"3D Printing: 5 Reasons to Use it in Product Development"

Published 08/15/2014

Inside Business: The Hampton Roads Magazine
By: Chris Richter
 August 15, 2014 

No matter what we are building, whether it be a spaceship or a paper-clip, we are all looking to make something faster, better and cheaper. Anyone who has tried to accomplish all three of these simple goals realizes the challenge of meeting these criteria. With the phenomenal growth in the 3D printing industry over the past 10 years, achieving these goals is now a very real possibility. Here are five reasons why 3D printing is allowing the manufacturing cycle to hit the fast-track.

1. Designers can prototype more iterations without blowing the timeline or budget.

Computer-aided design software emerged as a great tool for shaping an idea into a product. Designers can test their design to some degree, right within the software. However, as tried and tested as the design software may be, there comes a point when it's just quicker and easier to test the design in real life scenarios to gain the proper feedback.

3D printing is one solution, but only if a designer is not restricted by order approvals and long lead times for prototypes. Creativity can be stifled by having to wait for the prototype to arrive before moving forward with the design. In that scenario, having in-house access to a 3D printer keeps the designers' creativity flowing by allowing more iterations to be tested in a shorter amount of time. Rather than wait until a design is nearly finished before prototyping, designers can prototype earlier in the design cycle and identify key changes that need to be made.

Rather than prototype the entire CAD model, a designer may decide to split the model into a particular section and just print that portion. The print time is reduced, thus decreasing the time it takes to get feedback. The cost of the prototype is also reduced since it is only necessary to print a portion of the model.

2. Better collaboration resulting in improved design and manufacturability.

3D printed parts are not only used for validating a design, they are also used to communicate the design intent to marketing and sales departments, manufacturers and suppliers. Marketing and sales will be better prepared to support the product when it is released since they can physically see the design beforehand. The ability to share a model with your manufacturing and supply chains will help determine if the product can be economically manufactured and identify issues that could arise during manufacturing.

Giving your manufacturers and suppliers an accurate representation of the end product could help prevent any miscommunication that could arise when interpreting the CAD models.

3. Field testing prototypes that resemble the final product provide insight into potential design flaws.

The material choices available for 3D printing have come a long way in recent years, and now include urethane rubbers, water-clear acrylics and full color palettes. In some cases, it is now possible to 3D print with the actual end-use material such as ABS, polycarbonate and nylon, to name a few. In other cases, 3D printing can be used to create injection molds, blow molds and patterns for silicone molding. This allows a prototype to be made in materials that are not available for 3D printing. Field testing a prototype that is identical to a manufactured part will gain valuable data and could help prevent costly mistakes and rework later in the product development lifecycle.

4. Seeing is believing.

With all of the materials offered by 3D printing, potential customers could evaluate the product without knowing they are holding a prototype. The ability to see and touch something that is realistic and feels like a finished product helps confirm the goals established for the product have been met. This builds faith in the product within your organization, and it can help gain funding from potential investors.

5. Improved customer satisfaction.

The additional design iterations and the subsequent testing of a new product helps to ensure you are giving the customer the best possible product for their money. 3D printed prototypes lead to a more refined end product because key decisions about the function and feel of the product were able to be made early on in the design process.

The enhanced communication made possible by passing along prototype representations of the product to the manufacturers and suppliers has also ensured the true design intent has been achieved. Your customers will recognize the added value in the product. And in the end, that is all that really matters.

Chris Richter has been with R&D Technologies in North Kingstown, R.I., since 2006 as an applications and support engineer, specializing in PolyJet and Fused Deposition Modeling 3D Printing systems. He can be reached at chrisr@rnd-tech.com.

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