Why is my 3D printed part so expensive?

Short answer…it’s probably not expensive relative to what you’re asking for. It’s that society programs us from birth to think plastics and other physical goods are “cheap” thanks to clever design for manufacturing at scale. Here’s why…

We recognize that AM parts can be “expensive” relative to other plastic parts you might have seen available off the shelf.  In this post, we’d like to walk you through one way of thinking about pricing on plastic part fabrication, both conventionally and with digital manufacturing.


A common example we give is the “spork” offered at your favorite fast food restaurant. 

Fast-food restaurants can give these away for free because they make them in the 10M+ / yr and therefore their $500K mold that produces them can be amortized.  It’s part of a pleasurable eating experience in the United States to have a fork + spoon combined.

But to make just 1 (one) plastic spork with that manufacturing process (plastic injection molding) would easily cost in the ~$500K + $0.01.  Cost of the tool + cost of the plastic to make the spork, respectively.   

The challenge for manufacturers is that no end user of the spork (or customer) cares how it’s made and they become programmed throughout life to believe that “plastic is cheap” because in this case, the restaurant gives it away for free. This tacitly programs to consumers to have a: “plastic parts are cheap” mindset, which is difficult to unwind.  “Imprinting” is also known as “price anchoring” or “arbitrary coherence”, as studied extensively by Professor Dan Ariely currently at Duke (yet also taught at top-ranked universities like U.C. Berkeley and MIT).

In the case of additive manufacturing / 3D printing…there is a definite premium on “personalization” / “customization” and not to mention, low-volume orders are “expensive” for fabricators (due to fixed costs of operating the machine on demand).  Thus they have to recover their setup and breakdown costs associated with each individual job. 

Think of it like leaving your house to go to your workplace only to grab your lab notebook and return home.  Setup costs “time+energy to commute to work”, breakdown costs, “time+energy to return to home” all to retrieve your lab notebook is a tough sell. 

But you go to work every day…because the relative costs of the setup and breakdown become negligible once you’ve committed to a full and productive day at work.  This is why long commutes + cost of living present challenges for both employers and employees.

Thus customers *might* be able to bring down costs of AM parts if they commit to purchasing more than just single-digit quantities of parts (1-9). We have seen significant price breaks simply going from 1 to just 3-5 parts, but most fabricators want larger volume orders to again, minimize the relative impact of the setup / breakdown costs.  

The cost curve for most of our fabricators in general looks like this (see chart below) but in our experience, these are “optimistic”.  There’s still a slight curve at low volume for AM (like what you’re seeing w/Formative and Subtractive processes).  But it will flatten out as they suggest:

cost-vs-quantity.jpg
Plot pulled from the Danish Technological Institute but many others have produced similar plots.

Without knowing how each individual manufacturer quotes each part exactly (they all have different constraints, capacities and variables which impact final part cost at any given time), we are often surprised that in some cases a manufacturer cost went up (after a part optimization step), while another manufacturer cost went down–as expected. 

At You3Dit, we inquire why these things happen so that we can help you get the best fabricator to do your work…but we do so, treading carefully as their time is highly valuable and thus, we respect their efforts in providing us manual quoting (on jobs that hit the boundaries of AM process capability).

For parts that are designed on the edge of any manufacturing process technology, here are some key design issues impacting the costs of producing optimized / updated part designs (based on our 5+ years of experience and expertise in this industry):

  1. If your parts are “large” relative to most conventional additive manufacturing build volumes that need full water-tight capability, then this presents higher risk to the fabricator to meet your expectations. Thus they charge you extra as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong.
  2. If your parts are difficult to “nest” in the build volume (specifically for high-volume, production run AM)…then fabricators have to have multiple machines running your parts individually (for example, if you’re leveraging HP’s latest MJF technology, each machine costs about $400K to purchase alongside required accessories: build unit, post-processing station, labor etc.), thus each machine consumed represents that cost, plus opportunity cost, plus the costs required to maintain and operate 1+ machines.  
    Think of it like your dishwasher.  Hard to wash all your large pots and pans in one run of the dishwasher.  But you can wash a lot of dishes and cups in one load of the dishwasher, because they nest.  You have a “large pot” so to speak in this analogy and thus requires several machines to be used at once to meet the lead time promises and other deadlines associated with their production process.
  3. Low volume – 3 units is is on the edge of “we don’t want these orders” for many of our fabricators (if you had ordered just one, the cost may have been nearly the same).  So often times, they price these things higher to deter this type of low-volume work; especially if the job has risks due to hitting process technology boundaries (point #1).  Still following?  
    Fabricators have fixed costs for a job on every run.  Thus, if there’s any risk the part may “fail” upon build they have to accommodate.  The customer 99.9% of the time “doesn’t care” about the fabricator’s challenges in delivering what was promised…rather, they just want what was promised.  Thus if a fabricator can’t reasonably guarantee what you expect, they have to protect themselves from this risk of client dissatisfaction by adding cost.  The customer simply expects the parts to come out “right” and the “way it was described” in the quote (and you should).  But we all have varying definitions as to what is “right” in the context of manufactured parts.  This is one reason why You3Dit exists today actually, to help calibrate expectations on both sides and educate our clients and provide them options (like we’re doing here).

If those common issues don’t provide ideas for you to reduce part cost, there are other ways to make your parts w/ different manufacturing processes. Many folks just come to us and say, “can you 3D print this?” and this is a highly nuanced question because “what is 3D printing”? There are 7 fundamental AM processes and most of our clients don’t know the other 6 and barely know the one they’re envisioning (extrusion or FFF or FDM).

Because larger parts are difficult and we’re going to generalize, here are some alternative manufacturing methods (still in some ways involving AM) that could be leveraged to make larger parts:

  1. Do you have access to a vacuum forming tool?  You can often make large-form factor parts by vacuum forming by producing an AM positive mold (1x cost–assuming design is right) of your large part and use any number of plastic materials to “form your large part” across this “vacuum forming buck” as they’re often called.  This is known as vacuum forming or thermoforming.  That being said, you’d need to re-design for vacuum forming which has its own nuances and challenges + plus find a thermoforming machine + person to operate (who knows what they’re doing).
  2. Can you leverage any other pre-existing part? To modify or cannibalize the parts?  Yes, this is us telling you not to leverage our services and rather, go find something on Amazon or Alibaba that fits your requirements (or could be modified easily to fit your requirements). Often times, engineers and scientists value their time so much (and often, rightfully so) such that they don’t do a full and extensive search of what currently exists.  Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Customized anything is always more expensive than something you can buy off the shelf.   And the frustrating part for our clients is that they often get the sticker shocked from the price of AM…but essentially, this is what it costs to engage someone else to customize and build your order; essentially do the work you didn’t want to do yourself.  This is classic outsourcing and when understood with the right mindset, is quite empowering. But if viewed simply based on cost, it’s often a losing battle between your service provider and the client. You’re essentially paying for someone else’s time and that can be–and often is–of lower value than your own. So if you do the math on how much time, energy, effort and money it would cost you to find an alternative, you might realize that your cost per part isn’t actually all that expensive relative to the time, energy, money and know how you’d need to develop in order to be successful.

We sincerely hope this detailed blog post helps you make more informed decisions about your product development / prototyping next steps (whether you decide to outsource your fabrication work to us here at You3Dit or otherwise.

There’s always other ways to bring down cost…but it’s not without effort.  If you’re reading this post, our assumption is that your time is literally invaluable in the line of work that you’ve chosen…and thus, it’s hard to see you spend too much more time on design & fabrication challenges unless you can directly extract value from doing the manufacturing process in house (embedding sensors, process modification, adding surface texture, etc.). 

Buying engineering-grade prototyping and production-level machines like the HP 4200 Multi-jet Fusion 3D printer is probably out of the question for you at this time…although we have all the right contacts in our marketplace & amongst our executive team that can set you up with someone at HP that would gladly entertain selling you a production additive manufacturing solution; but this requires a dedicated manufacturing space, technical experts to run the machine and so forth.

As always, at You3Dit we strive to provide you, your team and consequently your clients the superpower of making great design & manufacturing decisions. We believe education is a big part of this, hence a long–yet informative–blog post.  Please share your questions, comments and thoughts below.

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