By: Rob Theriaque- Project Engineer
At my first injection molding job, a beast lurked in the corner of a dark, unused room. It was about the size of a tall clothes washer. Purchased at a trade show years earlier, it was marketed as a device that would change the industry. The collective memory of the company could recall only one use, and that was in demo mode with the built-in program. They had used this large investment to manufacture a single small model ship. It was an early 3D printer.
As with any promising and valuable technology, these have evolved. Large machines with poor resolution and printing times best measured by a calendar have given way to desktop and hobbyist models that can print parts in hours. I graduated from college in 2005. The 3D modeling systems taught to me then seem almost as archaic and inaccessible now as punch cards do to this generation’s software engineers. Today, anybody with a desire can download a free version of Google Sketchup, make a 3D model, and print their creation for less than the cost of my 2001 CADKEY textbook.
We’re starting to see more and more incredible inventions from individuals with functional prototypes. As an offhand estimate, I’d guess in five years we’ve gone from 75% napkin-sketch concepts versus 25% product in-hand to the opposite. Are we finally seeing the revolution prophesized by that archaic monstrosity languishing in a corner?
There are a few issues. Part of my job is helping to overcome them.
3D printers can manufacture components that few other manufacturing processes can. Considerations for injection and ejection aren’t necessary. Undercuts and internal voids are no problem. This is both an incredible strength and a significant drawback. If a brilliant idea is developed without thought to the manufacturability, serious roadblocks lie ahead. We have to be able to get the plastic part out of the mold!
I love saying this. It’s possible to make one of virtually anything. It’s making ten, a hundred, a million or more, all with impeccable quality, that’s a challenge. That’s where our engineering expertise comes into play.
Reworking concepts from a prototype to a manufacturable product is an art and a science. Retaining functional characteristics within the constraints of an injection molding environment requires strong knowledge of tooling, material and available technology. It is an incredibly fun and rewarding experience.
I don’t know what happened to that forerunner to our modern rapid prototypers. The message it foretold, while a bit premature, does seem to be coming to pass. Folks with great ideas now have accessible means of making them a reality. 3D printing is an exciting method of bringing a concept to a tangible product and offers yet another quick and affordable option to those in the protoype phase. When it’s time to make a million, we can help.