Does 3D printing represent a shift in time-to-market strategies?

Dan Moore, ECN Reader

3D printing has been used for years in larger companies, like the one I work for now. It is incorporated into the mechanical design process as part of the overall development and is optionally tailored out if not necessary or particularly useful. When end customers, as well as designers, see a plastic mock-up of the widgit they desire, I believe it simultaneously (1) enforces a realization that this company can possibly deliver what the customer sees as a solution to fit their needs and (2) cements the reality of the state of existence or readiness the widgit is truly in. This combined with a talented and trusted sales/BD team helps gather interest to seal the deal and generate additional trust and potential capital for further development. Plastic mock-ups are cool, especially in color-specific layers, as long as the necessary detail is present. Remember the edges of the army men we played with as kids that looked like little imperfections where they were ripped from the mold? Those same edges may exist in the plastic mock-ups if the resolution is not accurate enough, especially to external surfaces, and can distort areas of keen interest, thus reducing the desired effect with the customer. If done properly, 3D prints can influence the customer or focus group to accelerate the development schedule and assets to bring the product quicker to market.

Jim Zelonis, ECN Reader

Absolutely yes, 3D printing should improve time to market. If you made a bad design or one that is only slightly off, you will have proof in hand almost instantaneously, and you can adjust fire to fix the problem.

Too bad I can’t use 3D printing to formulate my specialty adhesives.

Tony Holtz, Lead Customer Service Engineer at Proto Labs

Today, time to market is critical, but not if it means sacrificing quality and performance. Testing, early and often, is the key to keeping a project on schedule and the product on target, and the ability to turn CAD models directly into prototypes has made that testing possible. The first technology for turning CAD models directly into physical prototypes was 3D printing, a family of additive processes that stack layers of resin (or other material) into three-dimensional objects. The processes can be slow, but the resulting part should closely match the designed form and in some cases be close enough for testing fit as well. It would not, however, be likely to match the material or structure of the manufactured product or be suitable for functional testing. Still, it is quick and easy and significantly speeds up the early phases of product development.

Until relatively recently, plastic prototypes for functional testing came from the costly steel molds that would be used for production. If everything went well, the prototypes would confirm the product’s completion. If small problems showed up, it might be possible to modify the mold. But if there were serious problems invested time and money would be written off and new molds made.

The first breakthrough in functional testing was automated milling of aluminum molds direct from 3D CAD models. They were far faster and less expensive than steel, could mold hundreds of thermoplastic resins, and produced prototypes that were, essentially, production parts. Then came automated machining of parts, direct from 3D CAD models. That was as fast and economical as 3D printing and produced parts suitable for functional testing. Today, each of the three processes has its place in product development, and together they have revolutionized the process while turning the race to market from a marathon into a sprint.