Rapid prototyping in product development is a very important aspect of the design process, and its benefits have been well recognized for years. Creating a model of a planned design can reveal flaws in an initial design or highlight potential challenges which may occur when introducing the design into large-scale production later on.
Three-dimensional printing has easily become the best method for rapid prototyping in product development, with a heavy emphasis on rapid. Other methods, which include building a model or submitting a design to a fabrication company, are not nearly as fast or cost effective as simply using a 3D printer. Now that 3D printers are becoming more and more affordable, many companies are bringing them in-house.
In this article, we will talk about the various advantages of keeping your own 3D printer in-house as opposed to outsourcing the work, and how both can greatly improve your rapid prototyping in product development.
Should you invest in a 3D printer?
There are many advantages associated with owning your own 3D printer, here are the most notable.
Accelerated design process to save time
One of the first advantages of using a 3D printer in-house is an accelerated time to market schedule. This has to do with the fact that outsourcing a design will always take more time as it must go through the outsourced company’s own development cycle before it is returned to you. With a 3D printer of your own, the schedule can be as fast as your company is able to use your own printer. This means that you will be able to see the model quicker, use what you’ve learned from the model, redesign, and get to the market sooner.
One company who has experienced this first-hand is Fender guitars. While 3D prototyping has been part of their design process for many years, they outsourced it until recently. They decided to purchase their own 3D printer because they were frustrated with the time and expenses associated with outsourcing. After bringing 3D printing in-house they reported an accelerated time to market, product enhancements, reduced risk when introducing new products, increased creativity in designs, and decreased prototyping costs even with increased prototyping. Looks to be a good investment.
Increased competitive advantage with frequent prototyping
Frequent prototyping means that you will be able to produce more iterations of prototypes which, in turn, means that you will be able to create better products. Businesses won’t need to settle for a less than an ideal model in an effort to reduce the hassle of undergoing another redesign. Instead, they can experiment quickly without much restriction until it is just right.
This can be seen by multinational consumer goods company Unilever who says they have cut their production time in half with the use of 3D printers. They are quoted saying they now “can design and print a variety of injection molds for different parts that can undergo functional and consumer testing, all on the same day.” They went from waiting weeks for prototype parts, to waiting only hours thus increasing lead times and cutting labor costs. Technology has completely changed their manufacturing process to create, test, and fine-tune designs quickly before mass production.
More control over development process
Direct oversight of production means that you can cut down on production errors, but it also means that you have more control over the process which can lead to some exciting developments. A Polish design company working on the construction of a bridge in Gdansk, Poland faced a challenge due to the uneven terrain which meant the bridge had to be constructed offsite and brought to the site intact.
The company used the ZMorph multitool 3D printer to prototype the bridge, which let them experiment with the design, testing conditions and eliminating design flaws. The 2,000-ton bridge was constructed successfully, which the company credits to using the 3D printer for rapid prototyping in product development process.
Rapid prototyping also allows companies to test and change designs at a pace that was previously unprecedented. This has led to a change in the way a lot of companies formulate designs, which now start looser but end tighter because of the amount of freedom that the designers have. Foster + Partners, an architectural company, has really taken this to heart, and now produces over four thousand models during a normal year of design work!
Cost savings over time
If your company does a lot of 3D modeling and testing, subcontracting that kind of work can get very costly. Although 3D printers aren’t exactly cheap, and they cost money for their operation and upkeep, you can still save a lot of money by using one. For example, a representative from HSVA, a German non-profit organization that bases its efforts on the maritime industry, said that they were able to drastically increase their lead time and cut modeling costs by as much as 30%, just through buying several 3D printers.
Safety of intellectual property
It almost goes without saying, but you can also safeguard your intellectual property and the security of your designs by keeping products in-house instead of exposing them to a third party.
Advantages of outsourcing
Although using a 3D printer has a lot of advantages, there are also a few reasons that you might still decide to outsource all of your rapid prototyping needs to a third party company.
The most obvious of these is that a lot of companies see no need for immediate and constant access to 3D printing. It simply isn’t a part of their business model or development cycle, and keeping a 3D printer around isn’t something that benefits their current rapid prototyping in product development process.
However, as we have seen, many companies print more and find new methodologies once they have the printer on site. But, if printing is few and far between for a company, outsourcing can be more cost-effective.
Learning Curve for Use
Another reason is that, while 3D printing is an amazing and new technology, the fact that it is new means that it can be a little challenging to learn how to properly use 3D printers and related software to their greatest effect. If your business is focused on other kinds of training, then contracting an outsourced production company with trained professionals who do know what they’re doing with a 3D printer is a very attractive option.
Lack of Space or Resources
Other companies have no space for a 3D printer (sometimes even for a desktop one), or they don’t have the budget and personnel required for a 3D printer’s management and upkeep. Reaching out to 3D printing services from time to time is far more efficient for them than making the necessary investments in additional space and people.
Various techniques and materials to choose from
Entrepreneurs deciding to outsource rapid prototyping in product development often have a lot more techniques and materials at their disposal than ones owning a 3D printer (or even a multitool). These options include SLA, injection molding and more. Proto Labs made a very comprehensive overview for all people interested in exploring this topic further.
Future of rapid prototyping in product development
While there are a few hesitations to bringing a 3D printer in-house, many companies are experiencing substantial advantages. Not only is in-house 3D printing helping to improve prototyping, it is cutting costs, improving lead time, enhancing the development process, and inspiring creativity.
3D printing is a technology that will only become more important for rapid prototyping in product development and other design and production uses in the near future. It is already in use in diverse fields from industrial modeling to architectural design to automobile manufacturing to musical instrument design.
Regardless whether 3D printing is outsourced or brought in-house, it is surely going to remain an important aspect of production design and development for years to come.