Henry Ford is, famously, supposed to have said his cars were available in “any colour you like, so long as it is black”.
Those days are long gone. Today, customers demand almost endless variety and near constant innovation. These demands create tremendous opportunities, but tremendous competitive pressures also.
Success comes to those manufacturers that can identify new opportunities, anticipate customer demand and then move quickly to innovate, incorporate innovation into products and get those products to market ahead of their competitors.
Every new or evolved product is the culmination of an iterative development process. It requires cycle after cycle of effort, feedback and improvement. Each cycle requires the production of prototypes: to test form, function, customer appeal and manufacturability of the end product; to gain new knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. This can be a time consuming process, but it is one that cannot be skipped.
Reducing the time taken to produce each of these prototypes, and producing prototypes that mimic the final product as closely as possible, can greatly reduce the time taken to go from concept to production.
Produce prototypes rapidly
This is rapid prototyping, and 3D printing has revolutionised rapid prototyping. 3D-printed prototypes can be created directly from CAD files in hours: a process that can take days or weeks using traditional model making, CNC machining, or tool-based production.
By greatly reducing the cost and time to produce prototypes 3D printing enables prototyping to be introduced in the early stages of product development and more prototypes to be produced. This creates a virtuous feedback loop where new product knowledge and insights into manufacturability are gained with every iteration.
3D printing can be used alongside traditional techniques to create a full-scale prototype of a large and complex product, such as an automobile in a fraction of time it would take using conventional techniques.
A full-scale prototype of a car can be created in eight weeks enabling the manufacturer to comprehensively test assembly processes, ergonomics from a driver and passenger perspective, and accessibility for maintenance.
Choice of 3D print technologies
There are many different requirements for prototypes, and multiple 3D printing technologies available to meet these needs. Some prototypes need only to mimic the appearance of a finished product. Others need to approximate the function of the finished product.
Rapid prototyping materials are typically plastics, but these can mimic properties of a wide array of engineering materials, properties such as flexibility, durability, stiffness, toughness, stability, transparency/clarity, look and feel, biocompatibility, temperature or water resistance, and more.
For example ColorJet printing is ideal for rapidly and inexpensively producing prototypes of goods such as shoes and pottery, where colour is a key feature of the final product.
Selective Laser Sintering 3D printing produces prototypes from robust nylon materials and is ideal for making prototypes of goods such as child car seats and sports helmets where impact resistance is important.
MultiJet 3D printers are good for producing high-resolution parts for multi-material product designs. Stereolithography 3D printers produce high-resolution parts that are suitable for painting, plating and finishing.
The choice of 3D printing technology depends on the nature of the part to be printed and also on its stage in the product development cycle, the purpose of the prototype and how long it needs to last.
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