3D printing is a slooooow process. While 3D printing geeks like me can spend hours watching a printer lay down layers of plastic, it often turns manufacturers off who are used to rapid manufacturing process like injection moulding where parts can be pumped out every few seconds. However, there is a way to produce products en masse and it’s called the 3D printing build farm.
Perhaps you’ve already seen images like the ones above – these are well known examples of 3D printing build farms at Ultimaker (left) and Prusa (right) that illustrate what they’re all about: Lots and lots of 3D printers! A 3D printing build farm is basically just a collection of several 3D printers, or many hundreds of 3D printers, that can significantly scale up the production of parts. These can often be networked together as part of a single management system, meaning only a small number of workers are needed to keep an eye on things. The benefit over other mass production technologies is that you still retain the benefits of 3D printing a unique item on every 3D printer, rather than just producing thousands of exactly the same product. Of course, you can also produce thousands of the same part, for example the Prusa build farm is made up of over 500 of their own 3D printers, which are used to print many of the parts to assemble new 3D printers.
A centralised build farm (left) and a decentralised, geographically dispersed build farm (right)
Recently I published a book chapter analysing 3D printing build farms in the context of work and the future. Titled ‘3D Printing Build Farms: The Rise of a Distributed Manufacturing Workforce,’ one of the main opportunities we discuss that has not yet been exploited is for 3D printing build farms to be geographically distributed, rather than centralised within a single facility (illustrated above). If all the 3D printers within the build farm are connected to a central management system, then they do not actually need to be located in the same physical location.
Obviously there are some benefits to having all the machines located together, particularly for maintenance and monitoring. However, there may also be several benefits to distributing the 3D printers domestically or internationally, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the longer-term changes we may now enjoy working from home, or at least working in a more decentralised manner:
- 3D printers can be located closer to customers. Centralised 3D printing build farms must still ship products around the world, just like conventional manufacturers, which costs time and money.
- Distributed farms may better suit new flexible working conditions, allowing people to work the hours they want, from a location they want.
- New jobs in regional areas with smart regions connected to smart cities. 3D printers may be distributed in regional areas, as well as cities, reducing the need for people to relocate to overcrowded cities in order to find work.
- Businesses may join forces and utilise shared “nodes” of the 3D printing build farm.
Time will tell if this provides businesses with new advantages, but it is clear that build farms, whether centralised or distributed, are a growing trend with real commercial value. Some of the biggest adopters are in the dental industry, for example SmileDirectClub which uses 49 multi jet fusion 3D printers from HP to manufacture moulds for up to 49,000 clear aligners each day. This is big business, driven by 3D printing and build farm systems.
– Posted by James Novak