How to use 3D printing to revolutionise your business

Image: Formlabs

Here at Aetha Design we appreciate that arguably one of the greatest innovations in the design industry over the last decade has been the rise of 3D printing. 3D printing is used to reduce time and waste during the design process but is also used to create production pieces such as furniture, bicycles, footwear and even houses.

It’s no secret Adidas has been trialling 3D printed production running shoes over the past few years with Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis technique.

Image: Adidas

Zaha Hadid and Ross Lovegrove have teamed up with nagami to produce 3D printed chairs.

Here at Aetha Design we use several 3D printing processes to help our clients visualise or test their products. There are many types of 3D printing and they all have their benefits and limitations so here is a summary to help explain what is available when producing a prototype.

The first question to ask yourself is ‘why am I producing a prototype.’ Is it for a visual model, test a mechanical principal, products’ robustness, present to a potential investor or develop a behavioural model to explore the product’s usability. Here are a few 3D printing options we have access to at Aetha Design;

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is the most common and often most inexpensive form of 3D printing, brands include Markerbot and Ultimaker. In FDM printing, the model or part is produced by extruding small beads or streams of material which harden immediately to form layers. A filament of thermoplastic, metal wire, or other material is fed into an extrusion nozzle head. The nozzle head heats the material and turns the flow on and off. The surface finish of the printed parts are related to the thickness of filament used and designs are limited due to layering process from the base up which is not suitable for stalactite-like designs where support material is needed.

Image: Makerbot Replicator

Stereolithography printing provides a step up in surface finish and build quality over FDM. SLA is an additive manufacturing technology that converts liquid materials into solid parts, layer by layer, by selectively curing them using a light source in a process called photopolymerization. SLA is widely used to create models, prototypes, patterns, and production parts for a range of industries from engineering and product design to manufacturing, dentistry, jewellery, model making, and education.

Image: Formlabs

The final type of 3D printing techniques we use is called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). SLS 3D printing is often the most expensive and inaccessible form of 3D printing due to the powerful laser required but its advantages can be huge. SLS involves the use of a high power laser (for example, a carbon dioxide laser) to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass powders into a mass that has a desired three-dimensional shape. The laser selectively fuses powdered material by scanning cross-sections generated from a 3D digital description of the part (for example from a CAD file or scan data) on the surface of a powder bed. After each cross-section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer thickness, a new layer of material is applied on top, and the process is repeated until the part is completed.

SLS parts can replicate the properties of injection moulded parts and therefore are extensively used for robustness testing of a product before expensive tooling is ordered. Other advantages include the lack of support material required as the unsintered powder surrounding the parts creates enough support. This also opens the possibilities for more complex shapes and even captive parts.


Video: Formlabs

A nylon prototype pair of headphones created using a Formlabs SLS 3D printer.

Finally, 3D printed titanium is becoming more prominent as industries are starting to see its benefits for bespoke or small batch products such as custom bicycles. 3D printing titanium is made possible by a process called Direct Metal Laser Sintering which uses a similar process to SLS where instead of plastic powder, a titanium powder is used. However, this process is expensive and not as commonly available as other 3D printing techniques. Below is an example where 3D printed titanium lugs are used in combination with carbon fibre tubes to create custom bicycles from Metier Velo.

Image: Metier Velo

Here at Aetha Design we are big fans of 3D printing for prototyping and also for production if it helps solve a problem like reducing waste, using recycled materials and increasing the sustainability of a product to reduce environmental damage. We saw at ISPO Munich earlier this year how Capita Snowboards in collaboration with CIME Industries are using 3D printing for the Spring Break snowboard range to reduce waste during manufacture. Conventional techniques for constructing sidewalls mean milling a wood core, then attaching four pieces of ABS, which can take a long time and creates a lot of waste. Other companies have tried urethane resin sidewalls, which did help to streamline the manufacturing process, but the cores were not as durable this way.

Contact us today if you wish to discuss any aspect of product design or prototyping.

Tom Parsons


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