"3-D rapid prototyping changing manufacturing"

Published 01/20/2014

No, this is not the introduction to a "Six Million Dollar Man" episode from the 1970s. It's the new mantra of today's manufacturing companies, using innovative methods to get their products to market faster, better and cheaper than ever before.

Who would've thought these words would be used to describe manufacturing?

In the old days, manufacturing took time. Time to market was clearly a lengthy cycle in any industry because getting a product from concept stage to being available for purchase took time. Product development often had a difficult time making it out of the engineering department, based on such variables as initial approval, testing, budgeting, staffing, manufacturing, shipping … the list goes on and on.

But today, that's all different. Thanks to an innovative process known as 3-D rapid prototyping, time to market can be greatly reduced. The technology is nothing new. It has been around for nearly three decades.

Known as additive manufacturing, 3-D is used to fabricate models, prototypes, and parts out of resin. Using a computer-aided design, a part can be printed in hours.

Today's high-end 3-D rapid-prototype printers have improved exponentially over the last decade. There are machines with better print quality and resolution, significantly higher run speeds, more material choices, properties and shades of color, and less of a footprint. It's possible to buy a 3-D printer to sit on your desk.

Not only are 3-D printers more capable, but the range and mechanical properties of 3-D print materials are expanding. The result of all this: advanced 3-D printers are becoming a must-have fixture within every large product-development company.

Manufacturers are able to cut out much of their secondary tooling processes, such as injection molding, resin tooling, mold making and soft tooling. All of this will go into shortening their time to market and reduce costs.

There's not a mechanical engineer on the face of the planet who wouldn't want to hold their product idea in their hands. To physically see it; to feel its material properties; and to test how it works. A design engineer could have a new product idea on Tuesday, design a CAD drawing of it on Wednesday morning, and print a 3-D part to have in-hand for the sales department's customer meeting on Wednesday afternoon. Rapid prototyping eliminates preproduction tooling and costly speculative manufacturing.

Engineers today are using 3-D rapid prototyping much the same way the business world embraced spell check. It's a step in the process that saves costly mistakes by enabling form, fit and function testing prior to manufacturing.

There's no end to the innovation that is taking place using 3-D rapid prototyping, on a small and grand scale. According to The Wall Street Journal, Boeing plans to someday make an airplane wing without cutting or bending any metal — using a giant 3-D printer. General Electric is getting in on the act, too, for new technology in health care. From musical instruments to dental orthodontics, 3-D printing is turning ideas into reality.

The U.S. is competing with other countries when it comes to manufacturing at reduced costs; 3-D printing is but one tool to explore cost reduction, to determine if a product can be built stronger with less material or as a tool to check if a new design functions.

Businesses today compete with ideas in a global marketplace. In order to compete in this modern, instant world, ideas have to be very fast.

One of our customers is a major luggage manufacturer. We built a prototype of handles and a new wheel design on a piece of luggage so it could be tested via focus group for instant feedback critical to the manufacturing process.

Another customer, a world-renowned gaming-technology company, came up with a cover design that we prototyped for a casino machine that would use less plastic, saving millions of dollars in the process. For a major golf ball manufacturer we prototyped four dozen balls, each with different dimple arrays, in a matter of two days.

Three-dimensional rapid prototyping is revolutionizing the manufacturing floor. The future is here, and its one-off, meaning it's possible to produce just one part or model cost effectively, versus having to produce thousands. When faced with the pace of rapid change, 3-D printing allows more businesses to compete and take advantage of developing opportunities in their own backyards and around the world.

Andy Coutu is president of R&D Technologies Inc. in North Kingstown, RI. He can be reached at acoutu@rnd-tech.com.

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