It has been a great first year for the ProtoTYPING blog, and it has been fun to bring you some behind the scenes knowledge from the engineering department. For the last installment of the year, I decided to do a Q and A to let the readers get the answers to the engineering questions that are burning in their brains.
Q1. Jeremy, did you really burn yourself when developing Germ Master for Everyday Edisons Season 4?
A. Yes, I did. The prototypes were heated up in the microwave until the water was boiling, and the heating elements were over 400 degrees F. So a few times I got some boiling water on my hands, but the burns were not very serious. I tried to wear gloves during the testing, but I got lazy a few times.
An early Germ Master prototype
Q2. I was wondering what the most intuitive, but reasonably affordable CAD-CAM software is. I feel I really need to learn this, especially with the price of 3D printing dropping so fast. But the learning curve involved has me spooked. I’ve heard Rhino3D is good from some people, decent price and intuitive. Whichever one you recommend, whose training materials do you recommend?
The Edison Nation engineering and design team uses SolidWorks CAD software, but its price point is in the thousands which makes it out of reach for most individual inventors or DIYers. The great part about the 3D printing boom is that there are a lot of reasonably priced or free CAD programs popping up that allow you to create models to make 3D prints.
When talking about CAD there are two different types. There are traditional CAD programs where you can make geometric and curve-based shapes. The second type is sculpture-based CAD where you create a ball or cube (called a primitive) and then use software tools to push and pull the primitive to create your model. Most users will want a traditional geometric CAD program, as the sculpture-based CAD programs are more for artists. Either way, if the primary goal is to create a 3D print of your design, make sure that the program you choose is able to export a .stl file as this is the file type that most 3D printers use.
For traditional CAD, there are a lot of free and low cost solutions. Google Sketchup is very popular, but the free version is pretty limited. It is over $500 to upgrade in its capability and you need to run a plugin to get it to export stl files. 123D Design from Autodesk is free and has support for smart devices. Cubify Invent from 3D Systems is only $49 and is a full-featured CAD solution that is simple and intuitive to use. It is feature-based and has loads of tools to create simple or complex geometry.
For sculpture-based CAD, you might want to try the freeware called Sculptris by Pixologic. Sculptris is a simplified version of their other 3D sculpting tool called ZBrush, and lets you make amorphic shapes. Autodesk has a companion to 123D Design called 123D Sculpt. This is a free app and lets you do touch based modeling with a smart device as well as coloring. 3D Systems also has a 3D sculpting tool called Cubify Sculpt. It is $129 dollars and has easy-to-use tools to help you sculpt new creations or modify existing .stl files and go straight to a 3D printer.
For all of these programs there are “getting started” guides and video tutorials that are available for free. If you are new to 3D modeling, I would suggest one of the free or low cost CAD packages to make sure that you really want to spend the time learning it before moving on to a more high-priced and fully-featured program like Rhino or SolidWorks.
Screenshot of Cubify Invent
Learn more about 3D Systems’ Cubify software.
Q3. If you are dealing with an idea that has inherent properties that are material dependent, such as strength, elasticity or flexibility – What measures do you employ to demonstrate that the idea works if the materials proposed in the invention are not normally employed in the initial prototyping process?
We struggle with this in all of our projects. Many of our products are going to be made out of a material suited for high volume production like injection molded polypropylene. This and other injection molding polymers are hard materials to prototype with. However, many of the 3D printer materials that are available now strive to replicate the properties of these materials. So when we get to the final stages of design where we really need verification of a material property, we can get it pretty close through selection of the appropriate 3D material. Many 3D printed parts are more fragile than production materials anyway, so we usually know that if it is strong enough in a 3D printed part, it will be fine for production. If we really need a good read on a material property and the geometry is not too difficult, we can use CNC machining techniques to create the parts out of a block of polypropylene, or whatever the material is. The drawback of doing this, is that many of these polymers are hard to paint or glue to, so it can be hard to create a one-off part that fulfills the “looks-like” part of the “looks-like, works like” equation. If after all of that, the part goes to production and the samples need a little bit more stiffness or elasticity, we can work with the factory to change the blend enough to get the properties we need.
Q4. Is there ever a cost limitation on a prototype?
It is a limitation in all of our projects, but the degree to which it is a limitation depends on the client and the project. We do a lot of individual inventor funded projects in addition to the live search and show products. Typically individual inventors do not have a huge budget to do prototyping, so we try to get the data we need with prototypes built from as many inexpensive components or materials that we can get from a department or home improvement stores. Once we have a proof of concept and a well thought out industrial design for the product, then we take the time and the money to make custom components and 3D printed parts. These are used to create the looks-like works-like prototypes that are needed to sell the idea for a licensing deal, or to do a crowd funding campaign. However, there is always a budget that we are working within, even in the final stages of the design.
An early Sock Sync prototype made from wood and Solo cups
Q5. I like to think that people involved in the prototyping process are unique in that they can apply many different ways of thinking to the process – Will the availability of the 3D printing process result in a ‘dumbed down’ concept discovery stage; as the technology overtakes the skill set required?
It is true that inventors and prototypers have a knack for building prototypes and great products. However, I think that 3D printing technology will only serve to help these people bring their great ideas to life, not dumb it down.
Coming up with new products is the result of having many different types of experiences and using these experiences to solve a problem in a unique way. 3D printers give people another tool to express their creativity and make their innovations come to life. The napkin sketch is the defacto backstory of every great invention. This is surely cliche, but before anyone puts a design into CAD, it has to start with a vision and typically the first place the vision is communicated is in a hand sketch. No matter what new technology comes along, we will always have to start the process by coalescing our ideas through a pen and onto a piece of paper or a white board before it can be produced by any manufacturing process. The talented people that can do this will always be the boundary pushers and the true innovators no matter what tools are used to make the prototypes.
Surely no one would argue that CNC machining has dumbed down the innovation process, and I think as 3D printers become more ubiquitous and accepted technology, no one will argue their value to innovators. It will more likely become a case of what did we ever do without them.
3D printers in the Edison Nation offices
Q6. What is your background and what hobbies do you enjoy?
Cocktails at dusk, long walks on the beach. Just kidding (sort of). I do not want to reiterate too much from the first blog that I wrote back in January, which can be found here and covers much of my background.
In terms of hobbies, like a lot of people I go through phases. I have a 2-year-old now, so I have tried to migrate my hobbies to things that I can do at or close to home, and that do not require huge swaths of time. I have a small greenhouse in my backyard that I grow orchids and a few other strange tropical plants, and I built an Arduino controlled cooling system for it last spring. I am also into photography, and I shoot a lot of pictures of my kid. Lately I have re-established an old hobby from when I was a young and I am building some Tamiya racecar models again. Right now I am hot and heavy building a Lotus 99T Formula 1 car.