Rapid Prototypes – Part Deux.

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Ok, so a little tangent here.  A few days ago I talked about how the prototyping industry responded to a business need in the Product Design world by developing Rapid Prototyping tools.  In case you missed it, you can read about it here.  The Rapid Prototype industry, in my opinion was a practical CPI response to a significant time-consumer in the Product Design Cycle, which allowed the Design-Prototype-Test cycle to revolve quicker, ultimately driving products to market faster, with more frequency and more innovation.

At a micro level, Rapid Prototyping also drove foreseen and unforeseen behaviors and changes in the design cycle itself.  Some good, and some maybe not-so-much.

To recap, these descriptions of rapid prototypes are referring to 3D printing tools and processes that can generate a physical objects from electronic CAD files, or solid models.  An engineer can 3D model a wrench using a CAD package, and a 3D printer can ‘print’ out that wrench as an actual part made from a variety of plastics or metals.  This is a lot like the old Star Trek Replicator, just without the catchy sound clip or the funny uniforms.

3D_Printed_WrenchPhoto Credit:

The use of rapid prototypes has changed how a lot of products are designed.

Prototypes used to be long-lead and expensive to make, which lead to longer design cycles because of the time lag between the design and test phases of the process.  This resulted in a limited number of trial-and-error iterations available to meet project time schedules.  The obvious fallout here was a culture of higher uncertainly avoidance within product development groups.  “If I only have 2 months to develop and prototypes take 3 weeks to make a prototype, then I only have 1 real test-shot.”  This lead to conservative innovation in products; try what you know kind of approach.  The upside here may have been a more thorough approach to design because of the limited number of test iterations available.  Engineers may have been more apt to invest their time into theoretical calculations, studies and general due-diligence up front.

In today’s world of rapid prototypes this design philosophy has changed.  Prototypes are relatively inexpensive and available within a few hours to a few days.  This effectively added a number of potential test iterations within the design cycle to meet the same deadline.  (or bring the project deadline in!)  In the same 2-month window an engineer may try 3-4 iterations of design.  The upsides here are that the uncertainly avoidance of the engineers significantly changed, as the penalty for failure decreased.  This in turn boosts the potential for innovation in product form and function, and it also opens the door for engineers to branch out into new construction techniques that were too risky to try before.  Remember the comments on the sleek and organic shapes of products today?

Of course there is no free lunch out there, rapid prototypes can have some downsides and pitfalls as well.  Directly opposed to the old-school design philosophy, rapid prototyping can lead to more guesswork on the part of engineers or less due-diligence required up front in design.  Without the ‘pain’ of failure, engineers may become sloppy in their design practices.  During product introduction to the market this could lead to a super-sleek appearing product that does not function well or fails prematurely.  Another potential pitfall of rapid prototyping and the reduction in due-diligence up front may be in the manufacturability of parts in general.  Take an injection molded part for example such as the mouse on your desktop.  That mouse was designed with a very clever shape that allows liquid plastic to flow into a steel tool, cool to take a set, then the tool opens up and the part pops out.  This is akin to a very expensive Jello-mold.  With rapid prototypes there are few limitations to geometry, so an inexperienced engineer may be able to design parts and components that ‘print’ easily and assemble together in a prototype stage, however they are not mold-able or manufacturable with ease. The first time an injection-mold tool gets locked up and junked because of a poor design, all that time gained in the design cycle in lost in the time and money of a retool.  This is the age-old dilemma, better design tools can drive innovation but dampen the basics.

I have to admit, one of the most innovative uses of rapid prototyping that I experienced was not in the product design or development area at all.  I met with an electro-mechanical fabrication and assembly firm in the Phoenix area last year.  This firm is fairly vertically integrated from this one facility, doing everything from sheetmetal punching and forming, finishing, wiring harness fabrication, PCB manufacturing and finished goods assembly.  The engineering manager at the plant had just purchased a 3D printer for under $1000 and started printing out scale models of his major equipment.  Why was he building this scale model of his facility?  Turns out it was to simulate and study material flow through his operation to identify and reduce wasted transportation steps of goods through the workflow.

CPI, driven by technology that was developed due to CPI.  How cool is that?

Can you think of uses for rapid prototypes in your operation?  Please leave a comment.

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