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3D technologies promise new age of smart, 'augmented' product design

Experts explain how integrated 3D technologies -- scanning, imaging, modeling and printing -- can make the old trial-and-error process of product design nearly obsolete.

3D technologies have an undeniable "wow factor," but Mark Walluk instead emphasized two seemingly unglamorous areas where they will influence product design and manufacturing in the years to come: schedule and budget.

Walluk, a staff engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology, or RIT, in New York, said it's because initial designs often fail to fully solve a problem -- there's still work to be done. So subsequent designs are introduced, each requiring additional tooling and prototyping. This trial-and-error process is costly and time consuming, and especially onerous in highly competitive markets.

The solution may lie in 3D technologies such as 3D imaging and scanning that allow designers to input parameters and product characteristics into "intelligent" software to generate a realistic 3D image of a product without actually creating it. The image can then be fed into a 3D printer to make either a physical prototype or the final product.

IndustryARC, a market research and consulting firm, predicts 3D scanning -- analyzing an object to collect the data needed for a 3D model -- will grow at a 4.7% compound annual growth rate through 2020. It said 3D scanning for manufacturing will ultimately reduce installation costs by 6% to 8% and contract schedules by 10%.

"Before the advancement of 3D printing technology, each potential solution could require a change in machine tooling -- a new CNC code [computer numeric code] -- or a customized single-use mold," Walluk said. "All of these things added time to market and could be rather expensive, as traditional production systems are designed for consistent and bulk-order production. With the growth of 3D printing, however, that process is much quicker and much less expensive. New and complex designs can be prototyped within hours or minutes using a variety of materials and can give test engineers a sound indication of actual performance, cutting weeks of time and thousands of dollars from the process."

3D technologies could lead to better products -- faster and cheaper

Walluk cited an example from Ford Motor Co. that amply demonstrated the benefits of 3D technologies like 3D printing and rapid prototyping for the highly competitive global automotive market. He described an intake manifold design that required four months of preparation and about half a million dollars -- all to develop just one part.

"The flexibility and speed of 3D printing technologies make them uniquely scalable," Walluk said. "So anyone from a local parts manufacturer to Ford Motor Co. can realize the benefits of reduced production costs and time-to-market delays."

Varun Bhartiya, a partner at ProtoTech Solutions, a software development and consulting company based in Rahatani, India, said that traditional designs have been dependent on legacy designs, which companies modified slightly to build new products.

"With the advancements in the internet of things, designers now have access to real-time data and can look at the performance of their designs in action," Bhartiya said.

Finding solutions in 3D technologies

Walluk described an industrial outreach project at RIT set up to analyze a prominent failure in a common household vacuum and then develop a corrective retrofit solution.

"After analysis of the system, RIT engineers designed and 3D printed a device to allow for measurement of a specific part's dynamic operation," he explained. "We discovered that the manufacturing variance of that part was the root cause of the problem. Once pinpointed, RIT engineers designed a new CAD [computer-aided design] model of the problematic part with a necessary mechanical correction and created a functional version with our polymer-selective, laser-sintering 3D printer. Testing proved that the part eliminated the failure and provided the customer with a solution that could be retroactively adopted for a high-volume injection molding process."

Walluk said that the entire process -- from problem identification to solution -- only took a few weeks. "By using 3D printing to quickly create both a testing mechanism and a problem solution, the company avoided having to spend months on traditional testing, redesign and solution verification," he said. "This shortened the time-to-market delay, and therein saved both time and money."

Experts say that in the years ahead, such uses of 3D technologies will be useful in making spare parts for products that are no longer in production.  According to the research firm Gartner, by 2019, 10% of out-of-production spare parts for cars, trucks, bicycles and motorcycles, in addition to military vehicles and drones, will be 3D printed.

"We are entering an 'augmented age,' in which designers can provide certain metrics, and the 3D modeling platform searches all the possible designs and suggests the best design for engineers to choose," Bhartiya said. These designs will hone in on salient characteristics and subsequently save time and money for designers and manufacturers.

"Traditionally, we have been using tools that we direct and tell what to do," he said. "In the future, 3D modeling tools will learn about you, your likes, dislikes and your tastes. In the future it will be possible for us to work with 3D modeling tools that will be able to think alongside the designer to help them build great products for the future."

Next Steps

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