The 411 on 3D Printing

3D Printing

The 411 on 3D PrintingIf you’re a creative art director and haven’t yet encountered 3D printing, you will soon. 3D printing is quietly transforming the world’s design, prototyping and manufacturing processes.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a melding of computer-based design and product fabrication. Done right, the result is the precise physical replication of the designer’s envisioned construct, as articulated through the use of 3d design software. The resulting prototypes and products can be from the smallest to the grandest, the simplest to the intricate.

The 3d printing process draws upon the design file specifications to construct the product layer by thin layer, a process that’s very efficient in terms of material usage, labor and time. Although the mechanics of the actual printing process are deceptively simple, as illustrated in this graphic from Makerbot and USA Today, so are the 1’s and 0’s that make computer systems possible.

Products can be fabricated from a huge array of materials, inorganic or organic, with results that range from simple, everyday items like toys, to the intricacies of automotive parts, to biologics, such as vaccines and human tissue. The genomics industry is investigating the possibilities of error-free DNA replication through bioprinting, a subset of 3D printing, and made-to-order human organs may soon be possible.

In the realm of product development, the ease and comparatively inexpensive availability of 3D design methods has upended the typical costly, iterative methods of traditional design and prototype development:

Rapid, Iterative Prototyping

With 3D printing technology, multiple iterations of product prototypes can be developed in-house, quickly and at a lower cost than through outsourcing, eliminating extensive wait for such costly design components as CAD-generated, machined prototypes. Given the wide availability of specialized 3D printers, a design team can rapidly prototype credible, quality models from multiple materials and experiment with new concepts based around the widened potential of computer-generated, 3D products.

Working as part of a three-man team, architect Bradley Rothenberg created 3D printer-themed fashions for Victoria’s Secret annual show. “If you 3D-print weaves, you can create a moving textile. The main part of our research into 3D printing is in making these textiles and making something that functions along the body,” said Rothenberg. As with all 3D printing, the final structure and design of the textiles was dependent upon iterative changes Rothenberg and his team made to the underlying program that produced the final winter-themed product.

Improved Collaboration

As with Rothenberg’s fashions, working with precise, to-scale or actual size prototypes gives designers an actual, physical product around which they can easily collaborate. A common visual and tactile perception of a three-dimensional object lets a team quickly gauge a potential product’s viability and marketability. Modifications and a new prototype can be quickly made. The availability of a final, agreed upon prototype facilitates faster and better integration of the ultimate design with the manufacturing process.

Field Testing with the Real Thing

Using 3D printer-generated prototypes for field testing before retooling and reworking production facilities exposes potential design flaws and avoids ruinous cost overruns, customer dissatisfaction and potential litigation.

Ongoing Client and Management Concurrence

3D printing allows designers to quickly create and produce prototypes for clients or a company’s management. As with the design team, given a concept made real that can be touched, discussed helps forge consensus, create a sound product and expedite production. Rapid prototyping through 3D printing “… is a speedy way to shake down new products before committing to a final design and manufacturing,” says Frank Beafore of SelectTech Geospatial, where a two-person team used 3D printing to design a carbon-fiber airframe .

“3D Printing Will Change the World”

The 3D printer is a fairly simple device. Yet 3D printers and additive manufacturing are ushering in a new economy based on “Widely distributed, highly flexible, small-scale manufacturing,” writes economist Richard A. D’Aveni in the Harvard Business Review. His article, “3-D Printing Will Change the World,” predicts that goods will soon be infinitely customizable and designed, sold and consumed close to home. And that those economies dependent upon the mass production and export of goods will fade with the rise of small, distributed manufacturers and competition based upon rapid customization.

3D printing is projected to be a $5.2 billion a year industry by 2020, according to Business News Daily, with an annual growth rate of 14% that will spawn a broad new array of jobs. With many schools now offering design courses centered around 3D printing, anyone who’ll be seeking creative job placement in the next few years might want to explore career options in what promises to be a revolutionary, fascinating and world-changing technology. At this time, more than any before, a creative art director can explore the possibilities of 3D and work towards multitudinous design possibilities rather than bulk, uniform production.

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