Product design firms have always relied on rapid prototyping technologies to help us visualize the concepts we are creating. Beyond sketching and marker rendering, the early methods were to create handmade models using wood, foam, clay or paper. In the past 20 years, firms like ours have outsourced to individual model shops to create machined, cast urethane and resin printed (SLA) parts. Many corporate in-house design and engineering departments also gained rapid prototyping capabilities with desktop CNC as well as other 3D printing technologies like the Objet PolyJet and the Stratasys filament deposition modeling (FDM).
The reason these machines were not more readily adopted in professional consultancies was because of the relatively high investment – we would have to hire a person to keep the machine running. It makes more sense for us and our clients to collaborate with model shops to get a wider variety of services from people who have dedicated staff for just that purpose.
In the last few years, however, the hobbyist forays into open source computer numerically controlled (CNC) filament printing has reached in quality and scope towards the professional-grade technologies we’ve been using all along. The most accessible, manageable and forgiving technology was a version of FDM called Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). Tinkerers have been refining this process of extruding fine filaments of plastic, layer by layer, until a part is made. They became so good at these designs that many have begun to sell their designs, kits and fully assembled products. Worldwide there are more than forty such printers available or soon-to-be available.
Today at Chicago-based Inventables we can purchase MakerBot and UP! Plus 3D printers, and Staples and Skymall are now selling the 3DS Cube 3D printers – all for between $1200 and $3000 depending on the size of the build area. This is a comparable price range for one of our Dell workstations or Cintiq sketching tablets — in other words a new tool with an attainable cost. The question becomes, if we use this tool, when do we use it and when do we continue to use our model shop partners?
A few months ago we acquired a MakerBot Replicator 2X – this is a FFF machine with two extruder heads and a build platform of 6”x6”x11.2” (the size of a loaf of bread). It was approached as a toy – a hobbyist tool brought into a professional setting. Indeed, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis said during their Stratasys merger press conference that they are targeting “Prosumers” or professional-consumer users (that’s us). The Pro’s are still our model shop partners, because, for now, the quality and consistency of the prints are rough. An analogy would be using a 3 megapixel camera to shoot a wedding – it just wouldn’t cut it.
Quick form studies and mechanical iterations are where this machine shines for us – it fills a need to answer questions we have about a products ergonomics or mechanism behavior very quickly. We get to fail quickly and less expensively and solve tough problems faster, before we move onto our more precise, better resolution professional resources. Our MakerBot has been running non-stop and provided many great insights for our active projects already.
Entrepreneurs are already trying to build stronger, faster, more reliable machines with larger builds – the photo below is the Fusion 3 Designs F-306 prototype at the Raleigh, NC Maker Faire. They are building this specifically for Prosumers and professionals.
It will look like this when all is said and done…
Written by: Mark Eyman, Senior Product Design Engineer, Beyond Design, Inc.