3D printing has changed the way people learn and the way engineering and other design industries quickly turn ideas into something tangible. It’s an awesome bit of technology. But with the fast adoption of 3D printing, we have seen some recurring problems:
- The 3D printer is left in the hands of one or two individuals who took the time to read all the manuals. Everybody else has no idea how to use it.
- Others in the school/college/university/business have similar needs, but either don’t know these machines are available to them or fear the learning curve.
- Operating 3D printers can be expensive, and without proper print quotas, costs can quickly spiral out of control.
- 3D printer equipment is fragile, and casual student access is not appropriate in many environments. It needs to be limited to trained individuals or lab operators.
Do any of these sound familiar? Over the last few years, PaperCut has worked with a bunch of organizations, schools, universities, and other businesses to design more efficient 3D printing systems. Believe us when we say: we’ve seen it all before.
If you’re an IT manager or sysadmin and you’ve been tasked with running a 3D printing lab, here are a few tips to make life easier.
What is ‘guided 3D printing’?
By ‘guided 3D printing’ we really mean organized 3D printing. And 3D printing should definitely be organized. For many of the reasons listed above, it’s not good practice to have your 3D printers accessible to everyone, unsupervised, or operated by un-trained users. There needs to be a system in place to keep your print lab from degenerating into a swirling, resin-filled room of entropy.
The benefits of 3D printing
Maybe you’re tossing up the idea of a 3D print lab, or you’ve recently acquired a 3D printer but aren’t sure how to get the most out of it. That’s okay. 3D printing does have a somewhat steeper learning curve than traditional printing, and it can be intimidating without the proper training. Here are a few benefits of 3D printing:
Customization. 3D printing allows for the creation of highly customized and complex designs, which is amazing for prototyping ideas. It’s been a game-changer in industries like healthcare, aerospace and automotive vehicles.
Rapid prototyping. Does your engineering department want to quickly test an idea? 3D print it! Thanks to 3D printing, prototyping has become way faster and more cost-effective, allowing teams to refine their ideas in real time.
Waste reduction. Traditional subtractive manufacturing usually involves cutting material away from a larger block, which has always been a pretty wasteful way to build stuff. 3D printing only uses the material it needs to build the object – layer by layer.
Teaching augmentation. 3D printers offer an unrivalled teaching opportunity, which is why we’ve seen so many 3D fab labs pop up in schools and universities. Students can learn engineering principles , test complex geometries, build architectural models, or even dabble in creative art. All relatively cheaply.
Overcoming the challenges of 3D printing
As an IT manager or sysadmin, you’re going to come up against some common 3D printing obstacles. We’ve narrowed these down to four major categories: availability, job submission, workflow management and cost control. Get those right and you’re well on the way to running an efficient 3D printing lab.
Availability. If 3D printers are the sole domain of the people who are trained to use them, the whole thing can be seen as an elite or unattainable resource. These printers need to be made available to students and staff of all levels, giving them an equal opportunity to learn. By treating the 3D fab lab as a ‘print room’, users of any level can submit their job and have an expert print it for them, often learning from feedback during the process.
Job submission. In a 2D print world, job submission is usually no more complicated than pressing Ctrl + P. That is until you want to start using a specialty service, such as gloss covers, or a non-standard paper size. 3D printing is more like these specialty services and should be treated as such. You need a simple way for users to specify and submit their job options (like color and material type). PaperCut MF is a great way to set up basic 3D job templates.
Workflow management. IT managers and sysadmins are often stretched for time. It comes with the territory. This goes double for print lab operators, especially during peak times, when there’s more demand than the 3D printers can manage. Having a system that sorts job priorities, notifies users of their job status, and manages billing automatically is absolutely essential. For your sanity, if nothing else.
Cost control. The old adage of “If you give users something for free, they’ll abuse it” stands true for 3D printing. Limiting users to a reasonable print quota or setting up a pay-for-print environment is usually a good idea. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to use the fab lab and stops your budget spiraling out of control.
As an IT manager or sysadmin, it can be slightly daunting to set up your own 3D print lab. Especially if you have limited experience with the technology. But don’t worry, our friendly team can walk you through the whole process and recommend a print management solution to make life easier. Just give us a call to find out more.