Wohlers Associates helps organizations take advantage of technologies and strategies that enhance the rapid product development and manufacturing process.
By Ray Huff
Two weeks ago, I visited Avid Product Development, a design, prototyping, and small batch manufacturing firm in Loveland, Colorado. In recent years, Avid has strategically invested in additive manufacturing equipment to scale part production for its customers. Among these technologies are material extrusion machines from Stratasys, photopolymer-based printers from Formlabs, and Multi Jet Fusion machines from HP.
The number of end-use parts being manufactured by Avid makes the company stand out. Doug Collins, co-owner of Avid, commented that the addition of the HP equipment has greatly increased the company’s capacity for building production parts. Recently, Avid received an order for 100 parts that were designed for injection molding. CNC machining the parts was an option, but it would have taken too much time, been very expensive, and wasted a lot of material. Instead, they were 3D printed overnight, dyed black, and shipped the next day. Nesting software from Materialise was used to reduce print time, and fast cooling on the HP post-processing station helped to speed things along. With some added sweat and hustle, the team had the parts out the door as promised.
Doug was eager to show us parts made for Vestas, a leading manufacturer of large wind turbines for power generation. Vestas ordered a batch of polymer brackets that are permanently attached to the wind turbine blades to aid in the alignment and assembly of the parts. Wanting to test the designs before production, Vestas sent multiple iterations for Avid to build. Once the designs were finalized, orders were placed for hundreds of parts to bridge the gap of time while injection-mold tooling was being produced.
Weeks before the visit, a friend had sent me a threaded leveling foot for her new kitchen stove. The feet were designed for low countertops, and were 50 mm (2 inches) too short for the stove to be level with her countertop. I redesigned the foot, sent the model to Avid, picked up the four parts when I visited, and mailed them to my friend in California. The parts fit perfectly. The project showed me that in a matter of days, parts can be designed for a new application, produced, and tested across multiple cities and teams. In future cases like this one, we could further iterate based on feedback, if necessary, and then produce a small production batch of the part. We could even market the product and manufacture it on demand, without a need to keep a single physical part in stock.
Avid and other companies are making workflows like this possible for single product designers and companies of all sizes. Many organizations have been doing this for 20+ years, but easier access to good tools and machines, combined with a decline in cost, is what makes it different today. 3D printing is opening the door to countless new business opportunities and startup companies that were previously unthinkable.
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