Updated: Jan 18
3D printing is to product development, what mobile phones were to communication. A sudden revelation, a disruptive technology, a wealth of opportunity that now becomes difficult to imagine a life without. At least, that’s from the perspective of a product designer anyway… Philosophy aside, I'm confident there are plenty of opportunities for small businesses to reap the benefits of 3D printing.
One of the most appealing factors of 3D printing, is the lack of geometry limitations in design. Most traditional methods are problematic with complex geometry, that feature ‘undercuts’ or cavities which are not normal to a mold direction. This allows for more creative freedom in part design – nice! Just keep in mind that scaling up to production may cause issues later, if moving beyond printing.
Techniques like injection molding are also awfully pedantic in their requirements of part design. From draft angles and wall thicknesses to material flow and shrinkage characteristics, a lot of expertise is required. Thankfully 3D printing doesn’t incur the same array of limitations, leading to an easier design process. That being said, there are guidelines for designing ready-for-print parts – but they do tend to vary on the printing technology used.
Example of geometry possible only with 3D printing:
Source: Luxxeon 3D/www.cgtrader.com
Knowing when NOT to print
While printing might be the easy choice, it doesn’t make it the most logical. Often times during prototyping it can be much faster to knock something up out of foam, cardboard or wood. Plus, the less plastic we produce, the better right? Similarly, if the call for printing is based on low-volume production its worth getting quotations for other methods such as injection molding or vacuum casting too.
Owning a printer
You could be forgiven for thinking, the way to obtain 3D prints is to purchase a 3D printer. Thankfully you have options, and that comes in the form of online suppliers. If you haven’t come across such companies before, you might be amazed to discover just how easy it is to upload your CAD file and have instant access to a vast array of printing technologies and materials. That being said, buying a desktop printer for your workshop may suit your use-case better. This table draws on some of the benefits and drawbacks of each scenario.
While curious creators may like to invest in a 3D printer, using an online supplier will be far more practical for most other use-cases. For people who are more concerned with the result - rather than the process - should look toward the professional on-demand services.
If you haven’t guessed already, I am quite an advocate! The advent of these on-demand manufacturing services is quite amazing. No less than for the aforementioned reasons. What was previously a painful process of building relations with suppliers who only allow huge orders or cobbling together some half-arsed home prints – is no longer a concern. And it’s not only 3D printing – you can also source sheet metal parts, CNC machining and even injection molding too.
Here are some of the top on-demand services available within the UK and Europe.
Know your technologies and materials
Just like pairing the best bottle of white for a smoked trout dish, there are fitting and ill-fitting choices. 3D printing technologies are no different, coming in several variants and materials in many. So the cost and quality can vary like that of wine too. Whether you are knocking out some quick models or printing for low-volume production, the optimal technology and material will change.
One of the best ways to determine the appropriate technologies and materials, is to evaluate the offering of a convenient online supplier. This way, you can find the properties and characteristics of specific materials, as well as finishing options and cost. Here is a summary of the most commonly used technologies with plastics:
Printing on the cheap
The cost of getting parts made is continually decreasing. Despite that, it’s always good to try keep the costs low during development. There are a few tricks I have picked up, that allow for more cost-effective printing when outsourcing to 3rd parties.
1. Creating ‘test blocks’
This technique is useful when you need to find the ideal fitment of parts, auxiliary components or hardware. Simply design and print a test block, which features multiple toleranced variations in one piece. For example, the ideal diameter of a hole, to fit a shaft:
2. Combining parts
Since there are charges for each component you wish to get printed, you can often combine parts to create a single part. This can be a really effective way to save money. For example, this monitor bezel that I had to get printed had a 2 cavities. I simply attached lots of other small parts into cavity (highlighted in red), so the printers just consider it one part.
What I really love about 3D printing, is that it has empowered the small-time creators. You no longer need to be a large company with huge development budgets to get production-quality parts. It's amazingly accessible. And the best part is - it's growing everyday - so much so, that it's hard work keeping up with the latest technological developments. Who knows what will be possible, in 10 years time?