets specifications
  • General maintenance: cleaning the machines, ordering spare parts, troubleshooting and working with the manufacturer’s technicians on repairs.

Because of all the tasks required to maintain a printer in top shape, depending on the type of machine you purchase and the number of machines you have, you may need to consider hiring a dedicated operator as another member of the staff, whether full-time, part-time, or a contractor.

One other thing that’s not immediately obvious, but also figures into the operation/maintenance equation, is facility requirements. Where are you going to put your printer? Is it going to live in its own room or in a shared space where it might drive your non 3D-printing-concerned employees crazy? Do you have the proper wash station and waste disposal facilities set up? What about HVAC air venting systems to make sure you’re in compliance and your other employees don’t complain about the fumes (even if non-toxic)? What about zoning within your company’s building?

These and other related questions—and how much they’ll cost you—are the kinds of things to take into serious consideration when thinking about whether or not to purchase a 3D printer.

Time to Delivery Matters

When you’re in the prototyping and design phase of hardware development, the key question to ask yourself is: do hours or days matter? In other words, how quickly do you need parts printed?

It all depends on your workflow: how many products or projects you’re working on, how many parts and what size parts you need to print on a regular basis, and how large your team is. If you’re a one-man shop, you wait on no one. If you’re the innovation lab of a large corporate entity, you need to wrangle multiple projects, multiple deadlines, and typically numerous team members.

You should also think outside the printer box a bit: say you have a fairly large prototype you need to build. You could either spend the time (and money) printing it all in one piece, or design it as several smaller interlocking parts that can be printed in parallel by the smaller, less expensive machines—which is faster overall.

Capacity Considerations

Another factor that impacts the overall cost of printer ownership is capacity. While it’s nice to have a 3D printer sitting in your office ready and waiting, it’s important to run scenarios relevant to your needs and development cycles.

How large of a machine do you actually need? How big are the parts you’ll be printing? If your parts are large, can you reconfigure the design so you’re printing more but smaller parts in parallel? How many projects is your company working on that require 3D printing at any given time?

Think also about your physical space, set-up, and the team involved in the project. Say you’ve got 30 engineers, all trying to access your one machine. One engineer can kick off the machine because he’s ready to roll, but no one else will be able to use it until that part (or a series of parts) is done printing. What does that do to your development cycles and timelines?

A shared resource is always challenging, but what people tend to forget about are the little operational details. Everyone has their own mannerisms and preferences: one person might be very detail-oriented and clean the machine assiduously after each time they use it, while another only cares about time and wouldn’t know a print head from a pump.

So the way you and your staff manage your 3D printer and its workflow will directly impact the quality of the parts you produce, how quickly they’re built, and how much those parts cost you in terms of time and materials.

Planning for Dev Cycles and Workflow

Aside from the technology, aside from skilled operators and maintenance and facility requirements, this is a critical consideration most people don’t give enough careful thought to: the nature of development cycles. I’ll run through three basic development workflows:

High workflow: you’re a product development firm. You’re likely working on different client projects simultaneously, so your dev cycles stack one right on top of the other—and you’ll need to translate that into a well-planned 3D printing schedule.

Low workflow: you’re a startup. Chances are you’ve got just the one product, which means your 3D printer will sit idle for long periods of time until your next prototype, or your next product.

Variable workflow: you’re a satellite R&D lab, with a high budget and high engineer head count. Your dev cycles constantly change, with lots of high and low printer utility periods.

The nature of your organization, the types of parts you print, and your workflow cycles, all play into and define the role a 3D printer will play in your business. If you purchase a Tier 3 machine but only use it once a in a blue moon, you’ll have no ROI to speak of. If you opt for the wrong type of machine, it may cost you in a different way—having to reprint parts, or printing parts that don’t work the way you need them to.

How well you understand, support, and schedule your dev cycles can make or break the value you get out of your 3D printing setup.

The Win-Win

But it’s not an either-or game. If you decide owning a printer is not for you, be it because of the cumulative expenses or the time and learning required to operate one, you can benefit from the Fictiv printer network, which in effect gives you access to the kind of 3D printer you need without having to own one. You can learn more about how this works here.

On the other side, if you own a machine, or several, you can join the Fictiv network and lease your printer’s idle time, thus recouping some of your costs of ownership. The way I look at it, if you make the investment in owning a printer, you want to develop that investment: use it for your own needs, and leverage it as an income-generating asset.

Some people put together what I call a mixed ecosystem: a Tier 1 machine or two, one Tier 2 and maybe even a Tier 3. Or they’ve got multiple Tier 1’s and a Tier 3 for the high-end work. This way they cover the different phases of the development process—and have plenty of inventory to lease out. It all depends on their situation, bandwidth, and goals. You can learn more about how to join the Fictiv network here.

Equally interesting is the concept of harnessing the power of our printer network to add more firepower to your existing 3D printer. Say for example you have a sudden surge in your workflow but only own one printer. The network gives you access to more machines of various resolutions and technologies, which you can use to print in parallel, thus cutting your overall time-to-print by orders of magnitude.

Not so long ago, the difference between owning a 3D printer and sending the job out to a service bureau was literally hours vs. weeks. In that scenario, there was little discussion: owning a printer was critical if you wanted a fast turnaround.

That’s no longer true.

All of the above reasons are why I started Fictiv in the first place, so today you can choose.

By aggregating the capacity of a distributed network of machines, Fictiv offers same-day part delivery to give you the speed of ownership without the burden of ownership. Or if you have a machine, you can now monetize that asset more easily. It’s really a win-win for everyone, no matter whether you choose ownership or pay-per-use or something in between.

With a greater understanding of what it truly costs to own a 3D printer, hopefully you can now make the best decision for yourself or for your company.

And if you want to access or join our distributed network of machines for more efficient production, create a free account here.