We recently got a shiny, new toy in the office; a 3D printer. Not only is it ridiculously useful for prototyping, but it’s a ton of fun too. In the words of Manny, our Head Engineer:
'When it comes to new prototyping machinery, I’m like a kid in a candy store. My engineers refuse to come to Bunnings with me because I always end up wanting to buy new gadgets for the office. Luckily, I can definitely say that the 3D printer wasn’t just a novelty purchase, because it is extremely useful in our projects.'
But why is a 3D printer useful compared to our other prototyping methods? We thought it was time to do a little comparison.
After all, it's absolutely essential to have an understanding of the different possible avenues you can go down to build a prototype. And how to get feedback on the prototype to improve it.
The Methods Available:
Before 3D printers, it was all about CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining. Like a 3D printer, CNC machines allow you to easily turn a CAD or Solidworks model into a real-life object. However, unlike 3D printing, CNC machines are designed to strip and cut away material from an object. And because all the cuts are automated, they’re guaranteed to be accurate and much-less labour intensive. We like to think we're pretty accurate with tools, but we're no match for a machine. CNC machines also have the capacity to use multiple different tools, allowing you to make different types of cuts and drill holes if you need to.
For the more intricate prototypes, there’s often nothing more effective than a silicone rubber injection mould. It’s one of the oldest methods out there, but its staying power is testament to its effectiveness. And the best part is, once you’ve made the mold, you can reuse it as many times as you like. We use this method when we need a pliable prototype, rather than a rigid object. The final prototype is generally highly durable, weather resistant and can withstand resist extreme temperatures.
In some cases, it’s not possible to get the exact prototype we want with CNC machining or silicone molding, so we need to use traditional fabrication methods. It’s not always ideal. It can mean we have to buy new tools and materials and it can be more time consuming. At the end of the day, as effective as 3D printing can be, it’ll never completely erase traditional fabrication. When it comes to prototyping, machines may reign supreme, but they’ll always have limitations that only a normal manual fabrication can manage.
Things to Consider
When we get to the prototyping stage, there’s always a few things we need to consider for every project. One of the biggest things we have to consider is the material tolerance and the draft angles of the prototype. Will it be able to withstand the weight of the prototype? Are the draft angles all feasible? From there, we consider how our prototype will translate into mass manufacturing. Does the client want to be able to easily manufacture a hundred copies of the prototype? Maybe we consider silicone moulding if that’s what they want?
And of course, our prototypes always depend on the project’s budget. We’re always constrained by how much we have to spend on that particular stage of the project.
One of the biggest challenges we face, is communicating prototype limitations clearly to our clients. Whether it’s a regulation we have to meet or a material limitation, clients can get frustrated when prototypes don’t meet the exact design sketches. The challenge for us, it to communicate all of the complex product development information, to the client in a way they'll understand.
3D Printing Changes the Game
The biggest thing having a 3D printer does for us, is reducing our prototyping timelines. There are plenty of businesses we can outsource to in order to get our prototypes made, and if we get them made internationally, they can be much cheaper. But having a 3D printer right here in our office means that we can build a prototype whenever we want, without having to worry about lead times and outsourcing delays. If a client comes to us and wants a prototype made as soon as possible, we can do that.
Naturally, prototypes are only as useful as the information we get from usability testing. We always focus heavily on user feedback, not only within our target market, but outside it too. Conducting usability testing outside of our target market allows us to really explore the prototypes User Experience. It’s one thing for someone within our target market to understand how to use a product, but if people with no knowledge of the topic are able to work out how the product works intuitively, then we’ve really nailed the UX. If a grandma can use a smartphone easily, then a university student definitely will be.
The key things we focus on in our usability testing is of course the User Experience and the perceived value of the product with customers. We all know UX is important; is the product intuitively functional? Do users like the look of the product? Are the colours right?
And we also take the time to ask our users two critical questions. How much does the user think the product is worth? And how much would they be willing to pay for the product? It may seem like the two questions are pretty much the same, but there’s one critical difference. Willingness to pay is not the same as perceived value. You could think that a Ferrari is worth half a million, but would I be willing to pay that? That distinction is absolutely crucial in developing the product’s brand. We want a product to appear as expensive as it is valuable. Otherwise we risk misleading our potential customers. No one wants to buy a Ferrari only to find a Toyota Corolla engine under the hood.