ANAHEIM, CA (Pacific Design and Manufacturing Show), Feb 7, 2011 - Though 3D printers are all the rage -- and took up a lot of floor space at the Pacific Design Show, they are not without their limitations. For one thing, they are limited in the type of material they can use. That may be fine for show-and-tell design reviews, but many are tempted to bolt the part into its service environment. One would hope that would only be to test fit -- not function. Putting a weak plastic part where a tough metal part was would be to invite disaster. Of course the temptation to press RP parts into service exists because 3D printer are becoming increasingly accessible -- and because the common perception of one-off parts done otherwise is that it is way too expensive.
Not so, says Proto Labs. They might be able to make a real part for only a few dollars more than a rapid service bureau, and Stacy Sullivan, media manager at Proto Labs, was only to happy to show me.
For one sample part, the "3D print" cost $125 and was made using FDM technology, such as used by Stratasys machines. Proto Labs would quote the same part in Delrin for only $146. Want metal? Aluminum is only a few dollars more ($150).
We used Proto Labs for our Innovate3D service. The quoting process is automated and can be done without human intervention, though humans are available, like the self service check out at the Safeway. If you don't know what you are doing, the process can be a bit daunting, as warnings are issued for this and that (example: improper draft angles) but on the other hand, you can get a quote quickly without having to have a salesman call you back in a few days -- if at all, commission in one off parts being what it is.
It does take a bit longer to get the part in your hand (1-3 business days) and Stacy cautions that if 2-3 parts are being made, 3D printing may be less expensive since RP parts can be stacked or nested in the working volume, whereas with Proto Labs parts, the prices are roughly proportional the number of parts.Has this caught on? Proto Labs won't tell me how many hundreds of machines are in operations but I manage to find out that 3 buildings on the 160,000+ sq ft Proto Labs campus in Maple Plain, MN are humming around the clock. They also have full scale facilities in England and Japan.