How Digital Contract Manufacturing Can Speed Time to Market

Here’s how one company used lean production strategies to develop a product faster.

The iterative process of prototyping is an essential part of the lifecycle of a new product, but these prototypes can also take a notoriously long time to complete. Traditional approaches to short-run or job production and manufacturing may require in-house equipment, outsourcing to a local shop or sending drawings overseas to a contract manufacturer in Asia.

Services like Protolabs offer a new answer to the problem of how to quickly source prototypes or end-use parts using a fully digital manufacturing process. recently published a downloadable research report detailing how digital manufacturing can support faster time-to-market by aligning with lean manufacturing strategies. To get your copy of the report, find it here.

Manufacturing: Party of One?

With the advent of inexpensive, consumer-grade 3D printers, we’ve seen an explosion in the capability of anyone with a laptop and a CAD program to quickly create tangible prototypes and parts in materials such as PLA and ABS. In most cases, these home-brewed parts aren’t viable as much more than paperweights or design prototypes. However, this trend raises the question: can one engineer with a CAD seat bring a product to market?

One challenge for this solopreneur is access to industrial-grade equipment, processes and materials required to produce a quality product. Most contract manufacturers will not even consider one-off or prototyping jobs, preferring bigger orders. Online-based manufacturing service bureaus such as Protolabs bridge this gap. A solopreneur can order prototypes, design the final product, then order small-scale production runs using injection molding, CNC machining, sheet metal, and additive manufacturing directly from Protolabs.

Another benefit of digital manufacturing through Protolabs is the automated quoting engine and design for manufacturability feedback. These features enhance the skills of the designer or engineer and help ensure the iterative process of prototyping and refining a design goes smoothly.

The best way to illustrate the value of a faster iterative process through digital manufacturing is through a real use case. Check out the example below featuring Indego, a mobility device developed by Parker Hannifin.

How Parker Hannifin Used Digital Manufacturing for Fast Iterative Design

Image courtesy of Indego.

Image courtesy of Indego.

Motion control giant Parker Hannifin shared their experience using digital manufacturing with Protolabs in a recent case study. This case study illustrates the value in accelerated design cycles that result from more efficient digital manufacturing methods.

In 2012, the company sought new opportunities for growth. Considering the company’s core competencies in motion and control technologies, wearable robotics for prosthetic and orthotic applications were natural fit.

The company partnered with researchers at Vanderbilt University to develop robotics technology that could provide greater mobility to patients with lower limb paralysis. The team developed an exoskeleton device, including braces, motors, batteries and control electronics. Next, the company began working to commercialize the solution with a product called Indego. Farris, a coinventor of the device, became the technical lead of the business unit bringing Indego to market.

Farris and his team ran into problems early. Getting production quotes and final parts through the company’s network of traditional manufacturing suppliers was causing a severe bottleneck in their development schedule.

Fast time-to-market was one of Farris’ top priorities. In addition, his team needed to order prototype parts frequently, to test new design ideas and improvements.

The robotic exoskeleton consists of brace worn around the hips and lower legs, and is powered by motors, batteries, electronics, and intelligent software that aids in the users’ movement. (Image courtesy of Protolabs and Indego.)

The robotic exoskeleton consists of brace worn around the hips and lower legs, and is powered by motors, batteries, electronics, and intelligent software that aids in the users’ movement. (Image courtesy of Protolabs and Indego.)

For example, one component which required extensive iteration was a small plastic light pipe for a status LED. “This little indicator is particularly important because this is how the user—the paraplegic, the stroke patient, or whoever is using the system—knows what state they’re in, what mode they’re in, and what’s about to happen with the device,” said Farris.

Initially, the part was manufactured with a molded transparent thermoplastic. In testing, it was revealed that this material was too brittle to stand up to the flexing movement of the device in use. The team decided to change the material to a flexible liquid silicone rubber (LSR) material. However, this solution raised another issue: How could the team cost-effectively mold the part without an investment in traditional tooling?

Bridge Tooling

To solve these problems, Farris began using Protolabs for prototyping and end-use parts. Protolabs was able to quickly manufacture several light pipe components via their LSR molding process without cutting traditional high-durability tooling, using aluminum tooling instead. Called bridge tooling, this strategy cuts the high cost of injection molding by recognizing that when a lower number of shots are needed (less than 2000), costly tool steel can be replaced by aluminum, which is easier to mill but less durable. This saves time and cost for prototyping and short-run production.

Download the Report: Speed is King: How Digital Manufacturing Can Accelerate Lean Production

To find out more about how Indego solved their design challenges with Protolabs and about how digital manufacturing can improve your manufacturing processes, get your free copy of this research report here.