Why Send a Model When You Can Fax a 3D Print

Terry Wohlers talks about the benefits of this new technology for your business.

"3Dprinting" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the May/June 2005 issue.

When most product developers consider implementing a 3D printing system, they focus primarily on creating physical models of new designs for review and evaluation on-site. Having the capability to produce models and prototype parts within a CAD design office provides designers and engineers with immediate feedback that can help compress product design cycles. By validating design concepts and uncovering potential design problems early in the process, manufacturers can avoid the protracted delays and increased costs associated with making changes late in the design cycle or during tooling or production. While internal design feedback remains the primary basis for investing in a 3D printing system, the changing face of the product development and manufacturing landscape-from one located almost entirely in North America to a worldwide enterprise-creates the need to consider 3D printing from a broader, global point of view.

By Terry Wohlers

Of course, many manufacturers with overseas-based design divisions, manufacturing operations, partners, or vendors print models at the main design office and send them around the world for a variety of purposes. However, the physical shipping approach is slow, costly, and does not take advantage of 3D printing technology in an efficient, cost-effective manner. Because CAD solid models consist of digital data, they can be sent electronically anywhere in the world and imported into a CAD system or outputted as an actual 3D-printed model. Either way, model data can be faxed to a different geographic location where prototypes can be created as 3D prints. While still a relatively recent trend, the concept of 3D faxing-sending CAD data over a network, telephone line, or by e-mail to support 3D printing at a remote location-is catching on. 3D faxing not only pays dividends for large multinational corporations but also for any manufacturer that needs to collaborate with a colleague, partner, vendor, or customer that is located far away. As the product development world gets smaller-with more and more of the production cycle taking place overseas-opportunities to benefit from 3D faxing will continue to emerge and grow.

Broadcast Faxing to Designers in the Field

One example of how 3D faxing currently benefits manufacturers is the field design work being conducted by Motorola, Inc.'s Personal Communications sector. The group, which develops new concepts for cellular telephones, has deployed design teams around the globe so they are close to the customers they serve. As requests for concept models from the global design team increasingly grew, Motorola decided to install 3D printers-the ZPrinter 310 and the Z406 3D printers from Z Corp. (Burlington, MA)-at its Asian design center in Seoul, South Korea.

Now, Motorola engineers can fax 3D CAD files of new concepts to the Seoul facility, where prototypes are created, without any lag time or shipping costs. The global design team can then review design concepts with major customers and provide timely feedback before a product goes into production. By leveraging the concept of 3D faxing, Motorola has improved design communications with a strategically located design team and accelerated its decision-making process on a global scale.

Manufacturers such as Motorola that compete in overseas markets can use 3D printers and 3D faxing to broadcast design concepts and obtain valuable feedback from the field faster than ever.

Partner Integration Points

Another emerging application of 3D faxing is supporting a central design integration point for product development efforts that involve multiple partners located around the world. Xerox Ltd., a leading producer of printers, copiers, multifunction devices, and document centers, leveraged this approach to support Trans-Atlantic design efforts between a partner company located in Toronto, Canada and the Xerox design team based in the UK.

To coordinate Trans-Atlantic design efforts, Xerox installed a 3D printer-the Dimension 3D printer from Stratasys, Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN)-at its UK headquarters, which served as the central design integration point. With this system in place, designers in Canada faxed CAD files to the integration team in the UK, enabling the production of prototypes the very next day. 3D faxing can help companies with a geographically dispersed design organization, such as Xerox, integrate design efforts at a central location while avoiding shipping costs and delays.

Facilitating Vendor Interaction

Perhaps the most obvious application of 3D faxing technology is to reduce lead times and minimize errors when manufacturers interact with vendors. Union Footwear (Bangkok, Thailand), one of four principal Nike subcontractors, took advantage of 3D faxing to accelerate and improve the quality of its bidding process.

Until recently, Union Footwear had to supply the first article run from production tooling with its bid to Nike. But when the company learned that Nike had begun accepting models from 3D printing with bids instead of actual production runs, Union Footwear installed a 3D printer-the Z406 printer from Z Corp.

By faxing 3D prints of Nike designs to the company in Thailand, Union Footwear realized significant savings related to initial tooling expenses, especially because Nike frequently required changes to the initial mold design. Now, the company leverages 3D faxing to both prepare bids and obtain final customer approval, an approach that has proven to be significantly more efficient and profitable.

With manufacturers and vendors located thousands of miles from one another instead of down the street, 3D faxing can facilitate manufacturer/vendor interaction, providing benefits for manufacturers-faster bids with fewer errors-and vendors-savings on initial tooling costs that support more competitive pricing.

Although most product developers focus on the immediate, onsite application of 3D printing technology, its use across distances through 3D faxing is an important trend, especially as the product development and manufacturing landscape becomes more and more global in nature.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). Visit wohlersassociates.com for more information.