How can 3D printing be utilised in product development projects?

As experts in product development, it is vital for us not just to innovate and invent ourselves but also to take advantage of existing innovations, techniques and equipment and stay up-to-date on the ever-changing field of technology.

3D printing is one of the innovations in the past few years that have revolutionised product development and manufacturing. What makes this technique so extraordinary is that you can print such a wide variety of objects with it – even ones with shapes that are close to impossible to manufacture with other manufacturing methods. With a 3D printer, you can print both small and large parts, and in addition to plastic, you can even print metal. With the 3D printing technique, entire residential buildings have been successfully printed out of concrete. 3D printing is predicted to be the next industrial revolution, so we need to follow its evolution closely.

At Optotec, we have a 3D printer that we use for printing plastic parts. In product development projects, the 3D printer has mainly two areas of use: Firstly, we use it for printing prototypes or parts of prototypes, a method called “Proof-of-Concept,” during the projects. Secondly, we use it for printing the actual products at the end of the project.

Proof-of-concept - a quick and affordable way to make a prototype

Each product development project starts with listing the initial data that sets the frames for the design. In addition, the functions and use of the product are ideated by making sketches or verbal descriptions to ensure that the designer shares the customer’s vision of the product. These methods and staying on the theoretical level can often be enough, but a better way to learn more about the product is to build a prototype and test it in practice. With large or complicated products, building prototypes with traditional manufacturing methods is often expensive, and the costs may outweigh the benefits. As for smaller products, 3D printing is a highly effective and demonstrative way to test the product. As the name suggests, “Proof-of-Concept” means proving and testing an idea or concept in practice. Thanks to 3D printing, there is now a quick and affordable way to do this.

3D printing is ideal for testing ideas in situations where there are several options for the appearance or ergonomics of the device, for example. By 3D printing the different options, you can try them out in practice. Although the material and durability of the printed piece may not match the final product, such a rough prototype model can effortlessly and effectively give a new perspective to the design.

A new perspective in a product development project is welcome because it offers an easy way to find out whether the 3D model made by the designer corresponds to the customer’s vision. With the help of a physical prototype, it is handy to study the product’s usability, size and design together with the customer. This makes it easier to determine what kind of improvements the product requires. By printing another prototype after the improvements have been made, it is easy to ensure that customer is satisfied with the outcome and that the product is ready for mass production.

Manufacturing parts with a 3D printer

Although a 3D-printed plastic part is not as durable as a machined metal part, a 3D-printed prototype often saves time and money in a product development project, as the more expensive machined parts need to be ordered only when the final product is manufactured. Although 3D printing is often used to make prototypes, the technology is also well suited for the production of final products if the final product is also to be made of plastic. The advantages of 3D printing are highlighted in cases where the product will be manufactured in small quantities. Instead of purchasing moulds and other supplies for the production of plastic parts, it may be more cost-effective to replace at least some plastic parts with 3D-printed parts. This option is also supported by the fact that, depending on the technology used by the 3D printer and the plastic quality used, it is possible to get a product that is almost as durable as an injection moulded or machined plastic part.

One day only the imagination is the limit?

3D printing is here to stay, and the technology is constantly evolving. Already, 3D printing of plastic is commonplace, and the equipment for it can even be found in the homes of many enthusiasts. 3D printing of metal is also rapidly becoming more common, and as a result, manufacturing costs will also develop in a better direction, as several manufacturers of metal parts already have equipment for it. With future product development projects in mind, it will be interesting to see all the imaginative solutions that the rapid evolution of this technique will enable.

Do you have an idea for a product or need for a prototype which could be manufactured with a 3D printer? We will be happy to make you an offer for the design and/or manufacture of the prototype or parts. Feel free to contact us!

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