3D Printing Provides Benefits throughout Product Development

Communicate increased product knowledge from conceptual design through production.

By Terry Wohlers

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

Back when most manufacturing concerns generally deemed the cost and operating requirements of early rapid prototyping (RP) systems as prohibitive, many product development organizations naturally questioned their value.

While any engineer knows that physical prototypes are an important part of the design cycle—not only for validating design performance to meet safety requirements but also for verifying design quality to avoid costly changes later on—an investment of $200,000 to $400,000 or more to implement an internal rapid prototyping capability did not seem like a prudent proposition to many product developers. As recently as five years ago, the perceived benefits of an internal rapid prototyping capability simply did not merit its cost and operating expenses in the minds of many engineering managers, which is why most product development organizations either utilized time-consuming clay, wood, and foam modeling techniques or outsourced rapid prototyping needs to a variety of service providers.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically with the advent of 3D printer technology. In addition to costing far less than their predecessors—some commercial 3D printing systems cost less than $25,000—3D printers do not require special operating environments and are becoming standard pieces of office equipment in many design offices. Armed with 3D printing, companies of nearly all types and sizes can now produce physical prototypes quickly and reasonably inexpensively. This has led to something interesting: the proliferation of the benefits of rapid prototyping, once relegated almost exclusively to Fortune 500 companies and other large organizations.

When design processes relied heavily on trial-and-error approaches, design organizations often viewed repetitive prototyping as costly in both time and money, primarily due to associated costs and delays, and sought to minimize the number of prototypes produced. Because 3D prints are fast and affordable, many manufacturers have discovered that making more models and prototype parts and using them for a variety of purposes throughout product development—from conceptual design and design validation through manufacturing planning, purchasing, vendor interaction, product marketing, and new business initiatives—pays far greater dividends in the long run.

More Innovative, Reliable Designs

Increasingly, product development organizations strive to restrict design changes to the early conceptual design phase, when changes are least expensive. At each step throughout the design cycle the cost of design modifications rises by roughly an order of magnitude. Instead of using rapid prototyping to validate designs at the end of conceptual design, manufacturers benefit greatly from giving designers 3D printing capabilities up-front. This is the stage in the process where engineers can bring their skill and creativity to bear to produce innovative, functional, and reliable concepts. Receiving feedback from others and making exchanges are critical parts of the conceptual product design, a process that ensures smooth product development.

As good as today's CAD tools are, there is no substitute to holding an actual 3D part in your hand. The ability to touch, feel, and hold a 3D prototype imparts much more information than an engineer could ever gain from what he or she sees on a flat CAD image on a computer screen. 3D prints provide engineers with insights, both large and small, into the form, fit, and functionality and reliability of a new design. Detecting interferences, holes that do not line up, or edges that are not quite right are just a few of the problems that an actual physical prototype can reveal. With 3D printing capabilities, engineers have gained access to a tool that enables them to rattle off as many prototypes as necessary to know as much as possible about a design. This in turn helps them to reduce the likelihood of costly surprises later on.

Communicating Designs, Securing Valuable Input

Design engineers can also use 3D prints to communicate new design concepts and secure valuable input from other professionals involved in all facets of product development from manufacturing engineers, tooling vendors, marketing specialists, and company executives, as well as customers, partners, and distributors. Just as 3D prints improve visualization and design interrogation for engineers, they communicate design concepts to both technical and non-technical personnel in a manner that integrates product development across the enterprise. It does so in a visual way that is simple and clear for making improvements to the design. Extrapolating a 3D design from a 2D drawing is challenging even for engineers, and not everyone has CAD tools for visualizing a 3D design on the screen. Providing 3D prints ensures that anyone can effectively evaluate a design and provide valuable input to the product development process.

Design for manufacturability is an important issue for keeping product development on track. Engineers can use 3D prints to solicit input from manufacturing specialists to ensure that they can manufacture a particular design cost-effectively. 3D prints support efforts to gather important feedback from the field, both from customers and the distribution channel. Engineers can quickly incorporate this input before committing to expensive tooling. Manufacturing and marketing campaigns can begin sooner and with more confidence. Purchasing agents can use 3D prints to obtain more accurate quotes from tooling vendors because less guesswork is involved. Manufacturers can even use 3D prints to support powerful new business presentations, securing new business and additional orders without incurring a great deal of expense.

All of these benefits emanate from the fast, affordable nature of 3D printing technology. Unlike early rapid prototyping systems, which offered some of the same benefits, they were reduced to much less due to the cost of the machines. And since most of the models were outsourced, the three to five days required to get the models reduced their benefits. 3D printing provides the flexibility and economy to communicate designs throughout product development, extending and increasing the benefits of rapid prototyping by increasing product knowledge across the enterprise and supply chain. Greater knowledge and more valuable input leads to fewer surprises, lower development costs, and faster times-to-market.

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.