The creation of functional prototypes is an important part of the product development process, among which there may be different types with different purposes. We can count on “fast prototypes” whose objective is to quickly, agilely and inexpensively verify certain functionalities, forms or proportions; they are usually needed in the intermediate phases of development, where a lot of “trial and error” is done. There are also more advanced prototypes that are quite similar in shape and properties to what the final product may be, but not in materials or processes.
The construction of prototypes has been a slow, inefficient and costly process for companies as they use processes such as machining or material extraction that generate large losses and multiple steps in the manufacturing process. It could be said that the production of functional prototypes often required the same processes as the finished products, and therefore similar or higher costs.
In this way, new technologies have emerged that help us obtaining prototypes more quickly and efficiently. This is the case of 3D printing, a technology that fits perfectly for the generation of prototypes, especially “fast prototypes”.
Which advantages offers to the companies?
First of all, the great advantage that 3D printing gives us is the freedom it offers to manufacture almost any shape, more than any other manufacturing process, since using 3D software we can model whatever we want and print it exactly as we want. Therefore, multiple design iterations can be easily done, printing different versions of the same model at the same time.
From these printed parts, we can perform an analysis, see their mistakes, modify them in the 3D software and quickly reprint them to obtain an improved version of the prototype. 3D printing makes it easier for us to test different shapes of the same product in parallel, while making modifications to these shapes.
Closely related to this iteration is the time savings that this type of prototyping brings us, since instead of creating a mold and wait for the entire injection molding process, additive manufacturing executes the final step. As we mentioned, we can obtain several versions of the same prototype in hours or a few days, depending on the size of the model, which helps us speed up product development, reducing time and avoiding the risk of mistakes.
Another important aspect in which we benefit from this technology, is the economic one, since not having to invest in moulds, dies or welded parts is a significant advantage. All this without losing precision in our parts with respect to the molds, since 3D printing machines can achieve precision as small as 0.01mm. In addition, the printing material is not excessively expensive and its waste is minimal.
Finally, it must be mentioned that this technology offers us a wide range of materials with which to test. Not only can we print plastic (of which we have an infinity of varieties), but also nowadays we have the posibility of printing pieces in resin to achieve great detail; print metal pieces to obtain high mechanical properties impossible to do with other processes; print flexible pieces, food, human tissue…
Definitely, the possibilities are endless with this technology and thanks to the great variety of materials, it allows us to test the real behaviour of the efforts in our products in a very realistic way.
The use of fast prototyping with 3D printing at GESAB
At GESAB we have been using this technology for years to develop I+D projects, the creation of new products or special projects for clients.
The first example that we can comment is something as basic as plastic clipping: the union of two pieces through bending and friction. It is a clipping that we designed to be able to manage and order part of the cables that we used in a prototype of a new product of which we had to carry out several printing tests to ensure that the pieces fit well, exerting the necessary force so that the cables not break the union nor too much force so that the user could not disassemble them.
Thus, in the past this testing could not have been carried out, at least until the plastic injection mold was made, thinking in possible mistakes and, therefore, large losses of money. On the other hand, in this case we were able to test the tolerances and the behavior of the parts to the desired level, thus ensuring the chances of success in a future injection mold.
Another example is a mechanism for folding screens that we were working on. In this case, we also rely on Arduino technology to program a motor and be able to test this movement. What in its day would require machined metal parts, nowadays we have been able to do with a few parts made on an FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printer and a few screws.
In this same project we also had to make an LED indicator, so a translucent diffuser had to be made. Thanks to the variety of materials offered by these machines, we were able to use a transparent filament that allowed light to pass through, but without being transparent enough for the LED dots to be seen. In this way, we save what in its day would have meant machining methacrylate, subsequent sandblasting, etc.
Thus, from the experience that the GESAB team can verify, the use of this technology is extremely positive to develop our products. Among its innumerable advantages, we can highlight that 3D printing has helped us to refine our designs to the maximum and test their functionality, in addition being able to reduce costs at the prototyping level and reduce development time. That is why our intention is to continue using this technology and taking it even to another level and being able to offer final products manufactured in 3D printing. But that will be in the future.