How 3D printing technology can slash design cycle time and improve quality components

Use of prototypes slashes design times

Prototyping is an incredibly important stage of the design cycle. Once a module or machine component has been designed on AutoCAD, a 3D prototype must be designed in order for the client and the engineering team to get a 360-degree view of how it will work in practice. 3D printing which was introduced in rudimentary form in 1984 has in recent years revolutionised the production of prototypes. Advances in 3D printing technology and the availability of cheap 3D printer mean that design cycle times can be slashed. 3D printing technology is now exceptionally rapid and accurate due to new materials and processes. 

3D printing prototypes slash costs

3D printing allows for designs to be prototyped inexpensively and enables testing to take place before the design is taken to its final stages. This prevents expensive mistakes from being realised and flaws being discovered later on in the manufacturing process when it is more expensive to fix them. Multiple design solutions can be created quickly and easily to test different iterations and discover which works best. Product development is an expensive process and in a study by Greg Stevens and James Burley “3,000 Raw Ideas = 1 commercial success”. Furthermore, Stevens and Burley found that a single innovation success required 4 major redevelopments and 125 smaller projects. This goes some way to illustrate the complexity of the design process and the expense that comes with each design iteration.

3D Printing improves design fast

Product successes are borne out of good design, and equally, good design has its foundations in producing an accurate working prototype. 3D printing processes, enabling the design to product success, is faster, cheaper and easier because there is the ability to produce accurate working prototypes within 24 hours. The stereolithographic process uses liquid thermoset resin called photopolymer and ultraviolet laser technology to create support structures and layer up resin around the structure until the components are fully printed. Solvents are then used to clean and remove residues. UV curing processes enable the components to harden before use.

3D printing enables highly accurate prototypes and provides 360-degree visuals

Finally, the SLA customisation process enables specialised intricate finishes to components. SLA enables the printing of highly accurate micro-components with very delicate features, to ensure accurate tolerances and very smooth surfaces. Stereolithography is one of the most adaptable 3D printing techniques available. It allows organic shapes to be printed successfully and engraved or embossed with tiny details. Such fine details could never be achieved so accurately with other methods.

Specialist engineering resins have tight tolerances and excellent performance at high temperatures

Engineering resins are suitable for higher temperatures and offer more flexible components. Excellent print quality is maintained with SLA resins which mimic the flexibility of polypropylene. However they do come at a higher cost, but this cost is far outweighed by their ability to produce accurate working prototypes to tight tolerances which can be applied and tested in real-life situations.

Newly created high-performance resins are producing even better engineering results

SLA resin manufacturers have recently been pushing into the precision engineering sector by simulating common engineering plastics offering ABS or polypropylene-like, flexible and high-temperature resins. These resins offer superior engineering properties without sacrificing print quality. SLA is also best suited to small components which need a smoother surface and tighter tolerances. SLA printing is not suitable for components which have moving mechanical parts. However, it is perfect for printing visual models and non-functioning parts and components, giving engineers the opportunity to bring their designs to life and show their clients how the designs would look and work in real life.

3D Printing has transformed engineering and design processes

3D printing has literally transformed the engineering and design process due to its ability to repeat designs and enable minor improvement modifications on further iterations. It has reduced the lead-in time from design to the product by enabling the product to be tested as a 3D prototype before it is finally produced in full size. The fact that such prototypes can be 3D printed in hours enables new designs to be printed and tested and their efficacy examined well before they are produced in their final, more expensive materials. This reduces final project manufacturing costs.

The potential of 3D printing is only just being realised and developed

With the projected revenue for 3D printing expected to rise from 6 billion dollars in 2016 to 21 billion in 2020, and with 71% of manufacturers currently using 3D printing, it’s clear that 3Dprinting is a growing and necessary part of manufacturing and bioengineering. Also, whilst the popularity for 3D printing grows the price continues to fall, making 3d printers accessible for as low as 500 dollars. We can also look forward to new innovations in 3D printing which will enable the development of even more accurate prototyping at lower costs leading to more innovative products and materials which we have never before been possible.


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