August 10, 2020
3D printing has become a standard in manufacturing over the last few years. Materials and technologies have progressed to the point where 3D printed parts are viable for end-use and not just prototypes. Like Ford, Boeing, and countless other companies, we use the same technology for some of the components in our parts. We also use thermal plastics (aka injection molded) and various elastomers. This article focuses only on the 3D printed elements.
So what's the difference between a product made by Bup Labs and a part you can buy from a 3D printing service? Read on to find out.
3D printing service providers offer a great outlet for a variety of designers. Anyone can upload a design they made and offer it for sale. This is great for non functional parts, but when it comes to end-use parts, the rapid design and upload process often means the part was not fully tested - if it was tested at all. The average designer will not buy their part, try to break it, and perform that cycle multiple times. In most cases, they won't have proper testing software and equipment, so they rely on the adage: "It works for me!"
Free modeling tools are not the same as mechanical design tools
The products can cost quite a bit depending on how many are purchased, the material used, the desired finish, and any subsequent components that must be purchased separately.
To be cost effective, most parts are printed with SLS or Multijet technology using a Nylon 12 powder-based material. The parts have a slightly rough surface texture and come out white or light grey. Polishing can smooth the surface but removes material that can affect the fit of the part. Adding color adds more cost to the part. These standalone parts can quickly become very expensive just by selecting the equivalent process and materials that Bup Labs uses.
Above: Example of a Bup Labs mount part quote from a leading 3D print service
When using SLS powder (the cheapest option), most people don't realize how the parts are made. It is like filling up a bucket with powder with the part embedded in it. The 'cake' is the output from the bucket and is thick and clumpy. The solid parts are dug out of the cake, and the remaining powder is recycled.
But not really. The left over powder can't be completely used again. It has to be mixed with fresh powder. The ratio determines the strength of the next part. Using too much of the old powder results in weak or disfigured parts. When using print services, the consumer has no control over the ratio. This has a big impact on the quality of parts. In addition, if the parts are thin (i.e., a Garmin insert), the material strength is very weak compared to a thermal plastic part (aka injection molded) due to the lack of density. That's why Bup Labs uses injection molded parts for high stress components (like the Garmin insert).
Example of degrading quality from poor powder ratios (Left: Okay, Right: Poor)
When buying a part, and waiting up to a month, the consumer also has to acquire the hardware and assemble the final product. If there is a defect in the print or the design, the consumer doesn't have a single company to contact about their issue. Defects in design are your tough luck. There are no warranties per se. If the print came out without a printing defect, the printing service has completed their job. If the design was defective, the designer is under no obligation to do anything for you. Even worse, there is no mechanism for the designers to offer things like replacements or refunds through these services.
Above: (Left) A polished SLA part and (Right) a dyed SLA part
Bup Labs controls all aspects of manufacturing. This gives us total control over the quality of the product and the service to the customer. Cyclists can obtain products at a price point that would cost 3-6 times as much from a printing service using similar materials. Controlling the production also allows us to use optimal materials and work with the material suppliers directly. We use this relationship to constantly fine-tune the materials we use to create quality parts.
From left to right: SLS polished, SLS dyed, Bup Labs created part
We offer a complete product instead of just a single plastic part. We provide everything needed including instructions and any necessary tools. We make sure everything fits and works before it is packaged.
Because we make everything and are confident in our products, we offer a full warranty on our products. Customers can simply come to us with the problem, and we will resolve it quickly and directly.
We make hundreds of prototype designs using all manners of materials and techniques. All designs go through computer simulated tests and synthetic tests. We try very hard to break everything we make. A typical mount will see 20-30 iterations before it is released for independent real-world testing.
Above: Just some of our discarded prototypes and test units.
After release, we don't stop testing. If any failure is reported, we analyze the nature of the failure and go through a complete testing cycle again. We have offered recalls and free replacements to affected customers when we have uncovered a defect that was due to a design or material flaw. You won't ever get that level of support from a printing service.
We also have a rigorous testing plan. Parts are seeded to testers of various types from commuters to trail riders. This provides us with invaluable feedback we use to constantly adjust and improve our designs. We also make custom mounts for competitive riders and use that feedback to produce new items. You simply don't get this type of constant development and improvement from a designer using a 3D printing service.
Picture courtesy of Karen D. showing our prototype XLab Superwing mount.
Want to become a Bup Labs test cyclist? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.