3D Printing: Prototype, Test, Launch - All in 3 Days

3D Printing: Prototype, Test, Launch - All in 3 Days

You know what stinks...?

I recently bought a phablet with a 5.7 inch screen, but no matter where I looked online, including the vast selection on Amazon, I couldn’t find a stand I liked. So I decided to make one myself.

After tinkering with a few different designs on paper, I created something I was reasonably happy with. Next, I called up a friend who owned a 3D printer and by the next morning I had a ready-made prototype.

It was ok but I wasn’t satisfied. So we made two more iterations until I was happy with the end result an awesome looking smartphone stand.

In a way, I was rapidly prototyping a product that, if I wanted to, I could get manufactured and start selling. The technology most of us have available today to design and prototype pretty much anything is what makes this an exciting time to be alive.

So let’s take a deeper look into how rapid prototyping with 3D printing has evolved into what it is today, and how different companies are taking advantage of the possibilities that this new technology gives us. 

How Rapid Prototyping Evolved

3D printing has been around since 1984, when the first working 3D printer was revealed. Since then, it has been used in various large commercial applications.

What limited its appeal to only large scale manufacturing was its initial price even simple machines cost in the tens of thousands in the low-end.

The current revolution of 3D printing has been made possible due to the dramatic decrease in price of printers. A printer that cost $20,000 in 2010 can now be had for $1000 or less.

Today, you can get a small scale reliable 3D printer from a reputable company like MakerBot for $899.

In addition, the technology itself has continued kept evolving, making it possible to print with more diverse materials (including glass & metal) and in different environments.

For example, there’s a working 3D printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) making objects in zero gravity.

Pictures of 3D printed objects that were printed in space

Image via NASA

All of this broadens the possibilities of 3D printing and thus making rapidly prototyping products easier and easier.

The Reason 3D Printing is Important

The main reason it’s important is it’s significantly lower product development costs along with the ability to have a working prototype for real world feedback quicker.

Take my smartphone stand as an example, I was able to have three iterations of my prototype design made into a real, working stands in three days. Throw in a few focus groups to give feedback on look & feel, and by the time we’re ready to send to a manufacturer, we’ll have real knowledge on what people’s response will be.

Just 10 years ago, it would have taken me weeks to just get my first prototype made. Plus, it would have cost me a lot more than it did. 

Cost of rapid prototyping grapch

Image via Javelin Tech

The table above gives an overview of how much making a prototype (for a relatively simple plastic outer shell) for an electronic device would cost using different methods of manufacturing from injection mold, to silicon based soft molds (RTV), to a 3D printer finished product (on a Connex500).

How SPX Corporation Saved 3 Weeks and $13,000

Several years ago, SPX Corporation, a Fortune 500 multi-industry global supplier of HVAC equipment turned to Vista Technologies, a company that specializes in rapid prototyping, rapid tooling and injection molding, to make them prototypes of a two-piece overmolded part.

At the time, the best way forward was to use a process that required making two patterns and two molds for both the upper and the lower pieces of the casing.

The project took four weeks and cost $15,800. That was considered the fastest,most cost-efficient way of producing a prototype at the time.

Unfortunately, the castings demonstrated that design modifications would be necessary. So SPX made the modifications, but budget and time constraints prevented  moving on to production without a second set of working prototypes. Fortunately, everything worked out fine, but this could have set the stage for a very expensive product recall if someone miscalculated.

Picture of a 3D printer at work

 Image via WikiMedia

Fast forward to today, SPX again turned to Vista Technologies for a similar prototype that required more or less the same amount of work if they’d be using the same RTV molding techniques as before.

This time, the company used overmolded 3D printing - a technology that simply did not exist the first time around.

“In the past,” Dan Mishek, managing director at Vista says , “our clients may have restricted their designs in some regard because there was no way to get a functional model for what they really wanted to try, or the model would be cost prohibitive. Hence, straying from traditional designs created risk.”
“Today,” says Mishek, “customers tell us, ‘Now that I know I can prototype these types of features, I may design the next part differently.’ They can design in a soft-touch area or a more complex assembly, and we can prototype it quickly and relatively inexpensively. That gives them the freedom to try new designs and new approaches, and makes it more likely that they’ll come back to us.”

For SPX it meant they had a working functional prototype in days instead of weeks and the total bill was approximately $2,800. $13,000 saved on just one prototype of one product. That’s impressive.

Think of the savings this translates into when putting into context of tens of thousands of products prototyped in a year.

Now one might say that that’s all well and good when we’re dealing with prototypes that can be 3D printed and are made of materials that 3D printers can use. But that’s not always the case.

Having the ability to have a prototype in your hand to get a better understanding of the look and feel is, of course, awesome.

But it doesn’t really give any indication of whether the prototype is strong enough for the application it’s designed for especially when the final product will be made from a material that cannot be 3D printed.

It’s definitely a point worth noting.

Indeed, there are products and materials that cannot be 3D printed and that’s exactly what happened at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, when their Department of Polymer Engineering Laboratory was tasked with designing a general purpose electric fan that could provide enhanced cooling, with a significantly reduced noise level.

3D Printing Injection Molds

Picture of 3D printed plastic mold

Image via Stratasys

The problem wasn’t a matter of complex design, but rather that the material that was going to be used for the finished product couldn’t be 3D printed and because the fan had to pass safety tests performed under extreme load conditions like intense temperature, multiple hours of operation and more. So, they had to come up with a solution.

An obvious way to go would have been to use traditional injection molds.

However, conventional methods of producing injection molds are often prohibitively expensive and take too long to produce. Instead, their solution was a custom 3D printing design. At first, the students used “traditional” 3D printing with normal plastics to produce three different fan designs for initial testing.

After initial testing, the best design was chosen and a mold was 3D printed to be able to make the fan out of correct design. The final results was that the fan passed all required safety tests while at the same time managing to increase cooling performance by 20% and lower noise levels by 7dB.

The same principals and feedback loops can be applied to virtually any product, in any category, in companies of any size. The technology that is available today is not only making rapid prototyping a reality, but a reality that is attainable to everyone.

So, you don’t have to be Microsoft or Alphabet (Google) or Xiaomi (if you don’t know them yet, you will very soon) to be able to print out and play around with your prototypes of whatever product or gadget that you’ve managed to come up with.

You can just be someone  with a simple problem (like not having a stand that fits his phablet), some basic drawing skills and, with a little bit of help from friends, have a working prototype solution to your problem within days. And who knows, if a big enough group of people identify with the same problem, your little project could turn into a real business opportunity.



About The Author

Ott Niggulis is a chef/paramedic/freelance writer who focuses on marketing and CRO. Marketing is a numbers game and he loves numbers. Follow him on Twitter.