ProtoTYPING: 3D Printing in a Nutshell

3D printing is one of the biggest buzzwords in product development and innovation. There are new 3D printing technologies or someone making a unique product with a 3D printer in the news every week. 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing and it is a crucial part of the development process at Edison Nation. We have a partnership with 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the space, and this has allowed us to install a suite of their printers in the shop to help make your inventors’ product ideas come to life. I will explain how 3D printing fits into the product development process, and reveal the different 3D printing technologies that we use in the EN lab.

Projet 660

The 3D Systems Projet 660 in the EN lab.

For most product development projects, 3D printing comes into the process in the middle and later stages. We rarely take an idea and go straight to 3D printing parts. In the early stages of the process, we are typically trying to prove that a concept works, and the earliest prototypes are usually made from components that are hacked from existing products. I wrote a post about creating prototypes from everyday materials explaining how to go about this. While 3D printing is a fast way to get parts, it requires a CAD file to print from. In the earliest stages, it is often not efficient to spend time at the CAD terminal if it possible to iterate with shelf components. However, we may 3D print parts at this stage if we need to adapt parts of two dissimilar products to prove a concept.

Where 3D printing really becomes valuable is when the form of a product is merged with the functionality derived from the early concept models. Once the engineers have figured out functional elements of a product like, motors, gear trains, springs, etc. these specs are passed on to the design team to create a great looking form to house all of the components. Often the EN designers will craft a look for a product that is very organic and has a lot of complex curvature. There is no better way to prototype these shapes than to use a 3D printer.

3D printer

3D printers make creating products with complex shapes, like this LED light for Dublin Dog, much easier than with traditional machining techniques.

The Edison Nation team has a suite of three different 3D Systems printers that we can use for our prototypes. They each use a different technology to make the parts and each have their own bespoke materials, so each one is used for different parts of the product development process.

The ProJet 660, which is also called the Z printer, makes full color 3D models out of gypsum-like powder. The build speed is really fast, the material is the cheapest of any of our machines, and the post processing is easy. The models from this machine tend to be more fragile than parts off of the other machines, so it is rarely used for fully working prototypes. We use this machine early in the design process when we need to evaluate the overall shape or hand feel of the product.

The full color printing is a great asset to us late in the development process when we want to evaluate different color options or to do some prototype packaging designs. A great example of how we use this technology was during the development of the Wine Shark. When the designers first drew the Wine Shark body with the dorsal fin styling, it was unclear if the fin would be comfortable to hold. Before we spent any time detailing the inner workings of the final product we did a quick Z print of the body shell so that we could evaluate the hand feel of the product. In a couple of hours we were able to validate the design before spending any hours designing all of the internal structures of the product.

3D printing

A Z-printer form model for the Wine Shark.

The ProJet 3500 HD Max is another one of our printers. The 3500, as we call it in the shop, is a super high resolution printer that gives us durable plastic parts. The 3500 is a MultiJet printer, which means that each build layer has a combination of a waxy support material with the build material. Once the print is finished, the wax support is melted off of the build material, leaving only the desired geometry. The build volume of the 3500 is 11.75″x7.3″ x 8″ high, so we use a small toaster oven to melt most of the wax off before putting it in a secondary heated wax removal rinse that we keep in a crock pot. We use this machine when we need to get really high resolution of tight geometry. Since the resolution is so good we often use the 3500 for making molds for urethane castings because they require less sanding.

3D printing

A family of parts fresh off of the 3500. The darker areas are the build material and the lighter amber area is the wax support structure.

The workhorse of the EN 3D printing suite is the ProJet 6000. The 6000 is a sterolithography machine (SLA) which is a common style of 3D printer. The SLA process works by having a UV laser project the geometry of each layer onto the build platform that is dipped in a UV curable liquid build material. After each layer is cured, the platform is dipped back into the build material to form a new layer and the laser is fired again. Once the part is finished, the excess resin is cleaned in an alcohol bath and then finish cured in a UV oven.

3D printing

Parts being removed from the SLA.

The SLA material is the toughest of our 3 printers and it subsequently gets used the most. Any prototype that may see some abuse or needs to take a screw gets run on this machine. Since the material is strong, it does a good job of approximating the toughness and resilience of the plastics that we would likely go into production with. If all of the screw bosses and rib structures that we design into the product perform well in this material, we are very confident it will work in the production material too. The material is also clear, and can get polished to a near transparent finish which is great for any prototypes that need a lens. Just about every product that we work on gets at least a few parts off this machine. The most recent, was the Collar Perfect which I highlighted in my last column. All of the plastic pieces on the alpha prototype for the Collar Perfect were made on the SLA and most of the beta prototype that we are starting this month will be made on it as well.

3D printing

A family of parts for the Collar Perfect fresh off of the ProJet 6000 SLA machine.
Additive manufacturing in the form of 3D printing has evolved to be so convenient that it is a necessary part of the design process. The Edison Nation design team uses some sort of 3D printing for nearly every project that we get our hands on. Our partnership with 3D Systems has expanded our ability to create prototypes that look and work great and cut down on our time between iterations.

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