Accelerate Product Development with 3D Printing

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a rapidly evolving technology that is having a major impact on product development. By enabling engineers to create physical prototypes quickly and easily, 3D printing can help to accelerate the product development process.

The invention of what is now referred to as 3D printing goes back to the mid-80s. It was then that mainstream usage of the term 3D printing exploded, in part due to the popularity of DIY-grade printers which came to market. Along with this rise in popularity have been developments in materials used in printing.

Beyond just the hardware and materials required to make 3D printing viable, there has also been growth in the software used in the prototyping process. CAD software, such as SOLIDWORKS, continues to get more powerful in terms of modeling, along with rendering in packages like Visualize. Even with great new rendering packages, things such as ergonomics studies, marketing presentations and UX testing still create a need for physical objects.

Traditional prototyping techniques, such as CNC machining and injection molding, can be time-consuming and expensive. 3D printing, on the other hand, can create prototypes in a matter of hours or even minutes, and at a fraction of the cost. This makes it ideal for rapid prototyping, which bridges the gap between realistic rendering and time-consuming machining.

As a result of its many advantages, 3D printing is having a major impact on product development. It is enabling engineers to create prototypes more quickly, easily and affordably than ever before. This is helping to accelerate the product development process and bring new products to market faster.

Speed: A Benefit of 3D Printing

One of the biggest advantages of 3D printing is its speed. 3D printers can create objects much faster than traditional manufacturing methods, such as CNC machining or injection molding, because they do not require any tooling or molds.

The speed of 3D printing, however, can vary depending on the type of printer, the material being used and the complexity of the object being created. It is important to note that 3D printing is not always instant. Larger objects will take longer to print than smaller objects. This limitation can sometimes be overcome by building scale models of devices or parts, although this approach does eliminate some use cases for the technology.

Beyond the time it takes to print is the time it takes to prepare a part or design for printing. Since printing is additive, some of the limitations of traditional manufacturing do not have to be considered. Getting CNC machine time, designing a mold for injection molding or modifying tolerances to match the machinery of a supplier can all (mostly) be ignored when using 3D printing to create a prototype.

Creating prototype iterations in less time is often communicated as a net benefit for the “time to market” or a new product. Rather than waiting for a 3-week prototype turnaround, things can be done in a day or two. This can also be used to eliminate downtime. Even though 3D printing is not a full replacement for traditional manufacturing, an interim solution can use a printed product in production while the traditional process proceeds in parallel.

Flexibility of 3D Printing for Product Development

3D printing is a very flexible technology, which allows it to be used to create a wide variety of products. This flexibility has benefits for the product development process both in terms of the actual design as well as to the overhead and administration of product development.

A few examples of these benefits are:

  • Prototypes: 3D printing is often used to create prototypes of new products. This allows engineers to test and refine their designs before they commit to manufacturing the product, and often even create them internally. Many engineers will recognize the benefits of eliminating an acquisition process. An annual budget to acquire a single printer that integrates with the software and workflow of a design department can eliminate countless hours of overhead that take away from the design process.
  • Functional parts: 3D printing can be used to create functional parts for products. This is often done for low-volume production or for products that are too complex or expensive to manufacture using traditional methods. As a result, high part counts can be eliminated and the supply chain of an assembled device is shortened.
  • Custom products: The flexibility of 3D printing also allows it to be used to design products that otherwise would not justify the investment of product development. For example, 3D printing can be used to create small batches of products for niche markets or for products that are only needed for a short period of time. This is often done for products that are not available commercially, or for products that need to be customized to meet the specific needs of the customer.

3D Printing Accuracy and the Design Process

The accuracy of 3D printers varies depending on the type of printer and the material being used. While hobby-grade printers can create many tolerance issues, industrial-grade 3D printers can create objects with a high degree of accuracy. For example, some high-end printers have tolerances of +/- 0.1 mm, which is comparable to the accuracy of traditional manufacturing techniques.

In some cases, 3D printers can even surpass the accuracy of traditional manufacturing techniques. This is true for complex geometries that would be difficult or impossible to create using traditional methods, including parts designed with optimized drag, weight distribution or aesthetics in mind.

How to Get Started with 3D Printing for Product Development

The first step is to choose a 3D printer. There are a variety of 3D printers available on the market, so it is important to choose one that is right for your needs. Of course, you do not need a printer yourself to take advantage of the technology. There are dozens of service centers and manufacturers that offer printing as a part of their services. Some CAD software, such as SOLIDWORKS, even let you integrate directly to make 3D printing as easy as paper printing with a File > Print style feature.

Once you have chosen a 3D printer, you will need to learn how to use it. There are many resources available online that can help you with this. Again, unless you want to operate a piece of 3D printing machinery yourself, this step can be skipped. Thousands of DIYers have become familiar with the struggles of keeping a printer up and running in good condition. Nearly all of the benefits of printing can still be gained, even without owning a printer at your organization.

Should You Be 3D Printing More in Your Product Development Process?

3D printing offers a number of advantages over traditional prototyping methods, including speed, cost, accuracy, flexibility and acceleration of the product development process. If you work in the product development area, it is highly encouraged to take the time to identify a few pilot projects where you could benefit from improved speed or more iterations.

Even though it is easy to think you can dive right in, consider that, as with anything, there will be a learning curve to using 3D printing. This is something that you might miss in the excitement to use a new technology. Although the term printing suggests that you can just hit a button and ‘poof,’ a new part appears, the simple truth is that to optimally use 3D printing will take some knowledge.

Still, even with these caveats, the answer to the question is that “Yes,” you most likely should be using 3D printing somewhere in your development process. The benefits are too great to pass up, and the effort to begin learning is relatively low.

About the Author

Chris McAndrew is a former engineer turned product manager who has launched products ranging from children’s toys to adtech measurement products. As an amateur athlete he applies the analytical engineering approach to endurance training at where he covers wearables, coaching and personal wellness.

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