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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

How 3D Printing Gonna Redefine Product Design

My first touch with 3D printing was back to 20 years ago, when I was still in graduate school pursuing my terminal degree in Product Design. My department had one SLA 3D printer at that time, which cost my school a quarter of a million dollars, and my department chair was so proud about that printer. Even though most facilities and equipment in my school were free to use, that 3D printer was an exception. There was a staff member in charge of the printer, we as a student will hand over our 3D modelling file, We need to make sure the 3D modelling file all the surfaces are fully closed. Then he will help us to program the printer, then start the printing process. And there was a fee for using the printer, based on how much time it will take.

Supposedly SLA 3D printer quality would be much better, but at that time, the surface quality was still very rough, and every time after I printed a project, I had to do a lot of sanding work. FDM 3D printers were even worse in quality at that time, though a FDM printer purchasing price was much less at that time (about 20K USD). It also took a long time to print, a small simple fragrance bottle took me a day to print, and it costed me 100 bucks at that time(with a student discount).
3D Printed Shoes

Even though at that time, there were so many problems with 3D printing, that the price and operating cost were high, surface quality was rough, programming was complicated, I was still very excited about the use of 3D printing, and I can foresee the bright future and how it is gonna redefine product design.

1. Free our imagination

One of the major considerations during product design is the manufacturing process. Currently, for mass production, we will need to design and build a mould first, no matter if we are using injection moulding, rotational moulding or extrusion moulding, they all need a mould. So when we design a product, we also need to consider how the mould will be built, and how the mould will be open, so we can get the parts. In this case, many complicated surfaces will be avoided, because that might add many challenges to the mould design, and hence increase the manufacturing costs. Now with 3D printing, we no longer need a mould nor worry about how to open the mould, the product can be designed as complicated as we can imagine. Besides the form, for one piece of product unit, for regular manufacturing, it is mostly just one solid color, to reduce cost and complexity of production; I can foresee in the future, 3D printed products can be as colorful as wanted, and can have a mix of texture, finishing, and material, besides color.

2. Reduce waste and time

3D printing process is an additive process, and the printer will keep adding material layer by layer. However, the traditional manufacturing process is mostly a subtractive process, whereas material will be cut and shaped into specific parts. Leftover material, no matter if it is metal or plastic, will be melted and reformed into a mould. The mould itself costs material, time and effort, during the process many materials will be wasted as well. One the contrary, 3D printing will simply need a 3D modelling digital file (which traditional manufacturing also needs), then the printer will start to add thinly sliced horizontal layers until finishing the product. Even though at that time (20 years ago), 3D printing was still slow, it is still much faster than spending time to design and then make a mould, melting the material and injecting it into the mould. However, if it is for mass production, the traditional manufacturing process is still much faster at that time, because after a mould is made, it can keep producing thousands of parts over one night. 3D printing has to print unit layer by layer, while moulding and production can make product parts in less than a second. Yet, I can foresee that this will be changed when 3D printing technology becomes more and more mature, and printing speed and quality also improved.

3. Quickly prototyping

For a fast prototype, traditionally, we were using a CNC (computer numerical control) machine; for small quantities of production, we may make a silicone mould, however, the cost and time spent on these are not small. With 3D printing, we can quickly print a prototype, which can be used for usability testing and feasibility validation. So even at that time, I can see the value of 3D printing in quick prototyping.

20 years later, 3D printing has become much more well developed, and we can see so many changes and improvements.

1. The size of objects

Compared to the small size objects a 3D printer could make in the past, nowadays it can print much larger objects, even… as large as a house. As I read the news, there was a 3D-printed home which is already ready for sale in Riverhead, New York. It is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with 1,400 square feet of living space plus a 750-square-foot garage. It was printed on a quarter-acre plot of land.

2. The quality of printing

Now nearly all 3D printers being sold today can print at a resolution of 200 microns, which should produce decent-quality prints; or even better, many can print at 100 microns, which generally delivers good-quality prints. Of course, with the technology continuing developing, I am sure it will enable us to print even finer products.

3. The time of printing

Of course, the larger the part the more time it will take to print. But compare to the past, now 3D printing has become much faster. The small fragrance bottle I printed 20 years ago, which took me a day, now only needs less than 1 hours to finish. What a big improvement. But of course, there is still room for improvement. However, for some projects, for example, a house, a 3D printer can build the walls of a house in as little as two days versus weeks or months with traditional construction materials and process.

4. The wide choices of material

In the past, most 3D printers were just using plastics like PLA or ABS, now we have a much wider choice for material. Of course we still can use plastic. Out of all the raw materials for 3D printing in use today, plastic is still the most common. Besides Polyastic acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), we can also use Polyvinyl Alcohol Plastic (PVA), Polycarbonate (PC) and many other choices. Today's more state-of-the-art 3D printers also use powdered materials to construct products. For example, polyamide (nylon) and alumide. Resins, Metal, (stainless-steel, bronze, gold, nickel, aluminum, titanium…), carbon fiber, graphite and graphene, nitinol, or even paper.

5. The objects of 3D printing

With the wide choices of materials, 3D printing can also print a much wider range of objects. Besides consumer products, medical devices, industrial units, 3D has been used for house construction as I mentioned above. We can also print clothes. 3D printing has even been used to print food. I saw a pancake printing machine at an event in Silicon Valley. I also heard from the news that some doctors have been using 3D printing to print human body parts, bones, or even a heart, to save heart disease patients.
3D Printed Food

With the continuing development of 3D printing technology, with costs keep going down, speed keep going up, this will also bring in new requirements for our product design.

1. Design more complicated shape and organic forms

As we mentioned, no mould is needed for 3D printing, now designers do not have to be restricted by moulding process, the objects can be wild as you wanted, so designers can free our imagination, can design much more complicated shape and organic forms of products, without worrying if we can make it or how much cost it may add extra. This will bring a new page for product design, I would foresee a renaissance of human culture, art, design and crafts.

2. Design more customized products

Traditional manufacturing is mass production for mass public consumers, hence we will see people driving same designed cars, using the same designed items, and living in similar designed houses. Their personalized needs have been limited to some choices of colors, or adding some decorations. Now any personal needs can be addressed, and anyone can have their own unique designed living and working environment with unique products. And this will bring even more much higher demands for professional designers to design on their special requirements.

3. Design lower cost and sustainable products

Waste is lowered, time is shortened, material is widened, production can be localized, 3D printing will surely bring in more changes and choices. Now designers can design much lower costs yet still have high quality products for the customers, and can consider using more sustainable material, and design for recycling and reusing of the product. For example, for some products, traditionally, it will need many parts to assemble together, now with 3D printing, designers can make it just one piece, to reduce parts, reduce costs, save material, and avoid wastes. More to add, is that we will no longer need inventory. Print on demands, how beautiful and sustainable is that.

As a product designer, who has witnessed the past 20 years of evolving in 3D printing, who has been dealing with the traditional manufacturing process for so many years, I am excited and look forward to seeing the continuing development and popularization of 3D printing into our design to manufacturing process. Cheers!

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