Over the last twelve months 3D printing has become increasingly affordable and accessible making it a popular choice for product designers eager to create rapid, iterative prototypes.
The Knit team’s desktop 3D printer has proved a valuable addition to the studio; firstly from an R&D perspective, but also in New Product Development (NPD) projects where deadlines have been tight and budgets limited. It’s allowing us to work on product ideas that would previously have been wishful thinking.
Work in progress
Our purchase was inspired by a brief to develop an ‘Internet of things’ (IOT) product with a global brand. The project presents a number of design challenges but our ability to quickly and iteratively experiment with 3D printed prototypes has been hugely beneficial.
Our brief was for an entirely bespoke, World-first IOT product. After an in-depth planning process, we quickly identified that 3D printing would feature in the NPD process and the technology would provide the optimum solution to fit the brief.
Designing and building such an intricate product wasn’t going to be straightforward and we understood that the process would involve some trial and error before a final design could be agreed.
Each prototype takes around 4 hours to print which can seem slow when you’re watching it take shape, but when compared to a more traditional approach using a third party manufacturer, the process is in fact incredibly fast and shortens lead times dramatically.
Historically, prototypes would be reserved for the later stages of product development due to cost implications. This process however is cost effective and it means that the project team isn’t wasting time waiting for new prototypes to be built and delivered, plus it means that the project can be run more efficiently to meet tight deadlines.
Upon reviewing Prototype 1 it became apparent that some design tweaks were required. This is where the benefits of 3D printing really come into their own. This particular project demands a collaborative and iterative approach because the design team is based in Norwich and the project team and 3D printer are based in London.
Using 3D printed technology means that design amends can be made to the CAD data in Norwich, sent over to London and a revised prototype can be printed in 4 hours. This is a fast, iterative process where rigorous testing, product evaluation and design revisions will be required throughout the entire NPD process.
Before a final prototype is presented to the client, we anticipate there will be between 4 – 6 prototypes created internally before we iron out all of the design and 3D print details.
3D printers have revolutionized product prototyping in a period where time-to-market is critical. Alongside the speed of the technology, it also provides a cost effective solution to rapid prototyping in comparison to traditional methods. The cost of printers has been reduced making them more financially accessible to small or medium sized business.
The most powerful advantage is being able to present a physical object to clients or collaborators rather than having to visualize it on a computer screen. The technology enables 3D printed objects to be built either to scale or in actual size, and it therefore gives the client a ‘hands-on’ appreciation of a product that they can touch and feel.
The same applies to future intended users of the product: we can get early prototypes into their hands and gather feedback to fold back into our design and development process.
The project we’re currently working on demands only a short run of 50 individual products. We could potentially print the products on the Knit desktop 3D printer, however each prototype would have to be hand finished by sanding, polishing and painting each one to create a perfect end user product. With this in mind, we will likely outsource the production at this stage to ensure we get an optimum product for the end user.
3D printed prototyping has totally transformed the way in which products are being designed, developed and manufactured. The use cases are vast and new prototypes are being developed across numerous industries including healthcare, automotive, aerospace, architecture and defence.
But for us, the exciting this is that we can consider product opportunities that we couldn’t have looked at before due to time or cost constraints. The ability to have physical prototypes from the very earliest stages of a project decreases risk and the size of the investment in speculative ideas. 3D printers allow us to be creative in ways that weren’t open to us just a few years ago.