Bringing Design into the 21st Century with Desktop 3D Printing
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on October 31, 2016 |

Imagine if, in all modern offices, every inkjet printer and copier was located in a single, locked room on one floor of an office building. When you sent a report to print, your document would sit in a queue where you’d have to wait hours or even days before you could go down to the printing department and pick it up. Then, once you received it, it might not resemble the original in the least and you would have to start the whole process again.

For most modern offices, however, this isn’t the case. Every employee, or at least every department, has a dedicated printer that can produce a document instantly.

With 3D printing, though, that’s not the case. Even some of the world’s largest businesses and design firms still have all of their 3D printing capabilities housed in a single, locked room where designs sit in a queue before being printed and post-processed. By the time an engineer or designer picks it up, it might be very different from what they expected, or it might be an outdated version of the design.

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

Just a couple of years ago, many pundits, industry analysts and tech-enthusiasts thought that every household would have a low-cost 3D printer for producing home goods. Even though that hasn’t yet come to pass, a different trend may be emerging, one in which, not every home, but every designer or engineer in every business might have a 3D printer on his or her desk or accessible right in his or her workspace.

Thanks to the ever-increasing quality and low cost of desktop 3D printers, companies large and small are finding new reasons to purchase these devices for the purpose of iterative design and prototyping. Similar to how a magazine might do an article mockup before going to print, businesses like security device startup Canary are turning to desktop 3D printing to explore, progress, and validate their designs before going to mass manufacturing.

Iterating Physical Designs on the Desktop

Mark Palmer, head of experience design at MakerBot, has suggested that having a 3D printer on one’s desktop can completely change the design experience. Previously the manager of design at Motorola, Palmer was accustomed to having industrial 3D printers locked down in internal prototyping facilities, ultimately creating a lag in the design process.

Upon joining MakerBot, however, Palmer began using more affordable fused deposition modeling 3D printing to begin fabricating designs on his desktop. With immediate access to the prototypes he and his team creates, Palmer said that could more quickly intervene when a design was not how he’d like it to be. He even began 3D printing concepts that previously may not have been worth the hassle of sending to an internal RP lab. The speed of iteration and decision making accelerated exponentially.

MakerBot’s professional 3D printing ecosystem featuring the Replicator+ 3D printer, MakerBot Print and Tough PLA. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
MakerBot’s professional 3D printing ecosystem featuring the Replicator+ 3D printer, MakerBot Print and Tough PLA. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

“When the printer is near you—when you have your own system sort of staring at you all the time,” Palmer said in an interview with ENGINEERING.com, “it's kind of beckoning you to design and print more. It takes out a lot of the different steps or possible points of failure in the process,with things like external service bureaus or the unpredictability of having a shared printer where you never quite know if it’s going to be available when you need it.”

MakerBot recently announced a new series of products, including the Replicator+ and Replicator Mini+ 3D printers, that the company believes will make fabricating ideas on the desktop even easier for designers, engineers, and the like. With the company’s latest 3D printing software update as well, Palmer believes that MakerBot streamlines the 3D printing process.

One unique feature now possible with the company’s new MakerBot Print software is the ability to import native CAD files for 3D printing. Rather than export an STL from a design program like SOLIDWORKS, it's possible to open the SOLIDWORKS file directly in MakerBot Print.

Not only does this eliminate the export/import middleman, but users can even save print projects that include native CAD models, as well as a project's specific print settings. Palmer explained that users can, for instance, highlight only the models that they intend to print, while maintaining the entire batch within the file. These projects can then be saved in the cloud for other team members, perhaps in a remote office, to print on their personal desktop 3D printers.

MakerBot Print is capable of reading native CAD files. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
MakerBot Print is capable of reading native CAD files. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

“We've been focused on trying to make that process as fluid as possible,” Palmer said. “A big part of that is a lot of pieces on the workflow side, trying to eliminate mundane steps like the need to export STLs when working with native CAD files. It speeds up the process, but it also clears things up so that you’re not swimming in all of these redundant files—really just trying to make it flow. So there's that piece of predictability there.”

Tough Like ABS, Easy Like PLA

Unlike the Replicator 2X, the newest generation of MakerBot 3D printers doesn't feature a heated bed and, therefore, is not designed to handle the popular, but highly noxious, thermoplastic ABS. This was intentional on the part of MakerBot to make its technology easier to use and integrate into an office setting or classroom.

Palmer pointed out that, though the mechanical properties of ABS are highly desirable for producing functional parts or prototypes that more accurately resemble the mass-manufactured end product, the smell of the material is not something that would make 3D printing conducive in a typical office setting. For this reason, MakerBot developed its Tough PLA material, which was engineered to offer similar, sometimes superior, mechanical properties compared with ABS, but with the reliability and printability of corn starch–based PLA plastic.
 

MakerBot Project Manager Cedric Kovacs-Johnson, also interviewed by ENGINEERING.com, explained that MakerBot developed Tough PLA in collaboration with its parent company Stratasys: “Everything we did was tested in terms of reliability and functionality. So, first of all, it had to meet the criteria of PLA printability, but it also had to work like ABS from a mechanical standpoint. It also had to last a lifetime, which we’ve come to expect from traditionally manufactured products.”

Ultimately, Kovacs said, the team was able to create Tough PLA to fit “the functionality of ABS to a T.” However, he added, “just like traditional PLA, Tough PLA is extremely reliable and easy to use.” In some cases, according to Kovacs, the material actually outperforms ABS.

The Tensile Strength of Tough PLA as compared to PLA and ABS. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
The Tensile Strength of Tough PLA as compared to PLA and ABS. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

“The plastic deformation before break of Tough PLA is extremely long,” Kovacs added. “It's almost twice as long as ABS, so it lets you create parts that, with traditional PLA, would actually break. With Tough PLA, however, the part just deforms, which actually serves some particularly interesting use cases.”

A ballsocket joint 3D printed in Tough PLA (left) and traditional PLA (right). (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
A ballsocket joint 3D printed in Tough PLA (left) and traditional PLA (right). (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

To demonstrate the workability of Tough PLA, MakerBot has created numerous objects that can be downloaded from the company's printable 3D file repository, Thingiverse. For instance, a 3D-printed ball socket showcases the ability of Tough PLA to deform slightly in order to fit the ball into the socket with a snap fit. Another example is a box with a living hinge, all 3D printed in one part.

A box with a living hinge 3D printed with Tough PLA. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
A box with a living hinge 3D printed with Tough PLA. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

“You can turn that hinge in and out for hundreds of cycles and it will hold on,” Kovacs said. “It’s basically a functional product design feature that you would not have been able to get before.”

Tough PLA is meant to be workable for drilling and screw tapping without damage to the print. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
Tough PLA is meant to be workable for drilling and screw tapping without damage to the print. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

MakerBot also demonstrated the ability to drill into Tough PLA prints to thread and fasten screws, an additional function not as easily implemented with PLA. In all of these cases, PLA would crack under the pressure, but Tough PLA seems to handle it adeptly. According to the MakerBot team, this machinability allows for easier post-processing so that users can obtain a smoother finish on their prints.

To make post-processing easier and desktop 3D printing more accessible in general, MakerBot has published extensive guides that cover everything from sanding, gluing, and painting to inserting brass threads and even performing silicone molding and vacuum forming with parts.

Iterating on Home Security with Desktop 3D Printing

In order to disrupt the home security industry, Canary created two all-in-one security devices that could be mounted just about anywhere and monitored from mobile devices. Uniquely, the Canary and Canary Flex aren't just connected cameras—they feature night vision, audio recording, and weather monitoring for a low price.

Canary prototyped designs for its home security products with MakerBot 3D printing technology. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
Canary prototyped designs for its home security products with MakerBot 3D printing technology. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

To prototype the designs for its products, Canary relied on MakerBot's solutions, including the Replicator+, Replicator Mini+ and Tough PLA. With 3D printers on their desks, Canary team members could open native CAD files and see designs fabricated directly in front of them. Having all of these systems connected and managed via the web and on mobile devices made it possible to integrate desktop 3D printing into a traditional office environment.


The Canary team used Tough PLA specifically to test the design of accessories for its home security devices.For instance, they created custom fixtures to test the reliability of a button on the Canary Flex. Canary was able to machine the mount and insert screws before an actuator mounted to the fixture pushed the button for 50,000 cycles.

Numerous accessories for Canary devices were prototyped with MakerBot technology. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
Numerous accessories for Canary devices were prototyped with MakerBot technology. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

In addition to the durability of the material, Palmer and Kovaks pointed out that Tough PLA is actually more lubricious than PLA or ABS. “If you have sliding parts, they have to move a lot more freely than PLA,” Palmer said. “So Canary used it to prototype a whole suite of accessories.”

Having launched on Indiego go with $2 million in funding, Canary seems to have demonstrated just how useful desktop 3D printing can be when it comes to bringing a product to market. This may be particularly useful for a startup like Canary, but it also provides even more reason for large, established businesses to take the technology on board. In the case of MakerBot and its new products, desktop 3D printing is even easier to integrate in businesses of all sizes.


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


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