During a tense team meeting, one of the mechanical engineers working on the project took out a 3D printed part and started describing how this can solve the problem. Having a quick turn around and a cheap part can be a blessing or a curse. It is no surprise that 3D printing changed the way we develop groundbreaking devices.
We have been using 3D printed functional parts on various scale of prototypes for a long time. At Clarapath, our Sr. Engineer Cong Zhang had printed most of the parts on the very first prototype that got the project off the ground and led to testing critical processes and improving them. Clarapath is a small start-up, and it needed venture funding to continue the development work. That prototype helped the company get a fresh round of funding from an important strategic investor. 3D printing kept the development cost low and allowed for quick changes.
It is very convenient to use large prototyping services that has integration to CAD programs. These provide on the fly pricing and lead time information. However, since a shop on the opposite side of the county could be printing the parts, the increased iteration rate achieved with 3D printing can be curtailed. One solution is to use a local 3D printing shop. Clarapath has been using Utech3D for some of the 3D printing jobs. Since they are local to Clarapath and they have a shorter backlog, they have a quick turn around time. Another solution that Clarapath took for a very quick turn around time but at lower quality is to have an in-house 3D printer.
"Innovations in metal and carbon fiber 3D printing can open up new opportunities in this area"
Clarapath is working on a precision tissue sectioning machine. 3D printing and precision device development don’t go together in most cases. We had to move to aluminum and stainless steel machined parts to keep the tolerances of the part under better control. This switch increased the cost and the timelines but provided the desired design intent at the time. As 3D printing options increase, we are again considering 3D printing options with parts that require higher strength and tighter tolerances. Innovations in metal and carbon fiber 3D printing can open up new opportunities in this area.
The blurp I mentioned at the beginning is from a company I worked in the past. CAD provided a lot of advantages to a designer in terms of visualizing their ideas in a relatively short time. Even though this has a huge value, it doesn’t compare with the political strength of taking a “made” part to a team meeting. The reactions could range from this is great; we already have a solution to what about three other ideas we talked about before. Humans are very tactile when they can hold a part in their hands and inspect it; they feel like the task is almost complete. I believe the engineering organizations and the development teams need to have well outlines metrics for task completion, including testing.