How 3D Printing Streamlines the Engineering Workflow
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on August 11, 2016 |

The desktop 3D printing space has become an interesting one in the last year or so, as manufacturers shift the focus away from consumers and towards professional and industrial users. The technology has proven that it may not quite be ready to produce consumer goods for every household—or perhaps households aren't quite ready for 3D printing at home. Those in the industry know, however, that low-cost 3D printing is still a powerful technology, if not for fabricating home goods, then as an early design tool and, in some cases, even for short-run manufacturing.

Mark Palmer, head of experience design at MakerBot. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
Mark Palmer, head of experience design at MakerBot. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

In a recent episode of the WTFFF?! 3D Printing Podcast with Tom and Tracy Hazzard of Hazz Design, Mark Palmer, head of experience design at MakerBot, relayed his thoughts on fused deposition modeling (FDM) and its utility for design work, both at MakerBot and in general. Prior to joining MakerBot, Palmer worked as manager of design at Motorola—so from the perspective of an industrial designer, he could share invaluable insight on the topic.

The Speed of Iterative Design

One of the most intriguing topics of the conversation was how the distance of a 3D printer from a designer affects the overall design workflow. Those who own desktop 3D printers will know the satisfaction of watching a print materialize before your eyes and how this can impact your design work.

Well, it turns out that at MakerBot headquarters, the ratio of designers to 3D printers is 1:1. For Palmer, this caused a big shift in his design approach. “In my previous job a few years ago, I had access to all kinds of prototyping gear. We had two [stereolithography] machines in house, we had two wax printers, we had a whole prototyping lab with CNC machines and pretty much anything we would need. My challenge was always that when you're working on a design, you're evolving it, you're iterating very rapidly, you send designs out into a queue or into the guy running the shop in the basement and you hope for the best,” Palmer explained.

Palmer pointed out that when prototyping equipment is far from a designer and in the hands of someone removed from the design process, the iterative process experiences a lag. The time it takes to see a CAD model physically realized could be hours if performed in a separate lab in-house and weeks if carried out by an external service bureau.

Speeding Up Design with 3D Printing

He suggested, however, that the closer a printer is to a designer, the faster a concept can be iterated. For Palmer, this realization came when he joined MakerBot and began working with a rack of MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers sitting right behind him during the design process.

MakerBot’s fifth-generation 3D printers, from left: the Replicator, the Mini and the Z18. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
MakerBot’s fifth-generation 3D printers, from left: the Replicator, the Mini and the Z18. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

“I had an insight that … I could literally turn around, hit pause, reach in while the print was maybe 15 percent done and just like touch one little part of the design that I was interested in ... and then decide to kill my print or keep it going. And that intervention opportunity halfway through a print kind of struck me as something really unique,” Palmer explained.

This ability to check in on a physical concept becomes that much more immediate when the printer is moved from behind the designer and onto the desk in front of the designer. Palmer said, “There's like a fall-off in effectiveness between having a printer literally on your desk in front of you versus having it right behind you versus maybe sharing it with somebody, that brings a certain amount of unpredictability into the equation. Then, if you go and put the machine in a separate room somewhere, you’re one more step removed.”

For this reason, every person in Palmer's department has a MakerBot 3D printer on their desk. In Palmer's case, he has a MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D printer, which he's leveraged for his work, even with its small build volume.

The MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
The MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

“At first I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with it, besides my own personal projects. Then I realized what it was and the potential strengths that it really had for professional use. What I found myself doing is kind of getting comfortable with the smaller build volume. A lot of times when you're working … you don't necessarily care about the whole product, you want to get one little piece of it and iterate on that area and really prove the design,” Palmer said.

He added, “What I find myself doing is, even working on really big products, I'll actually just section out a piece of it that I'm curious about and print it. Over time, you get really good at things like orientation optimization to eliminate the need for supports. And if you kind of embrace speed over quality and turn the layer height up to point 3, you can really start to crank out a lot of content on even something as small as a Mini pretty rapidly.”

Practical Applications

Palmer implements this process with the MakerBot team to design MakerBot products—not the content that gets 3D printed by the company's machines, but the machines themselves. He said, “As we're working on new products, we're using the current products. We are the users and there are things we struggle with and there are things that we really love.”

“We're really close on the hardware side with the software teams over on the digital products side, so we have really good feedback between both sides. There are all kinds of unique opportunities for crossover there. We work a little bit on this more advanced model. Everybody has a printer on their desk and everybody is interacting directly,” Palmer said.

Of course, the design work isn't performed on MakerBot printers alone. Instead, desktop 3D printers are used for the initial stages of design, while more advanced systems are taken advantage of further along in the design process. “We have a Fortus 900 in our facility, as well, so that we can print bigger parts there. We also use Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for all kinds of other things, like cast parts and printed metal parts,” Palmer said.

When asked by Tom Hazzard if a 1:1 ratio of 3D printers is recommended for the majority of businesses, Palmer said, “We're seeing a trend towards more printers being out there, more direct access. I think that it will take time for the more direct 1:1 model to prove itself, but I think that we're heading well in that direction already. Again, it's not really a one-size-fits-all, but I think that one thing that's true is that the people that use printers today in a professional setting can all relate to the challenges of having to get into the queue, having to have the readiness of the print drive when you can have a meeting, or get sort of tangled up with your project due dates. And, so, it's one way sort of around that. Also, using your own printer kind of brings a certain amount of predictability to the process.”

While consumers haven't unabashedly adopted a 3D printer as an at-home design tool, the technology is clearly indispensable. When a company is already leveraging 3D printers as a means to iterate designs, it's almost a natural choice to purchase low-cost systems for testing physical designs immediately.

MakerBot has sponsored this post. It had no editorial input. All opinions are mine. –Michael Molitch-Hou

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