"Perspectives", a monthly column authored by
Todd Grimm for "Time-Compression Technologies."
This column was published in the
January/February 2005 issue. For more great articles,
visit the "Time-Compression Technologies'"
Web site at www.timecompress.com.
Rapid, Efficient and Easy Prototyping
by Todd Grimm
It is too bad that the technology and industry are saddled with such a limiting name. "Rapid" prototyping focuses all attention on speed. It leads companies to view the technology in terms of only time reduction and time-to-market improvement. Although these are important, and speed is critical, the term rapid prototyping can blind us to all of the advantages and the virtually endless opportunities.
Focusing on the rapid nature of the machines is like putting on blinders. This limits the scope of potential benefits and makes justification much more difficult. If the application of the technology is rationalized only on time savings, it is easy to justify staying status quo. Even if successfully justified, the drive to save time on a prototype part or new product launch can cause users to overlook many of the more important and more advantageous outcomes from rapid prototyping.
Rapid Prototyping Is Much More than Speed
By the very nature of the additive processes, rapid prototyping offers unprecedented gains. How else can you receive prototypes with the same ease and efficiency? What other technologies minimize the labor and effort required to prototype? What other processes are so accessible to the design and engineering team? What technologies can you name that break the shackles imposed by the constraints of milling, molding, casting or forming? Rapid prototyping is a unique process that offers unmatched benefits.
However, to realize all of these benefits, you need to look beyond the speed of the additive process. For a moment, forget "rapid." Instead, think easy, efficient, accessible and possible. When you do, the opportunities and gains that present themselves will multiply.
Rapid prototyping spans the entire design process, and the technology extends into tooling and manufacturing. From the initial product concept to production and assembly, rapid prototyping yields benefits that go far beyond speed. To illustrate this point, you need only consider the most basic application, concept modeling. If there are advantages beyond speed in concept modeling-a process that by its very nature hinges upon rapid change-there have to be many other advantages as the new product progresses from concept to design and manufacturing.
Concept modeling, often associated with 3D printers, is the earliest design phase where ideas, concepts and innovations are brainstormed. This process is highly iterative, and as such, the design is fluid. Concept modeling is to product development as brainstorming is to business strategy.
The following examples of rapid prototyping for concept modeling illustrate that the biggest benefit is not speed.
In the fast-paced market for athletic footwear, many would assume that rapid prototyping's primary benefit is reducing time-to- market. For one manufacturer, this assumption is incorrect.
Tied to market cycles, the manufacturer does not seek to reduce time-to-market. Instead, the company uses the speed and efficiency of rapid prototyping to squeeze in many more design revisions in the same amount of time. More revisions lead to better designs, and this leads to increase product sales.
Rapid prototyping has found a niche in prototype vacuum forming. When a rapid prototype is made porous, the resulting tool eliminates the time and labor for drilling vent holes. While the labor reduction decreases labor cost and time, one manufacturer enjoys the advantage of changing the process.
Prior to rapid prototyping, package design had the burden of being one of the last efforts before product launch. Inevitably, upstream processes would eat into the lead time for package design. This led to time crunches and pressures on the package design team.
Using rapid prototyping, the package design team now starts its work while product design is still ongoing. Having removed themselves from the critical path, they now have more time to design and prototype innovative packaging. The work is also more enjoyable since they no longer shoulder the burden of catching up to the product schedule.
An electronics manufacturer subcontracts its tooling to Asia. Prior to rapid prototyping, it would e-mail electronic documents to its tooling liaison. Multiple files, many measured in megabytes, took time to download and more time to open and review.
With rapid prototyping, the company simply prints an additional set of components, for as little as $20, and ships them to the tooling liaison. As easy as opening the box, the tooling review is conducted rapidly and without delay. More importantly, better information arises from the review of the prototype, and this leads to lower tooling cost and less tool rework.
Prior to rapid prototyping, one manufacturer would produce one, maybe two, physical models of its earliest concepts. The barrier to more concept models was not time. It was resources. With rapid prototyping, the company produces upwards of a dozen concept models for its newest designs.
Unconvinced of the value of the effort, management questioned the practice. They questioned the expense of the prototypes and wondered if time was being wasted. The questions ceased when a dozen iterations were laid side by side. While there was little difference between sequential iterations, the difference between the first and last were obvious. Now this company's early design process stipulates production of as many concept models as possible. Once again, rapid prototyping changes the process.
One manufacturer found that it could eliminate much of its CNC machining of finely detailed prototypes with its new rapid prototyping system. Although this decreased prototype time and made the model shop more responsive, the real gain was that its team spent more time doing what it loved, designing parts.
Instead of preparing tool paths, gathering stock, fixturing and running the CNC mill, the team now exports an STL and prints the job. What was once a barrier to the high-value design work is now a non-event. Ease and accessibility allow prototyping with the click of a few buttons.
Yes, speed is a part of each of these applications. The speed of the additive process is key to the gains that each of these companies have realized. However, the true benefit is not speed, instead it is what the speed allows them to do.
Equally important are the aspects of rapid prototyping that have nothing to do with speed. Rapid prototyping is the path of least resistance. It is a tool that minimizes resource demands and individual effort. Unlike milling, molding and casting, rapid prototyping offers the advantage of self-service operation. And, of course, rapid prototyping can produce the most complex designs without consideration for how they will be fabricated.
"Efficient and Easy Prototyping" or "Do More with Less Prototyping." These are not as catchy as rapid prototyping, but they are much more descriptive of the true value of the technology. Think beyond speed to realize the full power of the technology.
For more information, please contact Todd Grimm, T. A. Grimm and Associates, Inc. (Edgewood, KY) at (859) 331-5340 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email at email@example.com.
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