Making the most of your digital manufacturing services provider

When you’re considering digital manufacturing for a part or product, you might be expecting a single-process solution but, in reality, you could get quite a lot more. If you choose the right supplier, you could benefit from additional services not usually promoted with the standard offer – services that can make a huge difference to the construction or finish of a final product. Stephen Dyson, head of industry 4.0 at Proto Labs, takes a look at some of the added benefits which are often ‘hidden treasures’.

Many product developers or businesses ordering parts these days could be in for a pleasant surprise. After committing to a manufacturing solution, be it 3D printing, CNC or injection moulding, the customer support team may identify ways the project could be enhanced by using one or more of additional services available by the same manufacturer.These extra services will result in a product in advanced stage of development which then removes the need to source these services elsewhere and moves the project quickly forward.

CNC machining of metal 3D-printed parts

3D metal printing or direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) lets designers explore and create geometries beyond the limits of other production processes. To open up yet more possibilities, CNC machining of DMLS parts presents a post-processing stage that can create superior finishes and features.The great advantage of this service is the precision it offers, either to achieve highly specific surface qualities or to comply with exact tolerances.

For example, when off-road motorcycling enthusiast, and Proto Labs’ customer, David Spanton needed a replacement part for his bike, 3D printing can manufacture with the precision he needed – but not the superior finish he wanted. The part performs a vital function, helping to centralise and secure the oil seal, but it's also highly visible on the motorcycle’s suspension fork. So, CNC machining, with its ability to achieve very specific, high-quality surface detailing, was used to ensure the part’s appearance was as good as its performance.Click here to read more about David’s experience.

Custom finishing and painting

The range of options for surface finishing is growing all the time, suitable for individual parts or entire assemblies. This is becoming an extremely important part of the manufacturing process, and some manufacturers (including Proto Labs) have now set up specially equipped finishing departments.

Nickel plating is a secondary custom-finishing process that can be used after 3D printing parts. With its anti-corrosive properties, it is recognised for its ability to withstand the harsh effects of immersion in saltwater. So, for industries such as shipbuilding or offshore energy construction, nickel plating as secondary finish can make digital manufacturing feasible for parts that would otherwise require two or more service providers.

Custom finishing services include surface treatments such as grinding and polishing, metal coating, and painting and varnishing to all applicable standards (including RAL and Pantone).

Reverse engineering and component measurement

This service is an efficient way to generate digital CAD data where original CAD model information isn’t available – for example, if you need spare parts for an obsolete product. Using existing parts, reverse engineering defines their geometry and creates CAD models very quickly, and these can then be used to produce parts by any digital process.

And where does all this take us?

Whether used individually or in combination, these supplementary services can make significant difference to the look, feel and function of a wide variety of products. And so, can improve the efficiency of the way they’re produced. The result: consumers have greater choice, higher quality finishes and, as the growing take-up of these services increases manufacturing economies, better value.