Canadian Plastics

Rapid Design Update

3D printer saves up-front time in designSpurred by steady advances in technology, the entire process of rapid design and manufacturing has been undergoing an evolution since the first introduction of ...

January 1, 2001   Canadian Plastics



3D printer saves up-front time in design

Spurred by steady advances in technology, the entire process of rapid design and manufacturing has been undergoing an evolution since the first introduction of large, expensive rapid prototyping machines over ten years ago. One of those advances has been desktop, 3D printers which can create complex physical models from 3D CAD files. Whereas designers once had to send CAD data to an outside RP service firm owning an expensive SLA or some other type of RP system, 3D printers lend themselves to use by engineers in the office.

Because of the expense, designers relying on service-bureau based rapid prototyping typically wait until near the end of the product development cycle to obtain a RP part for form and fit verification. The greatest potential benefit of 3D-printer technology, says Z Corporation president Thomas Clay, is to eliminate delays and problems in much earlier stages of design, thereby greatly accelerating product development.

Z Corporation’s (Burlington, MA) Z402 3D printer is billed as the world’s fastest RP system, capable of making a model from a CAD file ten to twenty times faster than competing machines. For example, one company used the printer to make a pump propeller in less than two hours at a total cost of $5.61. The system is not meant to produce finished-quality parts, but is suitable for rapid verification of design, especially in the early stages, where multiple iterations and changes to a part are often being tried.

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The parts are made from either cornstarch or plaster-based powder infiltrated with a binder. Starch is ideal for printing large, bulky parts, while plaster is geared for making parts with thin walls or fine details. The company also sells a color conversion kit for the Z402, which then gives a designer the option of making a part in color or monochrome. A typical part takes about one to two hours to print in monochrome, or four to six hours in color.

“The biggest opportunity to save time in design is before most companies even start their clocks — the fuzzy front end prior to concept approval,” says Clay. “To do that managers and engineers need to update the product-development process to reflect the power of next-generation RP tools.”


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