Buy Your Sharpest Young Employee a 3D Printer

Don’t just purchase a 3D printer for your shop. Give a bright young employee one to play with at home. This small investment can pay off in various ways.


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In my February column, I mentioned that six of seven machine shops I visited during a week-long trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota, had 3D printers. Some shops were using theirs more than others, but I still saw a good amount of nifty plastic printed items including CMM inspection fixtures, robot grippers, and parts collection chutes and containers. One shop happened to hire a couple engineers fresh out of college soon after purchasing its first 3D printer. They really took to it, demonstrating how printing plastic devices such as the ones mentioned above would be simpler, faster and cheaper than the traditional route of producing them from metal in the tool room.

Similarly, I recently visited another shop that purchased a relatively inexpensive 3D printer with which to experiment. It had no specific goal for how it might use the printer. In fact, the shop was spurred to buy one after attending our magazine’s inaugural Top Shops Conference in 2017 and hearing a presentation about general ways shops can benefit from them. (3D printing will be covered at this year’s conference, too.)

That purchase enticed two of its employees to make their own 3D printers to play with at home. Experimenting with their homemade devices sparked the employees’ creativity and printing know-how. It eventually led them to use the shop’s 3D printer to make helpful items throughout the facility. Many of these items supported the shop’s 5S workplace organization efforts, such as hangers for brooms, trays for hand gages and so on. The shop, which will be profiled in an upcoming issue, currently has a healthy backlog of scheduled prints for items to be used in its facility.

So, given the relatively low cost of some plastic 3D printers, should you consider buying one for use in your shop (and making sure employees have ample time to use it) and another to give to a bright, young employee to noodle with at home? Or, purchase one that a few employees could share throughout the year so as not to look like you are playing favorites?

I’m not being a shill for manufacturers of that equipment here. I see clear benefits.

Giving employees the freedom to design and print anything that is personally interesting — not specifically something for your shop — enables them to figure out how to optimize the process for other similar prints that might be useful for your operation. They’ll also learn how to work CAD software and STL files, determine how to best apply support structures for complex prints, consider how the function of a part dictates the proper orientation during printing and gain experience troubleshooting printing problems. Doing this also demonstrates that you recognize and appreciate your employees’ creativity and want to feed it. They will then naturally be on the lookout for creative ways to use your printer to make useful items from which your shop can benefit.

Perhaps more importantly, this might get them to think more consistently about continuous improvement opportunities for your shop in general and feel empowered to make such suggestions. This could then become contagious throughout your entire workforce.