The following post is from Kazu Kawanobe M’16, founder of Load&Road, LLC, a fall 2015 hatchery business.
For hardware design, it is very difficult to imagine actual product until we touch and feel. For example, the first prototype we ordered from Chinese machining company was far bigger and far heavier than we had expected, even though the products we received were exactly what we made on 2D drawings. Not only that, the whole process to get the products took $600 and 1 month. This is why we started to use 3D printing for prototyping. I would like to share my experience and some tips related to 3D printing.
Which 3D printer should we buy?
There are many types of 3D printers and price varies from few hundred dollars to few thousand dollars. I recommend buying most popular and most affordable 3D printer online for some reasons.
First, we can get information about the popular printer easily online. This sounds really basic, but easiness to find solution online is very important to solve problems quickly.
Second, we can order any complementary items from the same online retailer. To use 3D printers, we need cartridges. By choosing the most popular 3D printer online, it is easy to find those items and you can get them with short lead-time.
3D printer’s price variation mainly depends on material you can use and dimensional accuracy of printed products. I personally believe the most affordable machine is the safest choice because we don’t need many material variety and accurate dimension for prototypes. If we need these, we can paint or fix after the item is printed.
What Design Software We Need?
3D modeling is very important for 3D printing since we need to convert our idea into design, and because we need to export 3D design with data format compatible to a 3D printer.
3D modeling might sound difficult and expensive, but it is very simple and we can find free 3D modeling software such as sketchup from Google. If this free software is compatible to data format of a 3D printer, this is the most affordable way to start.
However, especially for students, I recommend using Solidworks from Dssault Systems. For most of hardware industries, Solidworks is industrial standard and it is very easy to exchange files and communicate with professionals. Also since many people use Solidwoks, it is easy to find information online when you face troubles. You can also easily find online course to learn Solidworks. The biggest pain point for Solidworks is its expensive price point (around $4,000), but they provide a student discount and you can use Solidworks for around $150.
How Much Is Maintenance Cost?
Similar to inkjet printers, a single cost to keep using 3D printer is the cartridge cost. The cartridge is around $30-$40, and we can print about 20 – 30 items although the number of item varies depending on design and size. I believe this is much cheaper compared to conventional manufacturing with molding or machining.
Benefit of 3D Printing
With 3D printer, we can print most of shapes in maximum 8 hours, and we can see touch and feel the idea. We can also show the printed products to people to receive feedback. Whole process requires maximum 1 week. This is a huge advantage compared to conventional manufacturing which requires about 1 month lead-time.
Pitfalls of 3D Printing
In most of prototyping, 3D printing is a perfect tool to make the idea into tangible product and to get feedback. However, 3D printing-friendly design is not necessarily good for mass production. For example, we usually use molding for mass production, and the molding manufacturin
g requires us to make products design easy to be put off from the molding case. Some 3D printed design cannot be made by moldings. We need to communicate with manufacturers about design we want to make.
I believe 3D printing is the next big thing. It is a cheaper alternative to full fledged manufacturing and it has really helped us in our prototyping process.