The journey from brilliant idea to successful product is fraught with hurdles. Analysis of new product development by Greg Stevens and James Burley in their study, “3,000 Raw Ideas = 1 Commercial Success,” found that in addition to 3,000 raw ideas, a single successful innovation also requires 125 small projects, four major developments, and 1.7 product launches. 3D printing capabilities can speed the process by which companies determine whether concepts are worthy of development resources.

While outsourcing 3D printing might result in models equal in quality to those 3D printed in-house, the Graco example illustrates the benefits of investing in your own machine. A highly iterative process can only happen in a feasible time frame when engineers can see quick feedback on design changes. In-house 3D printing eliminates shipping delays and reduces administrative slowdowns that can accompany sourcing prototypes from external services. With some systems now available to lease, businesses might find that as few as one in-house model per month justifies the cost of a printer versus money spent outsourcing.

More Effective Design Through 3D Printing

Figure 2. At Acist Medical Systems, medical device designers test ideas with 3D-printed prototypes and low quantities of end-use parts.
3D printing can increase the chances of a successful product launch by enabling more thorough design evaluations and a more iterative process.

At Henk and I, an industrial design firm in Johannesburg, South Africa, designers created and extensively tested a new kind of pool-cleaner motor that works well with low-flow, energy-saving filters. The high-torque design was the result of an iterative refinement process using the office 3D printer. In the functional testing stage, 30 3D-printed prototypes cleaned pools in various regions worldwide. The result was a new poolcleaner model, the MX 8, for the firm’s client, Zodiac. According to Henk van der Meijden of Henk and I, the motor innovation would have been impossible without 3D printing.

Successful product design requires review and input from many sources. With in-house 3D printers, design teams can review concepts earlier with others who may provide feedback. Fast collaboration with engineering, marketing, and quality assurance can empower designers to make adjustments throughout the design process and follow-up testing.

Faster turnaround is the only way to enable iterative discovery without lengthening the design process. 3D printing users in aerospace, automotive, industrial design, and education have reported improvements of 43 to 96 percent in prototyping speed when switching from traditional methods to 3D printing. Traditional prototyping methods include injection molding, CNC machining, metal machining, and 2D laser cutting. In some cases, lead time required by a machine shop had been a major factor in slowing prototype creation.

As the trend toward affordable 3D printing continues to result in more decentralized machines — for example in departments or individual cubicles — opportunities to speed the design cycle are multiplying. An optimized design process with more prototype iterations can help minimize risk of product failure. Because 3D printers can produce models with fine feature details and the strength to withstand rigorous testing, designers can be more confident in their work. Additionally, data integrity and security is paramount in a competitive environment. While sharing confidential STL files with trusted vendors is generally safe, having a 3D printer in-house removes any worry that might stem from sending intellectual property offsite.

Making needed changes as early as possible saves money and time. 3D-printed models can give designers and engineers a thorough understanding of potential products earlier in the design process than other methods, minimizing the risk that problems will go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Acist Medical Systems designs and manufactures contrast-injection devices for cardiologists and radiologists. The company uses 3D-printed parts in functional testing, fixtures, and end-use parts. In complex assemblies, Acist uses 3D printing to design plastic parts as efficiently as possible around machined parts, circuit boards, and integrated circuits. In one display unit, Acist reduced part count from 15 to 7 because of 3D printing’s ability to help evaluate complex geometries. The company even tests functional 3D-printed units in customer settings, working out design problems and incorporating real customer feedback before committing to large-scale tooling.

3D Printing Reduces Product Design Costs

The acquisition cost of a professional 3D printing system can be as little as $10,000 (USD), which may surprise engineers and designers who’ve priced larger 3D production systems. Annual operating costs are generally lower, too, partly because 3D printers require no dedicated facility or special expertise to run. Leasing options can mitigate the cost barriers that may have restricted adoption of 3D printing technology in the past. Other costs to consider are printer maintenance and material costs, which vary depending on use. When evaluating 3D printing systems, consider facilities requirements; expertise needed to run the system; accuracy, durability, and size of models; available materials; speed; and, of course, cost.

Your desired application will help you determine the best system for you, but keep in mind that many users report discovering diverse uses after acquiring a 3D printing system. For example, a system purchased for functional prototypes might prove useful for building manufacturing tools.

At Leptron, a developer of remotely piloted helicopters for law enforcement, military, and civilian use, engineers used a 3D printer to design, test, and build a tiny surveillance drone. The RDASS 4 has eight modular fuselage components that can combine for various uses. Designing the complex drone and testing it to withstand crash landings required an iterative approach involving 200 design changes, including structural reinforcements and aerodynamic improvements. In-house 3D printing cut product development costs for the RDASS 4 by 60 percent over injection molding. Further, the project may not have been commercially feasible without the six-month head-start that 3D printing offered in getting the drone to market.

3D printing provides a highly cost-efficient means of producing numerous design iterations and gaining immediate feedback throughout the critical beginning stages of the development process. The ability to refine form, fit, and function quickly can significantly improve production costs and time to market. This can create a distinct competitive advantage for those companies who include 3D printing as an integral part of their design process.

Lower costs will continue to expand the 3D printing market, especially in small- to medium-sized businesses and schools. The speed, consistency, accuracy, and low cost of these printers will help companies reduce time to market and maintain a competitive edge.

This article was contributed by Stratasys Inc., Eden Prairie, MN. For more information, Click Here.

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