Creating 3D print prototypes comes with a whole different set of considerations than typical run-of-the-mill 3D printed objects. How to manage the aesthetic side of creating functional 3D print prototypes for use as an end-use part.
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Special Design Considerations for 3D Print Prototypes
Today we have a tech subject concerning 3D print prototypes, and which is one that is right in my wheel house. This is about special design considerations for 3D print prototypes, since 3D printing is used so much for prototyping. I am a big fan of using 3D printing as end use parts or products whether they are prototypes or actual manufactured products. I want to take a step back in terms of my experiences as an industrial designer for the last 24 plus, 25 years, is that talking about the difference between making a functional and an aesthetic prototype.
I am going to right now just make an assumption or state the premise here that while it would be great to have every prototype be absolutely functional and, in terms of aesthetics, to look exactly as you intend it to as a final product. Very often, doing that can be quite expensive or time consuming. The criteria or the constraints of the project may not really allow that to happen. What we often do as industrial designers, and I am sure engineers do this as well, is that you may have a situation where you are going to make a functional prototype, something that actually proves that the mechanics work or that the physical properties of the product are going to work the way that it is supposed to.
You would also make an aesthetic prototype, one that actually shows you exactly how it is going to look, but does not actually function and does not perform the function or hold up to the stress of the forces that are going to be applied to it. This can be done and managed. Whether you are working in a corporation and you are designing something that is for an internal team or for your boss or maybe it is to be presented to a potential retail buyer or just some other kind of commercial customer. Probably there are a lot of different situations where this would apply. But what you might think about is really managing the expectations of the audience you are going to be presenting to.
When you get into a project, just being really upfront about it that, “Hey it would be cost prohibitive or the timeline is not going to allow us to make a functional prototype that looks and feels exactly as the real thing would.” Let them know thatyou are going to actually do a couple of different prototypes and do this in a couple of different stages. As long as you set up the expectation and you manage the expectation of the audience you are presenting it to, then this is perfectly acceptable.
3D print prototypes can come into play and be incredibly useful in both kinds of prototypes, whether they are purely functional or they are aesthetic. Tracy and I have done this a lot in our experience, especially in our recent years with manufacturing of chairs. The thing about a chair is that it is an object that actually is very complicated and functional. The forces the go on a chair are incredibly complex. When you think about, I remember being on design school and having a project maybe on my 2nd year and they said, “Oh well, we have been doing some little projects over the course of the semester. This final project, you can make anything you want, any kind of project, design of a product, or a piece of furniture,” furniture and product designs sort of get lumped in together in a lot of design schools.
You can make anything you want except you cannot do a chair. Of course once they said that, every student wanted to make a chair. There was a very good reason why they didn’t want you to make a chair, because it is a very complex piece of furniture in terms of physics and geometry and load requirements. It gets to be a high risk and even dangerous situation. If you think about it, the only thing that does have a higher liability risk to it being sold in the United States today, the only thing that does have a higher risk than chairs is ladders.
Ladders have all these warning labels over them. They are very expensive, not as much because of the manufacturing cost of it, but because of the liability insurance that manufacturers have to carry. There have been so many law suits over the years involving ladders. Chairs are a close second. It is a complex thing.
We would have this happen all the time. We would try as we start to designing chair for manufacturers early on in our career. We would try to make prototypes that were “sittable” as what we would call it. You can sit in but it is also a prototype chair, it is not for manufacturing. You would make things out of CNC machined solid ABS plastic to represent injection mold parts. Even if most of the chair was safe to sit in, but you had a new arm for the chair, we would be in a presentation of a retail buyer -it is the worst situation. They get in the chair and they just try everything, they bounce around on it, and they get up, they put their hands on the arms and push on it. Especially if they are a heavy person, they put too much load that is not made to take the load. It hasn’t been tested for it because it is prototype. They break it.
What we learned is, it is much better to have a sample that is not sittable, that looks exactly like the real thing. It is beautiful. It looks like it is injection molded. It looks like it got all the parts is made the way they would be in production. They would put a big band around it saying, “Caution do not sit,” because it is prototype. We would then have another chair that looks horrible. It looks like Frankenstein’s chair to a degree. You do still have to be careful about that because if it looks really scary, retail buyers don’t have a whole lot of vision always. Sometimes, they can’t see past what you show them right in front of them. Sometimes, you have no choice. You make this functional prototype they sit in, and can support them, is safe, but just doesn’t look like the real thing. They can feel the comfort of the chair which is really important in the selling process of a product like that.
Then they have one they can look at and can say that is how it is going to look. That works pretty well most of the time. Think about this when you are doing 3D print prototypes as well. Not everything is always going to be able to be made so easily to look exactly like it is going to look and function exactly how it is going to function. You can think about making two different kinds of prototypes.
Let’s say you want to make some type of a kids toy. This is a functional toy that performs a certain function. Maybe it flies through the air or maybe you step on and something launches on the air. To make an actual completely functioning one out of 3D printing may not be practical, but you can make one that is just functional and shows that here is what proves the principle that this thing is going to work away the way I say it is going to work. You go and make one and say that this is the pretty one. This is how it is going to look when we go and tool for it or when we have the funding to spend on this or that in order to make it work right. You have functional and aesthetic prototypes, not necessarily the same thing.It is a pretty common practice. There is nothing wrong with that, the world of product design of development.
I have even seen some 3D print companies sort of doing a similar thing where they have an actually. I mentioned it a week ago, or more than a week ago talking about BeeHex or the company that is making the pizza 3D printers. They actually have taken a good approach to this as well. They knew they had to prove concept and prove that the 3D printer functionally works the way it is supposed to because that is the whole point. You are going to print pizza and bake it, and it has to work. If it doesn’t work, what is the point?
But they know that their early prototypes that they are making that are functional do not look like the way they do not want them to look. They are very careful to tell people that this is not the final design of the product. This is just our working test model. In their case, they are not actually presenting what the final design would look like. They are still evaluating what that might need to be in considering it as they dial in their market and who their customer is and all of that. They are being pretty smart about it.
In their case, they have a more long tail sort of launch process that is not with a hard and fast date for launching. It is more of a B2B product than a B2C so they don’t have to get it passed the retail buyer. That probably doesn’t compare very well. But they are certainly out there making a functional prototype and not an aesthetic one. I think in their case that is really smart. The commercial product still needs aesthetically convey confidence that the product is well built and that it is going to do what it is supposed to do and it is going to run for a hundred years or whatever it is going to be without failing.
It still has an aesthetic purpose to make out a certain kind of emotional impression on the consumer who is going to buy it. There is a need for an aesthetic sample at some point or an aesthetic prototype. In their case, it is not the most important thing they are doing. They are just doing the actual and physical functional prototype right now and proving how great 3D printing pizza is, which I love.One other example I will give, the chair is an easy example because we have done it 600 times in our careers, but the base to these office chairs have 5 points to a make a star and five casters on it. That has evolved over the years. In the 60’s, if you look at some old office chairs, they have four points on them as a chair base, but it was too easy to turn that chair base where if you lean back, it would roll out from under you and hurt yourself.
It evolved to a five star base which made it safer. Designing that base is one of the hardest things to do from an engineering perspective. It required a lot of testing. We probably designed 50 or 60 different chair bases over our career in designing chairs. There is a specific equipment to test them after they are injection molded. Before they are, you really can’t do it. We would make it machine, because they are very large machine ABS plastic by CNC. Now, I think I would probably also 3D print one on some of these large format 3D printers in order to get something done a little faster and to use less material, but I’m not doing a whole lot of that these days. I haven’t done that yet.
You machine it in solid ABS, but then they would hog out the underside of it and make it for a steal welded frame. You have this sort of spider looking steel frame that you would pop some casters in and this plastic prototype part would sit over the top of it and when that is assembled, it looks like a normal functioning chair base. It does function, it carries your weight. But it is not injection molded. That is another trick. That is a cross between a functional and aesthetic prototype where you can get away with some things like that.
Some products are very demanding from the liability perspective. I know we have gotten some new information from UL who has gotten involved in 3D printing and testing and things involving 3D print prototypes. That is going to be very exciting. That will come up in a future episode also. When you are making 3D print prototypes for any purpose, yourself, school project, or an actual professional design or engineering project, think about you starting and trying to figure out the complexities of the product and making a sample. You might think about changing your thinking instead of making one that is trying to be all things to all people to look exactly right and working exactly right.
It might be the path with the least resistance and accelerate your cycle time on getting this project done to separate your thinking and make a functional prototype one way and an aesthetic prototype in another. I just thought I would share that with you today from somebody who has experienced it and done it a lot over a couple decades. If you have anything to add to that or think I missed anything on 3D print prototypes, feel free to send me your thoughts or questions anywhere at @HazzDesign or @3DStartPoint. You can leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post also.
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