By Susan Smith
Rapid manufacturing service bureaus offer a variety of services, both additive and subtractive. Some offer as many of the up-to-date technologies and processes as possible; others focus on fused deposition modeling (FDM) processes, yet others focus on computed numerically controlled (CNC) or injection-molding processes, on 3D scanning, and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) modeling upon which all these processes depend.
The complexity of this product’s twisting manifold could have been challenging and expensive to machine or mold. It was produced with direct digital manufacturing by RedEyeOnDemand.
The most common advantage that all service bureaus cite is that they offer a low-cost way to get parts manufactured, without carrying the overhead of machinery and materials. The other commonly cited advantage is that service bureaus generally have a number of different machines, processes and materials in-house, as well as the expertise to know which combination will work best for the parts a customer wants manufactured.
‘Eye’ on the Prize
To go out and buy an FDM system is something only the largest manufacturing companies can afford to do. To have FDM-made parts, which are comparable to injection-molded parts but can be produced in vast quantities and faster, without the overhead of equipment ownership, is a huge plus.
According to Jeff Hanson, director of RedEyeOnDemand, Stratasys’ service bureau arm, business was flat in 2009.
“We managed to avoid a decline in 2009, though, because late in ’08 we made a strategic shift to go from targeting just prototyping business to targeting low-volume production,” he says. “This new revenue stream is now more than 20% of RedEye’s business.”
RedEye’s business was built on providing durable thermoplastic prototypes for functional testing.
Painted selective laser sintered part by 3Dproparts.
“Now that we’re pursuing the manufacturing market, it’s even more imperative to have machines that can produce thermoplastic parts,” says Hanson. “This requires FDM technology. We also offer ]Objet] PolyJet for those customers who need prototypes with the glass-like edges, tiny feature detail and surface finish.”
Hanson says the recession has been a catalyst for change.
“It creates out-of-the box thinkers,” he explains. “When a business is making lots of money, it’s sometimes harder to get that company to try something different and risk upsetting their money-making machine for something even more profitable. In the last year, we’ve seen lots of companies adopt additive fabrication as a viable alternative for production.”
The Superstore Concept
Some service bureaus can offer “one-stop shopping,” where customers can get a lot of different parts built from varying materials using varying processes, plus expert advice.
Quickparts’ CEO Patrick Hunter says his company came out of the recession stronger than it was going in, because it was forced to concentrate on its core business.
“One of the best things we have is our people. Tough situations force you as a team to become closer,” he says.
Hunter reports that Quickparts is seeing more positive activity in the market. Lead times are becoming more critical for customers as the manufacturing industry ramps back up, and there is a need to get new products on the market quickly.
Part of the job, he says, is to educate customers on what is going to best meet their needs and requirements: “I think we’re seeing more of them relying on us more to help guide them in the process regarding lead time, price and functionality.”
Hunter points out that the PolyJet process is continuing to pick up speed in certain applications, because some of its build characteristics are unique. Another area seeing a shift in is in the cast urethane process.
“In the past, it was a bridge from rapid prototyping to tooling, and now with the rapid tooling, we’re able to offer cast urethane,” Hunter says, noting that it is used for large, low-volume components like large medical housings. “The investment of an injection mold doesn’t make sense when you can get a cast urethane tool and parts for the quantity that’s required.”
The fact that individuals and small companies can acquire a low-cost 3D printer has actually helped the overall rapid prototyping industry, Hunter says, because “it validates that 3D printing is here to stay.
“I think the biggest thing that drives rapid manufacturing in the industry is the creation of new and better materials,” he continues. “The technologies have been out there, but the materials are what’s helping advance it. The industry is rebounding; things are taking shape. We’re moving as manufacturing product development is picking up, and new players are coming into the industry.”
Focus on the Shape of Things
Taking the increasingly popular concept of mass customization a step further, Shapeways offers a new business model. It has a “marketplace and community” focus, with the aim of making 3D printing technology accessible to consumers.
Shapeways enables consumers to use their own 3D software to design a product themselves, or open a shop and sell their items at Shapeways.com to others who don’t have those skills. Consumers can also make their items customizable, so that people without 3D skills can adapt templates, make a mockup and Shapeways will then produce the item.
Shapeways currently offers FDM, SLS, ZCorp, and will re-introduce Alumide, a mix of nylon and aluminum dust; Objet white, black and transparent materials, stainless steel and the newly introduced first commercial offering of 3D printing of glass from ExOne.
Shapeways does not own its own machines, and outsources production. It has close to 40,000 members, and the website has approximately 650 shops run by community members, home to more than 9,000 products.
Expanding in a Down Economy
3D Systems is a provider of a family of systems that consists of the 3-D Modeling, SLA and SLS product lines. The investment of adding a service bureau arm to its business was a notable undertaking.
Abe Reichental, 3D Systems’ president and CEO, says his company went public Oct. 1, 2009 with its service bureau, 3Dproparts, because “the service bureau industry was struggling with its ability to invest in the latest technology, and to fulfill its defined role as channel between equipment and materials suppliers and the ultimate end users.”
3Dproparts set about investing in the latest additive manufacturing technology and materials. It purchased four service bureaus in different geographic areas: AcuCast Technologies in Lawrenceburg, TN; Advatech in Goodland, IN; Moeller Design in Seattle and DPT Design Prototyping Technologies in Syracuse, NY.
The business is divided into four segments: 3Dproparts Online Services, 3Dproparts Premier Services, Aerospace and Defense, and Dental/Medical. The service bureau offers SLA, SLS, selective laser melting (SLM), jet printing (MJM), AcuCast simulated die-casting metal parts, MQast proprietary metal casting solution, Objet PolyJet and CNC machining.
Reichental says he expects the new 3Dproparts business to earn between 15% and 20% of 3D Systems’ total revenues by the end of this year.
3D Scanning, from Art to Industry
Michael Raphael, CEO of Direct Dimensions, says the economy has barely affected Direct Dimensions. In fact, his firm has been busier than ever for the past two years.
“We think when the economy sours, large companies tend to lay off a few people and they still need to get the work done, so they outsource it,” Raphael says.
Direct Dimensions provides reverse engineering, 3D measuring, 3D modeling, inspection/analysis and 3D laser scanning.
“People send us objects of any nature from any industry, or if it’s too large, we go to it onsite—if it’s a ship, boat or building,” explains Michael Raphael, CEO of Direct Dimensions. “As a service, we convert their physical object into CAD format, using a lot of different equipment and software.”
Laser scanning equipment is extremely expensive—$100,000 and up—so most customers would prefer to outsource that work to a service bureau.
Companies that do laser scanning every day, such as Boeing, need the equipment because they have old parts and tools that they want in CAD for the future. But they also outsource themselves to their customers.
Direct Dimensions is also a reseller and distributor—primarily PolyWorks, Geomagic and Rapidform for CAD conversion. Companies that want to bring scanning in-house often think they need to investigate all the equipment, but Direct Dimensions helps bring them up to speed quickly.
“We often can help them short-circuit that process, which could take weeks to a year. They send us a typical project; we do it as a service, and then they call us up and say ‘We wanted to use that project as a test, and want to know what you used,’” explains Raphael.
Other equipment includes a CT scanner that they outsource for medical or industrial use. Direct Dimensions has a new system, ShapeShot, which takes a 3D picture of a person’s face. It’s useful for orthodontic applications and plastic surgery, as well as to put faces in digital format for video games.
Proto Labs is a custom manufacturer offering quick-turn injection molding and CNC machining services for prototype and low-volume parts. The company had a relatively flat year for 2009, but things have picked up for 2010. CEO Brad Cleveland attributes this change partially to the rebound in the economy and partially to some actions his team took to increase the envelope of parts they could make.
“Last year, we significantly increased the size and complexity of the parts we can injection mold and turn around in just a few days, and last year, we also introduced the ability to ship CNC aluminum parts in just a few days,” he explains. “That’s a fast-growing part of our business now.”
In support of its four-year-old CNC machining service, called First Cut, the company has offered thermoplastics from the start. Last year, it added aluminum—and Cleveland hopes to announce additional metals over the course of this year.
“Aluminum has gone from nothing to a significant fraction of our CNC machining business in less than a year,” he says. “We expect the demand for the new metals to also grow very quickly.”
Proto Labs ships CNC machined parts, in plastic and aluminum, within one to three business days of receipt of an order, Cleveland says. It developed the software to automatically generate the toolpaths and CNC commands for 3-axis CNC mills. In addition, the company developed the fixturing technology to be able to hold the parts as they are machined and can machine from up to six sides.
Its Protomold injection molding service supports hundreds of thermoplastics.
Contributing Editor Susan Smith is DE’s expert in rapid technologies, and has been immersed in the tech industry for more than 17 years. Send an e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.