By Noah Mostow
Years ago, 3D printing was generally referred to as rapid prototyping. Then and now, engineers and designers often experience inherent gaps between a 3D computer model and a physical part. 3D printing can turn an idea into reality and quickly expose mistakes, saving time and money.
A physical model or prototype does not need to be a complete part or idea. Depending on the application, the critical feature of the part may be the location of a hole or spacing for the cables to prevent pinching. These are critical features that one can quickly test with a small 3D-printed part. If you break down these critical features into individual elements, you can prototype them quickly and learn immediately.
A 3D printer can be a great investment for a company, designer, or engineer. A 3D-printed part can take minutes or hours, depending on the size of the part and the machine used. When a part is in your hands, you can learn from it in seconds. Learning also occurs from simulations and CAD models, but a 3D-printed part brings a concept to reality. With a physical part, one can learn more about its actual size, weight, ergonomics, and how it fits to mating parts. Also, a part makes it possible to test the ease or difficulty in assembly and disassembly. Some of this can be done using CAD, but you can learn so much more when you have a part in your hands.
I once designed sunglasses that fold to the size of my palm. The idea was to consolidate 17 parts into one by designing for additive manufacturing. I questioned tolerances, the hinge, and the entire concept. Before continuing to move ahead with the design, I segmented the hinge and printed it. The print took 26 minutes and cost $0.19 in material on a small filament-based, material extrusion machine. I very quickly learned that the proposed design did not work, which saved me hours because I was able to immediately adjust the design. By 3D printing a small segment of a new product, I was able to learn so much in less than 30 minutes and at little cost.