3D Printing Supports Collaboration with Suppliers Around the Globe
Fast, affordable 3D prints facilitate interaction between product design and manufacturing.
By Terry Wohlers
"3Dprinting" is a monthly
column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression
This column was published in the March/April 2005 issue.
Efficient collaboration-not only among engineers on a design team, but
between product designers and vendors, suppliers, and manufacturing
specialists-has long been a strategic objective for many manufacturing
The term "collaboration," which Webster's New World Dictionary
defines as "to work together, especially in some literary, artistic,
or scientific undertaking" has become a common buzzword in product
development circles. Many manufacturers have adopted design practices and
invested in technologies, such as 3D computer-aided design (CAD), product
data management (PDM), and teleconferencing systems, which support
increased collaboration based on the rationale that by involving more
people in the design process, manufacturers can achieve greater design
creativity that results in fewer design errors and higher quality
But how do product developers collaborate effectively in the current,
global product design and manufacturing environment? Today, product design
often occurs at different locations, and manufacturing facilities are
often located on the other side of the world. Unlike internal
collaboration, during which engineers generally speak the same language
and have common work experiences to draw from, working with overseas
vendors, suppliers, and manufacturing partners presents unique
communication challenges that make efficient collaboration difficult.
In addition to language and cultural barriers, many international partners
use different CAD systems and are asleep when design engineers are awake,
and vice versa. CAD files, 3D images, e-mail, and teleconferences can be
effective communication vehicles for supporting collaborative design
reviews, but nothing bolsters collaboration with suppliers on a worldwide
scale like a physical prototype part, and today many manufacturers are
using fast, affordable, 3D-printed models to facilitate and streamline
interaction with partners located around the globe.
What You See is What You Get
The greatest benefit of using 3D-printed models and prototype parts to
collaborate with production partners is that 3D prints leave no room for
any doubt, confusion, or misunderstanding. High-resolution prototypes
constitute the universal language of engineering. It does not matter if
the person receiving a 3D print speaks another language, works in some
other CAD package, or uses a different measurement or dimensioning system.
The actual physical part simply imparts more information than any other
means of communication.
Because manufacturing partners can touch, feel, and hold a 3D print, they
can be far more thorough, accurate, and efficient in assessing potential
tooling, production, and assembly problems. In the case of plastic
injection-molded parts, for example, overseas mold specialists can use the
physical part to identify areas of insufficient draft, unnecessary
features such as undercuts that increase the cost of mold, or cosmetically
displeasing knit-line locations.Will mating parts fit correctly? Will
non-moving parts interfere with moving parts in an assembly? Will a mold
wear too quickly? These are the types of questions that partners can more
readily answer by evaluating an actual proto-type.
Something as seemingly trivial as the placement of a company logo can
become a big deal if a manufacturing partner gets it wrong; a misstep that
is far less likely when a designer supplies a 3D print.
By sending 3D-printed models, or e-mailing STL file attachments that can
be printed at the other end, manufacturers can collaborate more
effectively with overseas partners and more efficiently work through
potential production issues upfront, before they become costly or result
in protracted delays. A physical model translates the same in any
language, and 3D printing provides manufacturers with a fast,
cost-effective means for improving communication and interaction with
domestic and international partners.
Streamlined, Cost-Effective Production
Strottman International (Irvine, CA) is one company that is benefiting
from the use of 3D prints for collaborating with overseas suppliers.
A leading manufacturer in the extremely competitive promotional toy
industry, Strottman develops design concepts in the U.S. and works with
production facilities in China.
Aside from creativity, the most important aspects of Strottman's designs
are safety and material usage. Strottman's products must pass rigid safety
requirements because they are marketed to children. Material cost is also
important because of the large volumes and slim margins involved.
The company's engineers use finite element analysis (FEA) and 3D prints to
validate design concepts and make sure that they will satisfy all
applicable safety standards, including a 100-pound bite test. Instead of
throwing plastic at areas of concern, they also use FEA and 3D prints to
optimize designs so they use as little material as possible without
sacrificing strength and safety.
Sending a 3D print of the final, validated design to its production
facilities in China helps the company ensure that the final product
matches the analyzed, validated design.
Collaboration, communication, and manufacturing needs vary greatly from
company to company and industry to industry. But in today's global product
design and manufacturing environment, in which design and manufacturing
often take place at different locations around the world, efficient
collaboration has become critically important to avoiding unnecessary
costs and delays.
3D prints facilitate efficient collaboration because they provide little
room for misinterpretation. With 3D prints, what you see is what you get.
consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant
and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). Visit wohlersassociates.com
for more information.