5 most common pitfalls for 3D Printer Manufacturers and how to avoid them
At Create it REAL we believe that the way to success is continuous learning and improvement. We are also passionate about growing the 3D printing market and ensuring that it keeps marching on towards wider adoption. Along that note we decided to share some of the mistakes we have made ourselves or seen over the years to make sure they are hopefully not made ever again.
1. Picking the wrong slicer for your business model
So, you have made a printer, congratulations! You have done quite a bit of the hard work already. There’s a slight issue: in order to make it print you need to feed it with instructions. For this you need a slicing software. Looking at the myriad of available options for slicers can make this quite an overwhelming decision, but at the end of the day your options can be split into 3 categories with different pros and cons:
- Off-the-shelf, Open source:
This is usually the most tempting option. There are plenty of slicers out there that are both free as in free beer and free as in free speech. This makes them a pretty attractive option if you’re on a budget, it is not all good news though. Most open source project suffer from the same common drawbacks which can be summed up like this:
- Usability and “prettiness” tend to be on the back-burner as most efforts go into compatibility with a wide range of hardware and experimentation with new features rather than ease of use and design. If you are techy, you can perhaps improve upon this yourself. But remember that this is a project composing of many different individual contributions, and thus you might find the barrier of entry higher than you think.
- Predicting or influencing the development direction (for example requesting new features) can be hard because these projects tend to be either dominated by a single large donor (company) who mostly look out for their own benefits or they are maintained by individual volunteer contributions in which case everyone is for themselves.
- Off-the-shelf, Proprietary:
The alternative solution for an off the shelf slicer is to go for one made by a for-profit company. Generally in these cases you still only get things as-is with minimal support but at least you can expect higher quality along with a higher price. If you have specific requirements for features and future development this might still not be the right choice for you as these companies tend to put their own brand’s and users’ interest first when it comes to prioritizing development.
- Custom / Roll your own:
So what do you do when you don’t like either of these solutions? You can make your own slicer, all you need is half a dozen developers and maybe a few years. If that sounds too much at Create it REAL we offer a wide range of solutions for a slicer to suit every need. Giving you the flexibility you need no matter your use case:
- API – To integrate 3D printing into existing products
- Online – When supporting a wide range of devices and ease-of-use is critical
- Pro – For the most control.
- Custom development for when you need to add that special something
2. Blowing all your budget on the mechanics
The wiring and electronics of a 3D printer is the most common and most visible point of failure. This is especially sad because it is one of the easiest things to avoid. In a lot of projects wiring and electronics tend to be only an after thought. “We’ll just make it work with whatever budget we have left over”. This kind of thinking is especially tempting since the consequences of a bad wiring job or low quality electronics will only be felt month or years later, so as far as anyone is concerned during prototyping and initial testing the printer is operating as expected.
There are no sure-fire ways to predict or test for failures in the future, so the only thing you can do is follow best-practices and manufacturer recommendations for all the components you use, and make sure that your electrical and mechanical engineers collaborate from the beginning on creating proper wiring paths for your machine.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Size your wire gauge and connectors for your currents.
- Don’t mix screw terminals, crimps and solder. For crimps, leave your wires bare, for screw terminals use ferrules. Especially if you’re want to look into getting CE certified.
- Do not skimp on cable management:
- No free hanging wires
- Don’t bend around too sharp corners
- Avoid pinching wires
- Reduce spot hardening and breaking from repetitive stress by using strain relief to spread the load
- Crimp your connectors correctly.
- Don’t tie your cables too tight. Leave a bit of slack.
It is also a good idea to set aside a fitting budget for your control board. There’s no need to over spend here, but you also don’t want to be sending your multi thousand Euro industrial machine with a board you found by “sort by cheapest” on Aliexpress. A good rule of thumb is to expect spend around 20% of your BoM costs for electronics.
When looking for a board, no matter how cheap, make sure it has at least the following safety features:
- De-coupled power control – Low current buttons can be used
- Reverse polarity protection
- Back EMF protection
- Over voltage protection
- Over current protection
- Shortcut protection (using a fuse)
- ESD protection
Another overlooked consideration is the firmware for your printer. A firmware is the “brain” of your electronics. Generally cheaper boards come with no firmware, so you’ll either need to write your own or re-purpose some of the existing ones. The firmware is also responsible for providing the user interface for your printer. This is your companies face towards your users and the part of the printer they’ll interact the most with, so it is crucial that the experience is smooth and welcoming. You can save yourself quite a bit of time and headache by choosing a board that comes with an official firmware, preferably one that is customizable to your brand.
3. Blurry marketing, bad differentiation
A machine that does everything might sound amazing but in reality it is hard to sell. People and companies buy things to fulfil a specific need and the better you are at understanding this need the higher chance you have at them choosing your product over your competition. Here at Create it REAL we believe that despite it’s huge long term potential as a universal platform, the short to medium term future of 3D printing is in specific applications. If you need help with finding your own voice and carving a niche for yourself you can contact us here.
4. Over promising and under delivering
This pitfall is especially common with crowd funded projects, but no one is immune to it. Let’s be honest here: everyone dreams of a big launch, and an overnight success, but sadly reality is usually different. In practice it is generally better to secure funding independently and have start with a quiet soft launch. Recalling or fixing a few dozen printers from a trusted group of early adopters is a lot easier than trying to handle hundreds of support requests while also juggling supply chain and logistics issues. “Nail it before you scale it!” is the name of the game and this early feedback can be invaluable to spot and fix issues before they can do too much damage. The big launch can wait.
5. Not designing for scale
The difficulty of scaling production is roughly logarithmic. What this means is that there is a steep investment and learning curve in the very beginning during the low volumes. Building one printer is not the same as designing one that can be built thousands of times. Product design might seem trivial but it is not. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed up front in the design that are not always possible to solve down the line with process. In this sense the importance of DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) cannot be overstated. It is generally best to get this done professionally (hiring a production engineer or a consultant) and in close collaboration with the suppliers and the place that will do the production of custom parts and assembly. Finding the right partners and building the right relationships is incredibly important. It is one of those issues where if you wait until you need to fix it before you do anything it is usually too late.