Why 3D Printing Makes Sense

Stanley Black & Decker uses a ZPrinter to help design its DeWalt tools and tool cases.

Recent advances in 3D printing’s speed, affordability, color capability, and office friendliness are tipping points for product companies that have traditionally outsourced their prototyping. Developing prototypes in house is now an attractive investment with a tangible, positive return.

Inkjet-based 3D printers, for example, can now print a typical part in less than two hours. Material costs are as low as $2 per cubic inch. Organizations cannot only bring prototyping in house, they can have more models earlier in the design process.

3D printed parts are increasingly versatile. You can build them to be strong and economical, and many can be drilled, tapped, sanded, and painted or electroplated to replicate the look and feel of the final product. Or you can build durable plastic parts that rival injection molding’s accuracy, material properties, detail, and surface finish. Plastic parts enable engineers to verify designs for form, fit, and function prior to full-scale production, eliminating costly modifications to production tooling and shortening time to market.

And in special applications areas, the 3D printed parts are the end product or render the end product through a second step mold or casting process within hours or a few days. This is particularly true in the dental and jewelry industries where print head technology combines durable plastics with wax, or 100% wax is used for exceptional-quality, fine feature output that has revolutionized the production process.

3D printers used to be complicated and make a mess. Not anymore. You can find machines that automate most of their operations — including hands-free support removal or recycling the composite powder left over from a build — making these printers fit right into the professional office. If not for the 3D output, you might think they’re document printers.

The Color Factor

Planmeca, a Finland-based maker of dental equipment, uses a 3D Systems Z Printer to print out skull models for pre-operative planning.

One of the biggest advances in 3D printing is the ability of some devices to print a single object in any combination or pattern of hundreds of thousands of colors. This is as important as the emergence of multicolor document printing. It permits not only multicolored objects, but the application of complex texture designs — even photographs — on parts. This flexibility enhances communication, improves designs, and provides a better understanding of what a final product will look like before expensive production steps begin.

Since many products, especially consumer products, have sophisticated color patterns, labels, and eye-catching packaging, it’s vital to help others envision these visual design elements early in the design cycle. Historically, companies have resorted to the time-consuming and tedious process of painting their models. To evaluate packaging and labels, companies have typically relied on computer renderings alone. Full-spectrum color 3D printers can now handle all of this.

Full-spectrum color 3D printing capability also enables you to print text and engineering labels on parts. Why do you need color for labels? A monochrome 3D printer only enables you to print in the color of the build material, usually white (unlike a monochrome document printer that actually gives you both black and white, with the white being the paper). Revealing the printed text on a prototype requires a multicolor 3D printer.

Labels matter. No one would consider producing a CAD drawing without some form of engineering label to provide information about the drawing. The same goes for a 3D part: without any label on the part, a lot of information is lost. With an engineering label, one can quickly see the part name, its scale, when it was printed, who designed it, etc.

Full-spectrum color 3D printing also makes marking up parts quick and easy. Arrows and other highlighting techniques can spotlight what has changed in the latest iteration of the part. Different colors or patterns can convey instructions when a complete design is ready to be transferred to manufacturing (or a supplier). By using multiple colors, it is easy to highlight part surfaces that need to be machined (e.g., holes that need to be drilled), or the assembly order (e.g., blue first, red second, and yellow last). Designers can get creative and start adding visual effects like shadows onto a part to enhance communication. The possibilities are limited only by the designer’s imagination.

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