How do professional designers use desktop 3D printing in their work flow and what is their 3D print product development process? We dive deep into this subject to learn how desktop 3D printers have transformed product design and development for the better, accelerating time lines and reducing costs. Our guest is Mark Palmer of MakerBot, who will share how he and his team not only design 3D printers, but how they are a critical part of their product development process. This is a model of best practices that applies to any company designing and developing products.
Mark Palmer is the head of experience design at MakerBot. He is an industrial designer developing their products that they sell. This interview is not really about MakerBot, it’s really applicable to any business who is considering integrating 3D print product development into their process. Any business that is making a product themselves and they do the design and development in house and they may do prototyping should take note. It’s not just about prototyping, it’s about the whole design process and how that changes during 3D print product development.
Mark went to Rochester Institute of Technology which is up on our old stomping grounds because we got married in Rochester. It’s really interesting because he came from an area which he didn’t have a lot of 3D printers initially, at least not on your desktop.
Listen to the podcast here:
3D Print Product Development Process with Mark Palmer of MakerBot
Mark, thank you so much for joining us today on WTFFF, it’s great to finally have you on the air and talk a bit more about 3D print product development and it’s process.
It’s good to be here. I appreciate you guys taking the time to speak with me.
We have been really looking forward to this interview for a while because we think that when we first met you we had an introduction call before this interview, it was really great to learn not only that you are the head of the industrial design and actually the head of user experience now at MakerBot, but you guys actually practice what you preach. You use your 3D printers, all have them on your desktops and how you use them and integrated 3D printing into your process. I want to dive into that today and help our audience learn how a big company uses FFF 3D printing.
Yeah, sound good. It’s really interesting topic for me. It’s one of the things that drew me into 3D printing and Makerbot. This is interesting opportunity as a designer to get closer to the machines and tools that you use as design tools. To bring the design and design process to that realm actually explore that reciprocal feedback loop between using the product and using it to design more products. It’s a head trip but it’s really exciting.
As we understand it, we had talked to a lot of companies that consider should they buy 3D printers, have them on the desktops of their engineering teams, design teams, and evolvement teams and they think well but we are really not going to produce anything in plastic and FFF process. Why should they have a desktop 3D printer on every desk of the people of their team? I know you guys do this every day. I would love for you to share with our audience some of the reasons why, regardless of how you are going to manufacture something, why you might use FFF 3D printing in your process.
It’s really interesting. It’s the question that I had to ask myself when I started here. One of the first things that I noticed when I started using the printers in a more direct way, previously in my previous job which was years ago I had access to all kinds of prototyping gear. We had two SLA machines in the house, we had two wax printers, we had a whole prototyping lab with CNC machines, and pretty much anything that we need. But my challenge was always with that you are working on a design, you are evolving it, you are iterating very rapidly, you send design out into a queue or a guy in the shop of the basement and you hope for the best. You hope that you got it all sent out and you gave them all the information he needs. You hope he got that into the printer that night. You hope he came in the morning and de-plated it, geared it, painted it, and it’s all ready by 9 o’clock for your meeting. The challenge is this is not the case most of the time. Even if it is you have a strange lag in your process where you are trying to create a feedback loop with yourself and evolve your designs but you also have links in the process that could fail and you end up with this lag.
I also got really hung up in my last job on quality. I pretty much defaulted to an SLA for everything which would make that lag greater a lot of the time. When I got here, I was familiar with MakerBot and I had seen MakerBot prints. It really hit me in the first few week here dealing on some new products and I had a rack of Replicator 2 right behind where my team and I were sitting. It’s actually the first time I plated and prepped any print myself which was interesting. I always relied on somebody else to do that in the lab. So going to that process printing to this wall of Rep 2s and sometimes sending two designs to the printers at the same time was an interesting thing for me. But then to have the printing happening behind you, to be able to just turn around and look at it while it’s running. I had insight that I could make a decision about my design which is all we are trying to do. We are trying to print to make decisions faster. There are all kinds of decisions but my insight was that a printer like a MakerBot or FDM printer, they are so direct that I can turn around, pause, reach in while the print is 15% done, and just touch one part of the design I was interested in, which at that time was a grip detail or something. I could just literally touch that and then decide to kill my print or keep it going. That intervention opportunity half-way to a print struck me as really unique. It is what I would like to call real time prototyping effect where there is only a little lag. You could make a decision before the print is even done. It is an interesting opportunity.
Mark how long had you been designing and 3D printing before you really got into this 3D print product development process?
I did my first 3D print in school in RIT probably back in 2006. At that time it was a Stratsys convention where there is this machine that was locked away at some corner in the campus. I had to seek it out and make friends with a bunch of people to get access to it.
We know that well. It’s really interesting. So your first prints was not with the FDM or FFF. When was your first experience with that? Was it when you came to MakerBot?
Yes. Besides the FDM prints I did in school. The first time I professionally interacted with the FDM printer was the MakerBot. I underappreciated some of the positive aspects grounded around speed, use of the material, and getting the understanding of the trade-offs associated with that for a lot of work especially industrial design work. It’s completely okay to have those compromises.
What had you been really designing for most of your career?
I do a lot of different things. I have done everything from designing bike parts and soft goods. On my last job I was designing on hand held product. A lot of rugged devices for delivery drivers, public safety officers, and a lot of other things. So a lot of hand held products and now I design all kinds of crazy robots that make things.
That to us is one of the more fascinating things to think about your story. It’s a little bit ironic. The reality is you’re working for MakerBot and you are in the design team working on things that people might want to print. But you are not working on the content for what people might want to print on those printers. You are actually using these printers to design and develop new products including new printers. Is that correct?
Yes. It’s funny that I left you to assume that we are designing the content for the printers. We are like Thingiverse. We are helping the business craft a strategy around product and what we build and why. What’s the user fit of the products? We do tremendous amount of concept work and iteration working of all kinds of upcoming things.
We want to know what some of the upcoming things you are working on, but we are sure you can’t really say that.
It’s a little too soon. But there’s cool stuff in the plate that you will see over time. The way we are using the printing here in the office, even over time since I have been here over two years, the immediacy of the printers has permeated all aspects of designing and engineering here. We are on the point where everybody here are using fifth gen printers. Everybody has a mix of Rep 5s and Replicator Minis. I have a Minion my desk. At first I was not sure what I was going to do with it besides to work on my personal project but I realized what it was and the potential strengths that
it had for professional use especially it can be unconventional. What I found myself doing was getting comfortable with the smaller build plate volume to the point. A lot of times when you are working especially the IT stuff you don’t necessarily care for the whole product. You want to get it a little piece of it. You want to reiterate on that area and proof the design. What I found myself doing when I am working on really big products I just section out the piece of it I was interested about and print it. Over times you give up the things on orientation, optimization to eliminate the interior supports. If you embrace the speed over quality and turn the quad into .3 you can start to crank out a lot content even on something small as a mini rapidly. It does the job really well. It’s right there.
Another insight that I had there is a difference, there is a falloff in effectiveness between having a printer on your desk in front of you and having it right behind you versus sharing it with somebody that brings unpredictability into the equation at what the state the machine in. If you put the machine at separate room somewhere you are one step closer to being back to the basement with the lab technician. There is a real falloff there. Having it just in front of you or behind can make a big difference in how quickly you can make a decision and that kind of tacit feedback on your design. It’s really interesting. It’s a strange phenomenon.
That’s interesting because you are so intimate with your printer, do you guys really have a good feedback loop within the organization there in MakerBot? That can really say that I have been doing these things and it’s not working or it is working or I am finding this thing happening again and again so you are really providing feedback throughout your own customer service system.
Yes. As we are working on new products we are using the current products. Every opportunity for improvement is we are the users, there are thing that we struggle with, things that we really love, and we are close on harbor side with software teams and the digital products side. We have a really good feedback between the two sides. There are all sorts of unique opportunities that we cross over there. We work a little bit on the advanced model. Everybody have a printer on their desk and everybody is interacting directly. When I see the way it has changed our work it is pretty exciting. There’s many random models all over the place. We got to the point where there are boxes overflowing with all kinds of prints of things. What is that? It’s just fragment of things that we are working on. That serve a little moment time for me to make decisions.
Sounds like you need to have a recycling process installed soon.
No doubt. We started to collect out a lot of our scrap material for recycling which is cool. It’s definitely a challenge with printing especially on the professional setting. We live, breathe, and struggle sometimes but overall it is an interesting model here on how to produce products. It’s working really well for us. We also have other printers as well, at different parts in the process, so depending on what we are working on and what part of development it is, we are printing it on our MakerBot in our office here or we have others in our facilities as well so we can print bigger part there. We also use Stratsys Direct for doing other thing like cast parts and preteen metal parts. We don’t do that frequently but we have a nice connection. Using the right tool for the job at the right time is interesting. It works pretty well and it is interesting to find the possibilities.
Sometimes businesses ask questions of us when we are out on different networking events and such about 3D printing and the 3D print product development process. They ask if they can just get one and share it with a bunch of people, what’s the investment going to be, and these kind of things. I think more business owners, executive or certainly management level people that are concerned about budgets and they say I need to give my team a tool, but the idea of everybody having a 3D printer of their desk that is involved in engineering or product development in any way to them it would appear to be overkill. That’s a big investment in equipment in doing that but what I am hearing from you is that there is a time savings efficiency in having one on everybody’s desk that helps the 3D print product development process. We think it is important to hear a little bit more about that from you for those people in those management positions so that they can understand that this is not an extravagant purchase, there is a return investment here. Isn’t there?
Sure. It is interesting. In this world there are so many different types of people involved in different types of product development that there is not one perfect universal fit for how you use prototyping. For some products and some teams having these kind of printers per staff might not make sense but it follows the same path as you have seen the growth of desktop printers or low cost printers compared to the one that looked like tiny end systems that are used by very few people. Seeing the trend that more printers are out there in more direct access. I think it will take time for more direct one to one model to prove itself but we are heading to that direction already. It’s not really one size fits all. One thing that’s true is people that use printers today in professionals setting can relate to challenges to having to get into the queue and the readiness of the print when you have a meeting or it can get tangles up with your project due dates. It is one way around that. Also using your own printer brings some amount of predictability to the process, materials, and the machine. You are the only person in the queue. Some of the machines that are shared they do not quite know what they are walking into. It is something you do not want to think about when you are trying to get your design right. Spending time loading materials and scraping somebody else’s part of the plate, talking about speed and decision making, there is a real demonstrable benefits to having your own printer.
We would agree. We know that the deadlines are the biggest things in the corporate America when the management and executive level says that they need it by this date it is a lot easier to get it done if you or your co-workers can work in the most efficient manner possible. So having one shared printer you have to get in line, you don’t know when you are going to be, talking about days lapsed of time going by rather than several iterations in a single day is going to get your design and engineering team to the solution faster. That seems obvious to us.
Yes. It is interesting that I started to view the printers especially the FDM printers as a sketchpad? It’s a classic design tool. It is used as a notebook and you are scribbling in it all kinds of ideas, all blurry sometimes but it is all about helping you progress your own thinking as fast as possible. A lot of that stuff in your sketchbook, you really don’t show anybody else. You might show it to a team mate or a manager but for the most part it’s for you. Just to help you progress your thinking. There is a cool analogy to FDM printing. In a professional setting that some hot rendering concept that you might do or the really high end rendering key shot you do to show your executive maybe that’s more analogous to a high poly end jet. There are certain type of tools for a certain kind of job. Just think about it in a way to help you progress your own thinking. You have a different insight for the value of the technology and the immediacy.
That makes perfect to us. Of course in our case you are preaching to the converted because we are industrial designers as well. What you are saying makes complete sense. We are curious because we say a lot here and we try to be real and not scare people by any means, and to be aware of the learning curve. But we think that’s it’s not just that there is a learning curve when learning three dimensional design. You are trained in that. You went to RIT for it. That’s very different. For someone to just change their process and learn how they are going to design differently to output a 3D printing, tech something, and do something to get to that point which you said that you get efficient on how to orient things and how to break the pieces off and just print a specific piece so you can feel for what you are looking for. That has a learning curve on itself. What’s a good timeframe to allow yourself the time to learn that properly?
It’s like most of any other tool that somebody uses to build anything or make anything. There is going to be a certain initial trial entry and over time there is a certain amount of growth that comes with just spending time with the tool and learning how to wield it. What we try to do is bring that initial as low as possible and frame up the technology as easy to use way as possible but allow hooks to allow people to get into the settings, spend time with your designs, and understand the nuance of the technology. There is along additional growth that happens to really master the settings and fine tune to get the results. It takes a while. It took me a year to really master that.
But with this kind of technology you can get running pretty quickly. The hardest part still is the time it takes to learn how to design with the design tools. There are some great things happening all over the industry in that realm. I’m just taking designs that exist from places like Thingiverse or customizing them to let other people to create mobile apps and interactive recreation. Really simplifying complicated things. I know I just used an app recently, I said that I would never use the app before, but the way they took some advanced features like mesh modelling and presented it in a way that anybody could do it. It hit me that there is so much focus on the content piece right now. There are so many people trying to crack that and providing tools to anybody so that they can sit down and do it. I think it is heading to the right direction.
What is that app? We are dying to know.
We just recently got an iPad Pro and I sat down. I think it was the Autodesk Sculpt Plus . I always dabbled in mesh modelling but I never sunk my teeth into it. But using that app I was pretty blown away. Not knowing much about mesh modelling, I sat down and I made this over the top creature head. It was cool. That was interesting and I printed it out, it was an STL. I printed it on my ZNT here break away support. It came out really nice.
What is you’re the typical CAD package that you use? Or do you use more than one in general on your process?
We mostly use Solid Works and my team particularly uses KeyShot to do our digital renderings. Even a lot of renderings on our website and other content are actually generated by our design team using KeyShot which is a great tool. So in between using SolidWorks and KeyShot and MakerBot Desktop, that is a big part of our kit. We also use a lot of Photoshop and Illustrator for graphics, that sort of thing. Solid Works is great tool for the products that we are building. In my last job I used a lot of surface modeling tools like Alias to do surface development and program like Pro-E.
Yes. Surfaces are tricky that way. You have to make sure you end up with a watertight solid, right? There are also a lot of students out there who are thinking, and a lot of educators who are listening to this podcast. As industrial designers what do you want to make sure that you are getting in college nowadays at the university level? If there are students out there who are going to study and want to incorporate 3D print product development in their processes, what do you think they need to have at that college level to make sure that the university is going to give them the future they want?
It is something that I think about a lot. I went to school where there was an overlap of the classic methodologies, just like building foam models by hand. There are a lot of hands on work.
When you are working at the professional setting, you also need to have the rigor behind the form that are technically fit behind the components that you are working around. That can’t be at the expense of having a nice looking form. The trick is to find that free formed space to work in to find that design, but also to do it in a technically correct way so that your design intent is zero degrees separation from what the production design would look like. It is a problem that people are solving.
When I was at school, there was absolutely no training in any CAD software. It was all hand tool work where we were making physical models. We had CAD but it was in a lab and was not yet integrated into the curriculum because it was so new. It was up to you to use it if you want to. I completely trained myself after college in CAD. I think as an industrial designer, a program that allows you more creativity is good. I used Rhinoceros back then as it allows you more free form creations. It is a really good middle ground. Students need to get proficient in software. You need to get a lot of mileage under your belt, to the point where using a software is very intuitive to you. When you shift that, you are really shifting the part of the brain to the part that is thinking. It is processing versus creating.
There is a lack for people who are already professionals to find further design training. Where is the good place to go to learn software? Do you know any place that is being taught?
Design process, characterizing your problem statement, taking you to the process of understanding good human factors, and taking that problem, knowledge, and training is what happens when you are at school. It is a classic design process. It is difficult to get training on that without getting into these bigger programs. A lot of community colleges might have graphic design programs or classes, but industrial design is less popular in that kind of setting. The really interesting thing for my perspective is really exciting and terrifying for me in a job security perspective is that, when we do a ton of research on MakerBot, we go out and do research with schools these days. It is pretty amazing to see the way that the printing and the 3D learning around the printer, is really bundled up with students who are learning the design process. They have huge poster boards up on the wall about the 3D print product development and design process. These kids are learning about it.
I went back to my high school six months ago and I was really impressed to see that they are teaching the process, the users, and understanding the problem that they are trying to solve. When you see middle school students and the teachers are helping out their kindergartners in elementary schools in figuring out how to think about designs.
Kids entering college are now having skills that took us years to learn after college. That is sobering and at the same time, I am also an optimist about this. If the business, marketing, and economy go the way I expect them to, there is still going to be a gap of demand between companies needing designers to manufacture in a rapid sense. I am not just talking about prototyping. I am talking about on demand digital manufacturing 3D printing of end use product. There will be a demand for designers, ones that understand the 3D print product development process, where I don’t think that there will be enough designers to meet that demand.
In our experience of mass market retail, we see buyers from stores like Target go into over Asia, and shopping in factories for products, rather than working with companies to design and develop products for them to sell. There has been a big shift in that in the US economy in the last ten years. As this shifts to on demand digital manufacturing things made in the United States, every retailer are going to have to offer unique assortments in order to justify their existence to people.
Who is going to used 3D print product development skills and design that stuff?
There is also the trend of mass customization with things like Nike iD or different configuration with what Mini does with their customizing new Minis. They are opening it up to the public and customers, to have the hand in the wheel to design the products. That is really interesting. Everybody should be able to shape the world around them, but it is also the responsibility of designers to make sure that that is done in the most responsible way possible. We do want to get the world thinking more about creating for themselves and solving their own problems. Printing does a really interesting job in opening this possibility. We need to make sure that we are not developing all kinds of products that are environmentally irresponsible.
We are in an interesting time right now where we haven’t had our heads into these types of problems. Some of the things that I am professionally interested in are the different solutions around generative modelling. MakerBot has an app called Print Shop that has a generative modelling algorithm. Once you pull sliders around to shape things, it makes things out of that. I am curious about those powerful equations driven modelling tools in the context of making real things, designing anything from a grip product to something structural. It figures out on how to leverage math and software in the design process. There is a ton of opportunity there. It is one more thing in the list of things that designers need to learn now. There are so much things happening right now in that realm. When you think on the things that you want to learn in school, whether it is model making or traditional manufacturing processes, it is all very classic. I am curious to see how design and engineering education embraces this technology and shape the tools that we use to design. Up until now, there is not too much happening there, but it is going to happen.
Thank you so much Mark. I really appreciate your time and your knowledge about the 3D print product development process. I would love to have you back in the future, especially when you can tell more about the new things you have been developing in MakerBot.
Thank you very much for having me in the show. This is really cool. I have been looking forward to this for a while. It is a lot of fun.
3D Print Product Development Process with Mark Palmer of MakerBot – Final Thoughts
Fascinating interview about 3D print product development, it really took a few different twist and turns. First we talked about business application on how you can use 3D printing to greater efficiency and save money as a business in what you are doing, 3D print product development, then towards software, education, process, and even the future of 3D printing in retail and manufacturing. The most interesting part for me is that it has been so long since we have been in house designers somewhere, that you forgot what the process is like. You forget that they believe that it is more efficient for them to have the lab that is controlling all of the printers. They are wasting their designer’s time on that.
If have a team of six designers, which is why I might question myself on why do I need six desktop printers. We walked into Martha Stuart’s office when we were doing a project for them. They have one on every desk of their industrial designers. Our experience on the other end is that they are really not the kind of designers who could totally benefit from it because they do a lot more styling than they do in physical design development. It surprises me that they thought that it was efficient.
The most interesting thing of it is that when you get removed from the process of the 3D printer, it doesn’t have the same effect. The idea that you might go in and somebody might think that it is too expensive to buy their designers, I think that might be the case if you went out and did it initially. You haven’t yet shown the team on how the change can happen.
What I would do if I was in charge of all those designers, is that I would find the one who I think would be the champion of it. You don’t know what printer is going to work best for you. The idea that you might have your process refined by the person who is most likely the champion. Try a bunch of printers if that is what it takes to get to the right one for your business and processes. The others might be jealous fast.
I think that the executive management teams often get hung up on the capital expenditure cost. They aren’t evaluating the downtime lost. There is efficiency of getting work done in terms of a project speed to market. They are not counting the inefficiency, the waste, and the loss of time. You might also want to do a test to measure it. In competitive environments, you bring your product faster to the retailer whom you are selling it to. You need to keep up. What happens to those organizations is really scary. People start skipping that step of making something to feel and touch. This is where we see products get unsafe, have recalls, and problems. They are not saying what went wrong in the process because they have all these tools. The reality is that your process is heading a way in which they don’t use it because it is inefficient. That is where you get in to trouble.
You are also sabotaging the potential benefit by not having your eyes open to all these issues and potential movements of employees in processes in the company. It depends on your product and your process. Should you bring it in house and have one in every desk? Yes, maybe. Should you have a lab? I think only if you really have a high output need. I don’t know that there is a really big need because there is also a secrecy factor in 3D print product development. You are really trying to keep it in house and not let it outside the boundaries of the walls of your organization. That would be a good reason to do it. But if that is not a serious limiting factor or concern for you, then having desktop FFF machines or SLA machines that are out there and using outside services for that final higher quality model makes it important.
The idea that you have one on every desk is great. The other criteria that you need to go through is reliability. You got to choose a printer that is reliable and worth the extra money to not have a lot of downtime. Plug and play is very important. You don’t want your professionals to be a good technician on any given machine. The size is where you could compromise and go smaller. You are just testing out parts at this stage of the 3D print product development process. When you are ready for the big one, you are going to go for the lab. Piece it together and do whatever is going to happen. You can go for a more reliability and quality, and also pay money for that and sacrifice a little bit on the overall size.
One of the things that I want to tackle on that interview was one of the discussions one changing market for digital on demand products. Mark was trying to say that there were some constraints on design as well as things that have to be done by designers as a safety perspective. I was not suggesting that everybody should be a designer at all; I just think that there was going to be a higher demand for products where the designers will be very much in demand. I think that part of the appeal for consumers of getting 3D printed end use products is going to be about different flavors that they can get. It may just be color; it might be slightly different in size.
Right now, in order for products like that to be distributed at mass retail requires so much more traditional manufacturing and investment that a lot of manufacturers and retailers find very risky for them to invest on. But it would not be very risky to invest on a product that can be printed in another color or a different size. You don’t have the inventory in demand. The zero inventory model makes more options for people. It can still be constrained by good design and safety development practices. I think it needs to shape out of the production model, whether it is the service bureau printing it out or they had the retailer itself. It gives you free rein on every aspect of that. It is doable. I don’t think that this is a difficult insurmountable thing with the way that technology is advancing right now.
It eliminates the need and the concern that 3D printing is not fast enough. When you think about the amount of time that you save in this 3D print product development design process, it is indeed faster. Most of the time, it would just run overnight and it is then ready for you the next morning. There really isn’t a big deal about the time, even when you’re talking about delivering from a shop. It is the same with prime shipping if something is in stock at Amazon. Speed to me is something where things have to change. It is the retailer mindset that has to change. Speed is not an issue with what he said early on the discussion, that to me is an eye opener right there.
I think it is fun for us to bring in someone who is using it in application. This is fascinating because this is about process within business and how you integrate these things as well as what advantages they give you. It is not about what you are designing today. It was about how it is done and what the benefits are.
- MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D Printer Review – Battle of the Minis, Part 3
- Stratsys Direct
- Autodesk Sculpt Plus App
- MakerBot 3D Printing App – Print Shop
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