Think 3D printing is just for prototyping? Think again

The predominant understanding manufacturers have regarding 3D printers is that they are basically a prototyping tool. This pre-conception in some cases may hold back wider adoption and the chance to leverage the transformative capabilities the technology offers.

The new technology platform designed, manufactured and supported by 3D Systems is taking 3D printing out of the innovation lab and into low and mid-range volume manufacturing. 

To learn more, The Manufacturer spoke with Dave Tribolet, the director of Figure 4 product development at 3D Systems.

What has characterised the past 12 months in terms of manufacturers’ adoption of 3DP?

For many applications, Figure 4 can enable throughput improvements of up to fifteen-times and up to 20% lower parts cost – image courtesy of 3D Systems.
For many applications, Figure 4 can enable throughput improvements of up to fifteen-times and up to 20% lower parts cost* – image courtesy of 3D Systems.

Dave Tribolet: There is certainly a greater understanding among manufacturers now regarding the benefits of integrating 3D printing into their existing production processes. Our unit placements have increased year-on-year which demonstrates a growing appetite and rising adoption.

More and more businesses are looking to tap in to the market demand for higher levels of personalisation. When every product you manufacture is slightly different from the previous one, having just one design doesn’t necessarily work anymore.

Instead, you might have a standard reference design, say for a medical device or the interior of a commercial aircraft, which is then capable of being customised according to individual customer specifications.

3D printing allows you to offer personalisation and maintain or grow your market share, without the need for repeatedly and frequently having to invest in new production tooling.

If you use an injection mould and want to change the tool, it has to be taken out of production, taken apart, the tooling switched out, the machine reassembled, and then tests run and any necessary adjustments made before getting the machine back up to production speed and quality. That whole process can take weeks; with 3D printing, that can be done overnight.

Automotive is just one industry where this proposition has really matured. Under the hood, vehicles may largely be the same, but the ability to personalise interior and exterior trim details means the OEM can charge a premium by offering customers a unique product.

What are the primary challenges you hear being expressed in terms of adopting 3D Printing?

Concerns over speed certainly come up, and the first wave of 3D Systems’ Figure 4 technology has been designed to overcome that.

For many applications, Figure 4 can enable throughput improvements of up to fifteen-times and up to 20% lower parts cost*. Vertically, we can print four inches an hour, which is quite fast compared to other 3D printing systems.

However, the big nut to crack isn’t the printing, it’s the downstream post-processing. Speed of print is important, but people are more concerned with what happens afterwards; how much labour and time-intensive milling, grinding, polishing, and finishing is required?

Historically, the user experience regarding post-processing hasn’t been great across the 3D printing industry. So, to really drive adoption, we need to make the end-to-end print process a positive one. That’s something 3D Systems has looked closely at and has developed a suite of technology solutions that offer great post-processing experiences for customers.

3D Systems has really put the customer at the centre of our product and process development. All our engineers go through a ‘3D Printing boot camp’ to ensure that they truly understand what 3D Printing is all about, appreciate the end-to-end process and can recognise where the opportunities lie for each individual customer.

You’ve mentioned Figure 4 several times. For those who aren’t aware, what exactly is it?

Figure 4 is the industry’s first scalable, fully-integrated 3D printing platform, capable of providing productive and cost-effective digital moulding solutions for any production environment.

It delivers increased productivity, durability and lower total cost of operations (TCO) through speed and automation – producing real-world repeatable, accurate parts with demonstrated Six Sigma performance in a diverse range of robust, production-grade materials.

Delivered in configurable units, Figure 4 allows manufacturing capacity to grow alongside demand – from a standalone printer for rapid prototyping and low-volume direct 3D production, to modular units designed to scale with growth, to a fully-automated, fully-integrated factory solution for direct 3D production.

Move over tooling: meet digital molding

With continual advancements in additive manufacturing technology, new benefits are available through digital molding that bypass the extra time, cost, and minimum order quantities (MOQ) of the tooling process.

Click here to download an exclusive digital molding white paper to enrich your understanding of 3D Systems Figure 4 technology, where it came from and how it works, as well as why it is advantageous to businesses across industries and applications.

What do you mean by fully-automated?

Figure 4 has a material distribution module which automatically refills the resin tray. Also, if you have an array of printers with different materials, it’s smart enough to vector the job to the printer which has the appropriate material and/or is currently available.

Our Figure 4 Production modules are capable of being fully-automated, with integrated robotics overseeing tray handling and post-processing, such as washing, drying and curing, to reduce manual processes and facilitate automation for high-volume production.

All a human operator needs to worry about is keeping the system fed with resin and clean trays, that’s pretty much it.

What advice do you have for those manufacturers interested in embracing 3D printing? 

Our engagements with customers always start with understanding what the application or business need is, and then we can explore which technology and material will best deliver against that. We have a dedicated team of application engineers who are experts in having these deep-dive conversations and guiding customers to the right technology.

Different technologies and materials have varying costs of entry; metal, for example, can be generally quite high. With Figure 4, 3D Systems has tried to make the cost of entry as affordable as possible for businesses of any size or sector.

Ultimately, just getting excited by the concept, investing in it and then trying to find a problem for it to solve will usually result in a business buying the wrong equipment. 3D printing is like adopting any new technology or way of working, the first thing you have to do is identify exactly what it is your business wants to do better, improve upon or cut costs from, and use that as your foundation.


Through improvement compared to other 3D printing systems based on various use cases on Figure 4 models; parts cost compared to traditionally manufactured parts and operations.