You’ve heard of 3D printing, and it’s amazing. You might have the idea that everything should be 3D printed for prototyping and you don’t have to use any other prototyping services ever again! Wrong. While 3D printing technology is amazing and continues to make leaps and bounds every year in improving, there are some things that it can’t do (yet). Let’s take a look at prototyping, why it’s important, and how to utilize it as a tool.
What is prototyping? It’s generally the first time a product idea is in an interactive form. This can be a website that isn’t live yet, but you can click on buttons and see how it’ll look when launched. It can be a physical product that you can hold in your hands. There are many types of prototypes, but usually interactive ones are the type that most people get excited about. Prototypes don’t have to be the entire product, they could be just for reviewing or testing a certain portion of a product. Prototypes are never mass produced, and usually are in quantities of less than 100.
So how important are prototypes? Very. Unless possibly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on tooling for a product that isn’t quite right sounds fun. While not every product needs a prototype, I’ve created single parts that were approved into mass production and had no issue, but I’ve also seen products go to production without proper prototyping and seen it cost the company even more money to fix the problem. At that point, every product that goes to production and fails somehow causes pain in every part of the company, and costs that make management lose their minds. Some prototype testing can be done digitally with things such as thermal and stress analysis. Good engineering is also key to making sure the product works. Products that are built off all known parts usually need less prototyping, if any. Think of roads and skyscrapers. There has been so much testing, trial and error, and analysis of existing and theoretical materials that these kinds of things are built only using 100% known materials and processes. That new product idea that you are wanting to develop that’s never been done before though? No direct data can help us with that. A lot of inferred data is there, such as knowing material properties, or how to design for injection molding, but it’s inferred, not direct experience.
What can we do with prototyping? A whole host of things can be done. The most important items that prototyping helps are form and fit checking, function testing, other forms of testing, and user feedback. When you have prototypes made, you can test them like any other real product, you can send them to people to use and get feedback from, and you can make sure that the design will work mechanically, such as do the seams all look smooth when it’s together. One of the most powerful tools to have for presenting a concept to investors, customers, or even yourself is to be holding a prototype. As humans, we rely on all our senses, and the more senses we can use when looking at a product, the more we’ll be able to examine and review the product. This is why 3D models are so powerful as a review tool, and why we use them constantly. Being able to spin a product around gives a better idea of it than a 2D image, even perfectly rendered ones. The next step is a tangible product you can use your hands to touch.
Can we still use 3D printing? Yes, it’s great for many different prototypes. Final prototypes are best when made from the final materials that will be used for production, and in the case of metals, 3D printing is not a cost-effective way to prototype something, unless it can only be made by 3D printing. The other key area that 3D printing is not able to prototype at all really, are in the textile/soft goods arena. Anything made with fabric of some form is something that is outside of 3D printing, though I’m sure someone somewhere is working on that too. Prototypes can involve many different processes, from casting, to clay modeling, to carving foam. What matters is getting the information from the computer and into a physical form that can allow the people involved to examine the product in new ways.