Is 3D Printing Always The Best Option?

The Great Fish Challenge

Is the 3D printing hype justified? Will it really change the world as we know it? There is no doubt that 3D printing is a world-changer that will only be fully realised in years to come. In the meantime, the real question is “what is the best tool for the job”?

Last week at the offices of 3D Print Works “The Great Fish Challenge” took place.

It all started when I decided to 3D print a fish puzzle. It came in 26 flat pieces which had to be assembled. The first job was to fit the pieces on to the bed – 3d print jobs were needed to print all the bits. I started printing at 9am and there were a couple of false starts, but eventually, the job was running using yellow ABS.

Our esteemed Managing Director arrived when the first batch of pieces were about 40% printed and the usual question of “what are you 3d printing today?” arose and discussion ensued.

“Hmmm,” he said. “You know, that’s a bit of a waste of time because I could cut this in about 15 minutes on the CNC machine.” And so the Challenge was born.

“Right!” I replied, quick as a flash. “It’s nearly 11am now, I want to see your fish, finished,  back here at 11:15.”

Off he went, returning somewhat after 11:15, but nevertheless, it had taken 19 minutes to cut and 10 minutes of setting the job up. The assembly of the fish would take place after lunch. It looked like the CNC machine would win.

My only hope was the Hare and the Tortoise – perhaps if he was distracted after lunch, he would not get around to assembling the model and I could just beat him to the finish line. Sadly, it was not to be. My pieces were had not been printed until after 3pm by which time, his fish was finished.

So was the CNC machine the best for the job? I’d like to contrive an answer and say that the new technology is better but I think I would be scraping the barrel. But then, who has a £34,000 CNC machine hanging about in their garage?

It all comes down to time and money.  The 3D printer costs less but takes more time.  The CNC machine is quicker but costs more. In this case, it was quicker to use the CNC method, but only because it was a simple, flat shape. We have also been 3D printing other objects recently – some star fish, for example. These complicated shapes would take the CNC machine much longer to do and may achieve inferior results.

Another consideration is the quality of the finish. The CNC result is cruder – the edges need to be sanded to give the much smoother finish of the 3D printed one. The 3D printed one did not require any glue to hold it in place.  Both versions did need the slots to be filed to make them fit together – but perhaps this is an issue with the .stl files.

I hope this gives you some food for thought – you need to choose the best tool for the job. The best tool might be the 3D printer because it is the only available tool. But if you have a choice, evaluate those options and go for the one which is best for the job.

Oh, and what if you would like to 3D print your own fish puzzle? Download it from here.