I introduced conceptual design in my last blog and want to hit on a very exciting and powerful technology that is sweeping through the design landscape, leaving virtually no industry unscathed. This technology is 3D printing. 3D printing, for those who are unfamiliar with term, involves taking a digital prototype and essentially “printing” it as a 3D physical model, in a wide variety of different materials.
Let’s face it, we live in a tactile world. How a product feels in our hands can sometimes be almost, or just as important as what function the device serves. Consumer electronics can live and die by this principal. How does the cell phone feel in the palm of the hand? How does the Bluetooth feel wrapped around the ear? How easily can I reach all the buttons on my Xbox controller? While a digital prototype model is a powerful tool, it may not be possible to answer all questions. Sometimes there is just no substitute for being able to feel the product in our hands.
Besides the tactile appeal, these 3D models can be powerfully representative in other ways as well. 3D assemblies have been printed that allow mechanisms to be tested. After testing a new mechanized linkage in the digital world, a 3D printed prototype can be made to verify physical operation and find any points of binding; well before expensive castings and molds are ordered.
The architectural realm is another industry where 3D printing is making a big splash. My aunt is an architect and she has told me stories, filled with exhaustion and dread, of designing a building and then creating a paper card stock model of the structure to demonstrate how it looks. Hope nobody bumps the table during construction and imagine the kid gloves required to haul that model around!
With 3D printing, the architect can design the building digital prototype and, using that same digital model, print a 3D model of the building to physically demonstrate the design. Besides just for looks, perhaps that same 3D prototype can be used for wind tunnel testing or other simulated load testing. I already alluded to this, but imagine the time savings by using a 3D printed model, versus trying to build one by hand!
3D printing is a vast and growing process, but hopefully you are beginning to see the possibilities. The printers range from small personal use models to large production worthy machines. While 3D printing may not always be a silver bullet for design or conceptualization, it is a very robust and useful tool useful at all stages of the design process. Going beyond that, besides just design verification with 3D prototypes, perhaps some of your production parts could be made with 3D printing? Again, tons of possibilities. If you have any questions about 3D printing, MasterGraphics has an excellent 3D printing group and we would love to see if 3D printing could help improve your design process and, ultimately, your entire business.