Research

Michigan Tech study asks how flexible 3D printing can save costs at home

Casio watch straps, ice cube trays, car parts and phone cases are among the items 3D printed in the latest study by Michigan Tech researchers Aubrey Woern and Professor Joshua Pearce. The items were made to determine whether the average home could save money by using a desktop 3D printer as an alternative to products bought from retail stores.

Taking a flexible material focus, the research supports previous Michigan Tech studies into the feasibility of 3D printed hard plastics and composite metal/PLA for the home. Combined, these studies could provide consumer with an accurate idea of just how profitable a desktop 3D printer can be.

“I think there is unquestionably a rising trend in 3D printer home use,” states Professor Pearce in a 3D Printing Industry Q&A, “There are millions of free designs, which result in ownership of a 3D printer being even more valuable for consumers.”

“Eventually most people will have one.”

A flexible, and customizable home

Filament used in the Michigan Tech study is NinjaFlex extruded by an upgraded FlexyStruder extruder. The material was loaded by researchers into a desktop Lulzbot Mini 3D printer and used to make a sample library of 20 common household spare parts.

List of parts made in the Michigan Tech study - note: 3 of the parts double up for a second experiment using recycled materials. Image via MDPI Technologies
List of parts made in the Michigan Tech study – note: 3 of the parts double up for a second experiment using recycled materials. Image via MDPI Technologies

Responding to questions about demand for such a service, Professor Pearce comments, “At work almost all of my 3D printed objects are open source scientific tools – dozens of them. At home, I also do a lot of 3D printing with and for my family,”

“At this point,” he adds, “now anytime something breaks, I either download and print an open source version – or if what is available is not good enough we just design and print it.”

Break it down: material + energy + operation

The price of each part was calculated by the total cost of material, energy consumption and operation in USD.

Cost per part of each item as determined by material + energy + operation. Image via MDPI Technologies
Cost per part of each item as determined by material + energy + operation. Image via MDPI Technologies

In the examples provided four machine vibration dampening feet, parts commonly produced for RepRap 3D printers, were made for a total cost (material + energy + operation) of 64 cents. Commercial equivalents bought online via Amazon (figures provided in supplementary materials) cost between $5.45 (before p&p) and $14.95 (for a multipack of 12).

The 3D printed feet by comparison are 88.2% and 95.72% cheaper, for low end and high end costs respectively.

Much higher savings can of course be made by incorporating a material recycling system into the process. In the sample parts produced, which are all fairly close in weight, recycled material cost reaches a flat rate of just 1 cent.

Return on investment

On average Michigan Tech’s 3D printed samples, which largely vary in mass and size, generate and average saving of 75% when compared to the least expensive products, and 92% compared to the highest.

Additionally, for return on investment in a Lulzbot Mini 3D printer, a FlexyStruder and NinjaFlex filaments, roughly 160 flexible objects are required to be made in this way.

Professor Pearce adds, “I think desktop 3D printers have already evolved enough to be quite useful to the average household.”

“This new study showed that even using more advanced and expensive 3D printing materials in the home still resulted in a massive return on investment.”

Homemade vs. store-bought

A number of factors, such as the lifetime of 3D printed parts vs store-bought parts and the likelihood of consumers owning a 3D printer, warrant further study into the feasibility of 3D printers vs. online retailers.

“Future research is needed,” state the authors, “to determine the disruptive potential of distributed 3D printing both on enabling such 3D printing on the technical front, as well as detailed life cycled analysis on the economic side.”

In terms of progress, Professor Pearce sites three main barriers to widespread adoption of 3D printing, all within education. First, he says, “People are not used to thinking of products as an investment as most products never pay for themselves.” Secondly, “To really get the most out of a 3D printer you need to be comfortable in the use of some form of CAD” and finally, “Although there are millions of designs most of them are not really awesome,”

“When we have a critical mass of high-quality 3D printing designs to handle almost every consumer whim, desktop 3D printer manufacturers will not be able to hire employees fast enough to keep up with demand.”

More of Professor Pearce’s views about the open-source future of 3D printing can be read in his guest article for our 3D Printing Industry thought leadership series. The study discussed in this article can be read in full in MDPI Technologies journal.

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Featured image shows Michigan Tech students celebrate a massive delta-style 3D printer build as part of a class on Open Source 3D Printing. Professor Joshua Pearce seen center. Photo by S. Bird/MTU, CCBYSA

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