We interview Jon Fidler, Head Designer at London-based 3D Printing design consultants Modla, about what you need to get value out of rapid prototyping processes and reduce the amount of time it takes you to experiment in your innovation projects.

NS: Thanks for speaking with us Jon. 3D printing and rapid prototyping have been in the news quite a lot recently. Could you quickly explain to our readers what it is.

JF: 3D printing, rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing are interchangeable terms for manufacturing techniques which have been evolving for more than a decade, but have recently been in the press because some of the basic machines are now small and affordable enough for anyone to buy and use. There are a number of technologies used to print out 3D models, all with different characteristics. One method builds up a model by depositing a fine powder layer by layer, only hardening the parts where the final model should remain and removing the rest of the powder. Another method uses a heated nozzle to squirt thin layers of material which then harden layer by layer (this is the method used by most of the affordable printers). Other technologies even use lasers to harden light-sensitive polymers in a liquid. Each method has its unique strengths and weaknesses, from the detail it can produce, time taken, durability, the materials it can produce in and the amount of manual polish which needs to be done manually at the end.

All machines will however start with a 3D model of what you want printed, produced in special 3D software or sometimes scanned into 3D from physical objects. The quality of the machines also varies between the £2,000 models you can now buy online, right up to the commercial machines costing £250,000 which we use when printing detailed models for clients.

NS:  What are the main differences between these processes and the traditional engineering / design process.

JF: The main differences are in speed, accuracy and repeatability. Historically, one-off physical models of designs needed to be created manually, based on 2D design drawings, or more recently from 3D software renders. This model production required a high degree of skill and was very time intensive, sometimes taking several weeks or months for a physical model to be delivered. This would then be tested, feedback given and required changes made to the design, after which the model maker would sometimes need to create the whole model from scratch again depending on the required changes. Therefore, it could take several months to go through iterations of the design.

Since 3D printing is based on a 3D software file, there are many improvements this brings. Sometimes, designing a model in 3D can be faster than designing design models based on 2D paper. For some models such as simple shapes this may not be the case. However, designs in 3D software can be scaled down from full-size for design to small enough to be printed as a model instantly. And the printer will be able to reproduce the file perfectly. So including the time to 3D design the model, the time to get a physical copy can be cut from months to weeks. And once the model has been tested, changes only need to be made to the existing 3D design in software and a new print can be made in days, instead of producing a whole new model from scratch. This is the main advantage for companies.

NS: But if these objects are being printed from powder and plastic, surely they must be quite delicate and not useful for testing.

JF: Not necessarily. Some of the printers can even print in metal! And the objects are as strong as anything else made out of their material. Some Formula 1 teams not only print out custom parts on their car for testing, they actually use these parts during the race themselves.

NS: This all sounds too good to be true. Should we follow a lot of the advice in the media, saying we should go out, buy a machine and we’ll be able to print everything we need in the future?

JF: Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Most of the objects in your home are made of multiple components and materials, so cannot be 3D printed. And personal 3D printers aren’t perfect yet. There are often problems caused by the temperature, settings, size or even people trying to print shapes which the machine can’t handle or which can’t support their own weight. And the objects which come out of these machines often need to be cleaned up by carefully removing excess material that forms as part of the printing process.

However, the main thing to remember is that every object to be printed needs to begin as a 3D file. And designing objects using 3D software is a specialist skill which very few people have at the moment. Yes, you can download other people’s designs for cups, hooks and jewelry, but if you want your own designs then you’re going to have to develop the software skills.

NS: So if that’s the case then is there a way companies who don’t have this software skill to get any benefit from these breakthroughs?

JF: The best first step is to probably speak with someone who has experience with working with both the software and the machines. What we do for clients is that we design the desired objects in the 3D software on their behalf, and then have our printing partners actually print the models.

What’s important to remember is that often you can save even more time with a well-designed 3D software file by doing some of your changes and testing even before its been printed. By rendering the 3D image, you can see what it would look like in real life and make changes and amendments almost instantly, saving cost and several days waiting for models to be produced. Today’s 3D software can even do a lot of material testing automatically, such as seeing how a full-size object would behave when certain weights, impacts or temperatures were applied. This automatic testing can save additional time before a physical object is even required.

So I would strongly suggest that before any company goes out and buys an expensive printer, they see if there are people who would be able to use the relevant software which is the much more vital component. Maybe buying a cheap 3D printer would be a good way to develop the skills to use it.

To contact Modla about working through your 3D design and print requirements, visit their website.

improvidesbookimprovementcovershadowGet a Free copy of our new eBook: The Secrets of ongoing Innovation Success