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The Myth Of The Gold Standard: Making The Leap From SLA

Rapid prototyping service bureaus have relied on SLA machines even as newer technologies come along with advanced features at a lower cost.

From 1900 to 1971, U.S. currency was based on the gold standard, meaning the U.S. treasury literally held enough gold in reserve to act as collateral for all the nation’s cash.

When Nixon lifted the gold standard in 1971, many predicted a financial apocalypse that never came. Nixon and the Fed [Federal Reserve] educated the financial community about the false necessity of the gold standard and the markets quickly adjusted to a new reality.

Similarly, rapid prototyping service bureaus have relied on stereolithography (SLA) machines even as newer technologies have come along with advanced features at a lower equipment cost. Still, most shops insist on maintaining their expensive SLA machines — just in case.

In 2010, my service bureau, VistaTek, lifted the figurative gold standard by decommissioning the last of its five SLA machines and moving to Objet 3D inkjet based PolyJet technology. Apocalypse? Far from it. In the subsequent months, business picked up and our margins improved due to three main factors:

  1. The superior quality of the parts created on our Objet printers.
  2. The broad variety of materials (30+) and the added speed that we could offer the industry.
  3. The extra business opportunities that we earned from customers who can now use us for all their rapid prototyping and production needs.

Rapid Prototyping & Complex Injection Molds

Established in 1996 with four employees and one SLA machine, Vista Technologies (VistaTek), specializes in rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and injection molding. The company’s broad mix of capabilities set it apart from other service bureaus -- we could produce prototypes fast with virtually any rapid prototyping material.

In the years since its founding, the company grew swiftly. In 2006, the company had 20 employees, 1,200 customers, and five SLA machines. By 2010, it had 30 employees, 1,800 customers -- including 3M, SPX Corporation, and Toro -- and zero SLA machines.

That’s right, not one SLA machine. In 2010, our company replaced all of its SLA machines with Objet PolyJet 3D printers.

Good Parts, Few Choices

Why did we make the change? Since most of our work is done on the front end of the product development cycle, fit, and form are important. Tolerance and surface finish are also important for molding, and SLA had always been a good fit from that perspective.

But SLA machines were messy and expensive. Material vats cost upwards of $60,000 each, and because they were so large and difficult to swap out, we could only keep two to three materials on hand at any given time. This limited customers’ choices and forced them to use several different service bureaus to meet all their needs.

Upkeep of the machines cost a fortune because, frankly, much of the equipment in the market is old. We had purchased our machines when SLA technology was new, about 10 years prior. It built in thickness layers of 0.004” and 0.006”, which was state-of-the-art circa 2001, but it is considered very crude by today’s standards. Because upgrades to our SLA equipment would cost $500,000 to $700,000 per machine, we were reluctant to make the investment.

In addition, we felt that SLA service parts had become commoditized. With no recent technological improvements, all the service bureaus competed on price. To make up for slim margins, many bureaus began cutting corners such as skimping on finish work, leading to further deterioration of part quality. We didn’t want to get sucked into that game.

So in 2008 we decided to try something new, and we purchased our first high-resolution 3D printer from Objet for about one-quarter the cost of a new large platform SLA machine.

Exponential Increase in Material Choices

We could immediately see that the part quality was unmatched, plus the machines were faster and cost of production was lower. In 2009, we upgraded to Objet’s Connex printer, which gave us the ability to jet multiple materials simultaneously.

By blending Objet’s 10 base materials in different ways, we could now jet 30+ different digital materials, giving our customers unprecedented choice, and enabling a mix of more than 10 different mechanical properties in a single printed part.

That’s when we started to think about making the wholesale switch from SLA to Objet.

Like Nixon, we didn’t treat our move away from the gold standard lightly. For most of our customers, part quality trumps cost, so we analyzed the specs. We produced and tested dozens of parts.

What we found is that the part quality off our Objet printer was always at least on par with SLA, and for certain applications it was much better -- with little finish work needed. Objet offers a greater variety of materials, including soft durometer materials, and its overmolding capabilities were a huge advantage.

We now have material choices ranging from 27 Shore A to 90 Shore D, and because we can jet multiple materials in a single tray, we can deliver exactly what each customer wants with no delay (and no lost business). Because it shortened our turnaround times dramatically, our 3D printer also helped lower our cost of production and improve our margins.

Our Taste Test

Before making our final decision to ditch our SLA machines, we did our equivalent of the Folgers Taste Test. You may remember the Folgers Coffee commercials from the 1980s in which the company would stage a taste test in an upscale restaurant, daring customers to identify which coffee was the expensive roast and which was Folgers. Invariably, Folgers came out on top.

In our case, we would take a part order that we traditionally produced using SLA and produce it on our Objet printer. Not one customer noticed the difference, and they complimented us on the material variety we were now able to provide.

We began decommissioning our SLA machines and replacing them with new Objet Connex printers.

By mid-2010, our last SLA machine was taken offline.

The primary benefit is material choice. Objet cartridges are smaller than SLA vats, and the switch out is much easier -- about the same amount of labor as changing a regular printer cartridge. Instead of stocking three different materials, now we could stock dozens. That variety means that customers can now come to VistaTek for one-stop shopping and we can earn more of their business. Plus, the cost of ownership is far lower than it was for our SLA machines.

Any Customer Request

Was making this switch the safe choice? No. We gave up what for many years was considered to be the gold standard in our industry, but the bottom line was we felt SLA was no longer meeting customer needs. SLA technology is outdated, the material choices are insufficient, and the cost of production is simply too high. We were willing to take a chance on a newer, better technology.

That chance has paid off. In 2010, our tooling business achieved double-digit growth and our injection molding business showed triple-digit growth. The growth is attributed, in part, to our ability to work more closely with customers on product development and to handle a greater variety of their rapid prototyping and molding needs.

I’m not saying the switch wasn’t nerve-racking -- it was. There is a fine line between cutting edge and bleeding edge, but we take pride in our innovative use of technology, which in this case resulted in stronger customer relationships, growing revenue, and higher profits.