Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rapid prototyping is key to manufacturing success

You want to have a product in the market. You think it will really be successful and will work superb, but how could I produce it?

Well, there are lots of steps to follow in terms of market research, business plans, resources, funding, and so on. You could get a good idea on how to cover all that in my previous post: What is the key to get the successful product?

But let us see quickly here some steps to follow if your product has physical parts.

First draft design

Everything starts with a design, but I would recommend starting with a first draft design, not going to all final details. The reason is because it is good to have a quick prototype as soon as possible, to learn from it and get a better experience of the product, that may alter our design.

Build the first prototype

We need to have a first "quick & cheap" prototype as soon as possible. This prototype may be made of cardboard, wood, plastic, or any other material. 3D printers are really useful for that purpose. The idea is to get a physical 3D feeling from our senses. Touch it, see its aspect, form from different view angles, if it fits wherever it should, and in general the feel we get, and the potential production issues we may face.

Update design and Build prototype cycle

As a result of the previous step, we could go more in deep on the design details and subsequent prototype production. This cycle may repeat until we get a product that has the aesthetic design we want, the functionality it should have and the feel you want to get from it.

There are so many techniques nowadays to produce prototypes. Depending on the size of your company and product development department you may have only a FDM 3D printer or a more complete equipment. If you do not have the equipment, there are tons of companies offering prototyping services. Some of the machines and processes you may use are the following:
  • Additive manufacturing: This technique helps us produce pieces by adding material, that may be almost of any kind. Between these techniques, they are: (a) FDM (Fused deposition Modeling) that is the typical 3D printer using some sort of plastic, (b) Polyjet printing, that uses resin layers and cure using UV light. We could get even transparent pieces, (c) SLA (Stereolithography), that uses liquid resin and you could get very nice prototypes, (d) SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), that produce nylon and other materials layers by fusing nylon powder by a laser beam. Usually, it has a granulated surface like sugar and does not require adding supporting material, (e) DMLS (Direct metal laser sintering). This technique is very similar to the previous one, but using different sorts of metals and alloys, getting strong, fully functional pieces.
  • Subtractive manufacturing: This technique helps to produce pieces from blocks, by taking out material, like a sculptor. There are mainly CNC machines (mill and lathe) able to automatically build the piece from the design.
  • Injection molding: This is a very traditional technique, where you have a mold made typically out of resin, aluminum or steel, depending on the amount and type of pieces to produce by the injection of different materials in liquid form (usually fused)
  • Other: There are other combinations of techniques that may require using industrial robotic arms, bending machines, cutting machines (Plasma, Oxy fuel, Waterjet, Laser Cutting,...)

Final production

In summary what is done typically is to start producing the prototype by using FDM 3D printing technology (quick & cheap), test the size and look, refine the design, make better prototype until we get something apparently correct, go to injection molding using resin molds (cheap) and do functional testings. After it is ok, go to aluminum injection molding and produce few units for final testings and correct production issues. in fact, you could use the aluminum mold for the production of several hundreds even few thousands of units, depending on the material injected. Then go to still molds (expensive) for a full-scale production of millions of units (if needed)

I hope this helps to have a general idea of the process. Happy prototyping!