The new 3D printer will allow SMS to both expand the services it can offer to customers and make the company’s processes more efficient.

Having considered adding a 3D printer to its production infrastructure for a period of time, SMS said it decided to take the plunge after recent improvements in the capabilities of mid-range printers enabled them to offer many of the features traditionally associated with more expensive and higher-end machines.

The Ultimaker Pro model is capable of printing objects with dimensions of up to 330 x 240 x 300mm. It uses a fused filament fabrication (FFF) process, meaning that the model is built from the ground up in layers using a variety of thermoplastic materials.

The machine has two printing heads for the deposition of material. This feature was very important to SMS as it allowed the company to print support material when it was required.

The new 3D printer was purchased to assist SMS in two key areas – to rapidly develop or modify custom jigging parts and to allow its customers to quickly see how any changes in physical design would affect the end product.

SMS has already taken advantage of the Ultimaker Pro printer in a number of ways to make its work processes quicker and more efficient. The company has used the printer to make supports for many of its manufacturing steps, such as for holding pieces in the correct position. For example, custom 'keepout' covers have been created for boards to allow more consistent conformal coating.

These covers are much cheaper and quicker to replace than the previous techniques used by the company. Additionally, rework jigs have been manufactured to help increase the yield from the rework process. SMS has also used the printer for trial solder pallet inserts which are not expected to last for many cycles.

“The purchase of the Ultimaker Pro Bundle has changed the mindset within the company on how it handles jigs, fixtures and custom tooling. It has gone from, is this possible without jigging, to let’s build a jig and take advantage of that extra bit of process window,” said Chris Johns, chief technical officer of SMS Electronics.

He continued: “SMS is one of the few electronics manufacturing service providers that covers the whole spectrum of industry, and many of our customers demand the highest reliability. The ability to use jigs and custom tooling that we can make in-house enables us to service those customers much more quickly and efficiently, while enhancing the overall quality of our manufacturing process.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also caused changes in the industry that have made the acquisition of the Ultimaker Pro Bundle an ideal investment, the firm said. For example, there are a lot of start-ups who have taken the opportunity to develop new ideas during the pandemic.

These companies may not be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer for themselves. SMS Electronics can assist these companies by providing initial engineering samples of new development models that the start-ups can use instead of going to a dedicated 3D printing bureau, which can be expensive and time consuming.

There has also been a large increase in customers for medical applications, as well as applications related to the pandemic, such as monitoring and proximity detection products. The 3D printer has allowed SMS to easily incorporate that extra workload into its schedule.

SMS’ Ultimaker Pro Bundle is capable of manufacturing early space models for all of these new products and more. Space models are used to provide a proof-of concept for the case design. They have traditionally been expensive to create, but are an essential part of the design process ahead of soft tooling.

3D printing has made these early space models quick, easy and cheap to manufacture, so more designs can be assessed for “look and feel” in advance of soft tooling. They also provide more certainty that the soft tooling is right first time for use in pre-production and early production runs, reducing overall manufacturing costs quite considerably.

Johns added: “We were confident that we would get value for money from the Ultimaker Pro Bundle before we signed-off on the purchase, but the capabilities and versatility of the printer has even surprised us. It has been used to simplify tasks right through the manufacturing process from prototyping to final production and it’s now impossible to imagine to going back to our previous workflows.