3D printing can be used as an important step in product design as it allows quick and easy prototyping at a minimum cost. In general, the product design process involves the following:
- Come up with an Idea
- Do market research
- Product design development (size, materials, costing, etc)
- Finalize 2D drawings of product (with dimensions)
- Create 3D model with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software
- Generate physical prototype using CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing)
- Prototype testing & iterations
- Manufacturing, assembly & testing
- Iterate until final product
3D printing is ideal for the prototype and testing steps as it allows for a larger number of iterations per design cycle because it’s so easy to get a physical prototype from a design.
With traditional methods, it is very time-consuming and usually quite costly to produce a signal prototype, meaning this cycle can be very long and expensive. However, with 3D printing, in a few hours a real-life version of a product can be in the designer’s hand, to study and improve where necessary. 3D printing can take the design process from months to days!
Designers can also 3D print multiple versions of a product, to then compare in physical reality and choose the best one. These versions can be used to show to potential clients, suppliers and investors as well.
3D printing can also be used for the Manufacturing stage of product design. Final products can actually be 3D printed. These range from spare parts, to promotional items, to jewellry and mobile phone cases. However, the price per print does not decrease as the volume increases, unlike in traditional manufacturing. This means that usually it does not make sense to use 3D printing for production of more than 100 of an item, as it would be more cost-effective to produce in another method. 3D printing final parts is ideal though for custom items and one-offs.
Production tools may also be 3D printed, which can help the manufacturing process. These can be jigs or tools for the production line, or even temporary replacement parts for machinery. Imagine a machine breaking down, and a spare part needs to be imported from abroad, holding up the production line and leading to costly delays. The spare part could be 3D printed, and keep the production line going until the replacement part arrives, saving time and money.
Although the possibilities are literally endless with 3D printing, it is ideal for specific steps in the product design process. Prototyping is an extremely important part of design, and 3D printing makes this step quicker and more affordable, allowing designers to develop better products and bring them to market faster. 3D printing can also help with the actual production itself, either for the tools used to manufacture, or to make end-use parts.