Mass Production And Decision Making With Low Cost Additive Manufacturing

With over 7,000 face shield assemblies 3D printed, 1,000 ear savers (that make it possible to get a mask strap off the back of your ears), and 272,000 grams of filament used, Somerset Community College’s (SCC) Additive Manufacturing Center (AMC) stepped up in a major way to 3D print personal protective equipment (PPE) for Kentucky’s first responders in this COVID-pandemic time of need.

Professor Eric Wooldridge recently spoke at the Tennessee Tech University Fall 2020 Golden Eagle Additively Innovative Lecture Series on September 27, 2020 to encourage future 3D printing business owners and other academic institutions how they might leverage 3D printers in the future. For the SCC AMC, the majority of their printers cost less than $415 which helped them build a 24/7 production line of dozens of 3D printers, using two or less operators per day.

Wooldridge and SCC have received funding from the USDA Rural Development program as well as the National Science Foundation EPSCoR and ATE programs. The funding has been instrumental in building out a successful 3D printing training program as well as a robust production facility, as demonstrated by answering this call to serve first responders with PPE. The SCC Additive Manufacturing (AM) goal is to give Kentucky manufacturing an edge by helping to raise up a fully skilled AM-skilled workforce. A task that the SCC team seems well-prepared for after this PPE experience. 

In fact, that’s what the “Mass Production And Decision Making With Low Cost Additive Manufacturing For Institutions And Small Businesses” webinar offered. It gave an inside look at how a small team could scale up a 3D printer production line as a way to make new products. In the talk, Professor Wooldridge offered a variety of insights and technical tips as he walked attendees, including industry representatives, through decisions the AMC made, including mistakes they quickly corrected, in printing thousands of shields and parts. 

Low Cost Additive Manufacturing (LCAM)

First, what is a low cost 3D printer? SCC’s goal is to take a sub-$600 printer and show business owners how to make money with it. Once they demonstrate that, he sees owners take it from there. Low cost equipment can create a high quality production line. If they have 3D printers and 3D skills, it leads to innovation.

Before you jump in and start printing. Wooldridge believes you need to look at three main areas:

  • Design
  • Cycling
  • Maintenance

Part of these three areas involve asking four key questions (any company or organization would want to ask these):

  1. How big is your team? (Small businesses are often under-staffed, so this is important)
  2. What is your design flavor? (If you like to only create the models, that won’t work if you don’t like to print, too). You have control of the layout on the printer, the printer speed, are there non-essential features that are essential? 
      • Within design — you have to think about your production. 
        • Are you a “Fast Ninja”?  
        • Are you a “Slow Stacked” approach? 
        • Or in the middle is the “Flat Spread” type?
  1. Production cycling, what do you most care about?
  2. Do you want to do proactive or reactive maintenance? Which one will minimize your downtime? 

Wooldridge digs in and keeps the talk moving quickly with rapid fire answers to his questions. In this short 30-minute lecture, you will get lots of very specific technical advice in addition to broad ranging issues you should think about. 

An example: In the section on Cycling, he points out that one of the biggest enemies is runout; running out of filament. “Runout sensors that warn you that you are ‘about to run out’ of material are cool, but not the answer. The idea that your printer would warn you that you were running out of filament was not helpful in the middle of 20 or 30 printers going at once after 15 hours of run time. Quantity is the solution — getting large orders of filament with 3kg or 5kg rolls — what we call the Texas Size rolls (that’s where we ordered them from),” Wooldridge said.

The SCC team naturally found it was super rewarding to be able to help their community. Wooldridge closes the talk with how it was wonderful to be in a position to respond “with Additive to support our regions, we sent across state lines as well. It was great to be in the middle and answer that call.” 

Ultimately, he concludes: “This pandemic has been a real turning point for Additive. It has made people realize what is possible. And you can see it in the industry response. You see how many companies are starting to now buy into higher-level equipment, buying up printers. The number of print farms that are being setup is drastically increasing. People have realized that this technology has the potential to step in and fill gaps wherever they are. Or allow someone to startup with a brand new business with hardly any infrastructure to begin with, in terms of manufacturing.” 


Learn more about SCC and Professor Wooldridge’s efforts to increase workforce training and small business awareness of 3D printing as a way to grow a company and profits. 

You can also read posts on the NSF Research News page: College using 3D printers to make face shields for regional hospital or on the Somerset Community College news page: SCC 3D Printers Used for Face Shields to Help Ease Shortage Due to Virus. The project was funded under the NSF ATE program here: Mobile Additive Manufacturing Platform for 21st Century STEM Workforce Enhancement (#1902437).

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