Prior to the availability of 3D printing, product development in general, and plastic product development in particular, relied on hand-made prototypes produced by skilled model and pattern makers. CNC machining reduced lead time for some parts and some projects, but it was still a craft process.
The initial phase of 3D printer development had a significant effect on use of prototypes in the product development process. Since the invention of the technology in the late 1980’s, most project managers budgeted in 3D printed prototypes. These parts were usually provided by external job shops, and the cost and lead time associated with procuring those parts generally limited the budget and lead time to a single iteration.
The next phase in the development of 3D printing for product development use came with the availability of faster, less-expensive machines producing stronger parts beginning around 2004. The availability of systems for less than $50,000 broadened use. With a machine in-house, the design development process could begin accommodating a second or third round of prototype development. This allowed designers to begin limited functional testing and final design development before tooling.
Solid modeling made photo-realistic images of new designs readily available at the same time. As machines became more capable and available, product developers proceeded to the next stage: developing market-ready prototypes for customer approval before committing to production tooling. Developers of products like LCD projectors, hand-held medical devices, and others could create highly realistic, functional prototypes for customer approval and market size estimates before committing to any tooling at all.
Once the fundamental patents for Fused Deposition Technology (FDM) and Stereolithography expired, inexpensive desktop 3D printers became feasible. Originally sold as kits, MakerBot and others began selling complete systems. Today, the “desktop” market is defined by Wohlers as systems selling for less than $5,000.
The inexpensive desktop machines have some significant limitations. First, process control is not good enough for production-level accuracy. Second, the larger the part the more difficult it is to complete a build. Finally, most require a significant amount of user labor to set up, run the part, and remove support material.
But these machines have the benefit of being very inexpensive to run; the material used on these printers, PLA, is about half the cost of ABS.
Depending on the product requirements, developers are now “prototyping the prototype” by producing early models on desktop machines. For ergonomic testing, review by non-technical managers, and proof of concept, these models have “good enough” accuracy, fidelity, and strength. Using this level of 3D printer in the earliest stages of design minimizes the risk of prototype print failures, as the more complex designs are later printed on production-grade machines.
This is just another step in 3D printing's on-going revolution in the product developent process, one that will continue to evolve as the technology rapidly does.
MakerBot Replicator Z18 & uPrint SE: Their Role In Manufacturing
Explore the Replicator Z18 & the uPrint SE 3D printers & how they're being used in manufacturing. Watch to see how these two printers standup against repeatability, complex geometry, & reliability testing.