In use for more than 20 years among the elite of manufacturing companies, rapid prototyping continues to prove itself by empowering rapid product innovation.
Now, advances in 3D printing technology have enabled prototypes to go beyond the form and fit of finished products, and encompass higher level criteria such as functionality and performance.
To learn more, The Manufacturer spoke with Sam Green, rapid prototyping specialist and category manager for professional printing solutions at 3D Systems.
Rapid prototyping is the most mature 3D printing use-case; so, how have you seen adoption continue to grow over the past 12 months?
Sam Green: The market is currently split. On one side, you have those who have been using 3D printing technology for prototyping for close to 30 years; these businesses fully understand the use cases and the cost-benefit rationale i.e., cost per part benefits and break-even points.
These ‘power users’ are increasingly seeking very high value propositions, high-performance materials, robust reliability in the hardware and greater capabilities in printers to scale in tandem with their organisations.
On the other side, you have ‘new adopters’ – typically smaller businesses who are seeking a more introductory proposition. For them, the key deliverables are around speed of part delivery, integrating the technology into their existing processes to improve workflow, and offering a system that is intuitive and easy to use for their designers and engineers.
This is the fastest growing segment and we have seen a significant increase in enquiries and sales from ‘new adopters’ over the past 12 – 18 months.
There is certainly a greater understanding and interest in 3D printing currently. How can we ensure that that momentum is not only maintained, but built upon?
For ‘power users’, the primary challenge revolves around the ability to print parts with ever higher accuracy, repeatability and functionality, that are equally aesthetically pleasing. This is a constant area of focus for 3D Systems in terms of our research and development, demonstrated with the release of our Figure 4 and FabPro technologies.
For ‘new adopters,’ the key is helping businesses understand just how easy it is to assimilate 3D printing into their current NPI processes. The focus of 3D Systems has always been on creating easy-to-use, reliable, professional quality prints with technology that is easily integrated.
A current trend is the move towards decentralising 3D printing. Rather than a company having a single rapid prototyping shop and forcing designers to send files and wait, companies are increasingly dispersing 3D printers so that individual teams or complimentary groups have access to their own printer within their workspace – just like a 2D paper printer.
This democratisation of access means greater numbers of people are using and becoming familiar with the technology, which will certainly drive momentum.
Rapid Prototyping: Increasing agility in design and manufacturing
To stay competitive in a market that is perpetually shrinking time to market, manufacturers need to make and break new release schedules in their product development cycles. Rapid Prototyping offers that opportunity.
Click here to download an exclusive RP ebook and understand the benefits, the wide array of materials available for it and how it can help through a real world use case.
Can you offer a couple of real world examples of low risk, high reward applications of rapid prototyping technology that are really delivering benefits?
The size of the opportunity rapid prototyping and 3D printing represents is huge, and it hasn’t even come close to being fully tapped. Rapid prototyping for the automotive industry, for example, is worth upwards of $5bn globally, and up to 3,000 newly packaged consumer goods are released each year, every one of which will have gone through several design iterations.
Packaged consumer goods are predominantly displayed on shop shelves or window displays, and the shape and aesthetic of the packaging plays a very strong role in the eventual purchase decision of a customer. Therefore, large consumer goods companies have a vested interest in what the shape of the package looks like.
If a major cosmetics brand owner, for example, wanted to trial a new packaging shape or design, the first step they would take is speaking to their packaging manufacturer to discuss the available or possible options. Typically, the packaging manufacturer limits themselves to a handful of packaging options which are produced in glass or a glass-type acrylic (PMMA).
Thanks to 3D printing, the number of options broadens out, especially when a manufacturer makes use of our high-end materials like VisiJet Armor (a tough, ABS-like clear performance plastic) or Accura ClearVue (an ultra-high-clarity, crystal clear material).
By having the ability to produce entirely new, unique packaging shapes, the packaging manufacturer is able to offer a superior, more personalised experience to customers and achieve greater competitive advantage.
Another great example is headlight covers, something you’ll find on every vehicle. Typically, these panels are CNC milled from a solid block of acrylic material, and therefore the wastage involved is quite high. The rejection rate of finished parts is also high – as many as two out of every three fail quality audits. It’s a significant area for a supplier in terms of labour cost and material use.
In terms of rapid prototyping, 3D printing can significantly reduce the time between iterations and allow designers to think of new innovative ways of solving design engineering problems. When you can produce more design iterations, when you can think more liberally about how you design, then your end-product will be better. And you can do it for the same or even lower cost than you did previously.
The business proposition is certainly compelling. So, what advice do you have for a business that’s interested in exploring rapid prototyping?
First, I would offer a word of caution. There are a lot of 3D printing companies out there today and many are relatively new. That means their technology may not have been tested over a significant time period and they may not have the support infrastructure in place to provide an ongoing service to customers.
So, think carefully about your choice of partners. Select one that has a mature, reliable technology, which has been well-tested, and has a strong, international support structure in place and can assure maximised up-time.
Second, create a cost-benefit analysis matched to your business’ unique requirements, and don’t base that analysis solely on the initial hardware investment. Rather, consider the total cost of ownership (TCO). If you intend to use 3D printing for rapid prototyping, what materials are you going to use, how do they differ in price and performance? How easy is the system to use? Does it require special expertise or does it work ‘right out of the box?’
Your 3D printing partner must be able to grow and scale with your business. You may start out with an entry-level printer, but progress onto more capable models. Can your partner support your journey from concept iteration and functional prototyping through to production?
Also, don’t focus solely on the hardware. Does your partner offer additional services? Is the software fully integrated and does it offer an intuitive user-experience? Does your partner offer a parts-on-demand service to help fill any remaining or unforeseen gaps you may have?
Once you start on the 3D Printing journey, you can’t be left to do it alone. You don’t want a vendor who will just sell you the kit and walk away. You want a partner with a proven technological-capability who can advise you on where you need to go next and where else you can apply 3D printing within your organisation. That is central to everything we do at 3D Systems.