Speed to market is essential. In our hyper-competitive industrial and consumer sectors, new product development is advancing faster than ever with no sign of slowing down. OEMs, suppliers and subcontractors struggle to meet customer demands and actively seek new solutions that improve processes and meet deadlines. Advances in rapid prototyping technology have allowed product developers to quickly and often fail when it comes to testing and validating products. However, many design engineers and manufacturing specialists are now challenged to further optimize the product development lifecycle and need to identify efficient ways to produce the right amount of prototypes to proactively solve problems and get to market first.
New Product Development (NPD) is often a complex process that typically introduces unforeseen challenges that extend lead times. This inevitably leads to production delays, reduces competitive advantage and, of course, erodes profitability. In order to effectively increase your NPD schedule, what steps need to be followed throughout the process? What should your early-stage prototype development look like? How many prototypes are needed for testing and evaluation? When would it make sense to build more than 100 prototypes?
The following article provides quick tips for determining the right amount of prototypes throughout the product development lifecycle and how to advance NPD deadlines.
Early stage product development
The value of having a physical prototype on hand can never be underestimated. What was previously a highly manual process has improved tremendously through 3D printing, machining and other technologies that result in high precision parts representative of the design and purpose of the process. original engineering. During early stage product development, unique prototypes are created to immediately test shape and fit. For example, electronics manufacturers developing new shell designs must insert circuit boards, wires, harnesses, etc. that make the product operational. Several iterations are usually required, and it’s common for engineering changes to lead to completely new designs and revisions.
Depending on the access to prototyping resources (technologies or materials), engineers find themselves either producing parts in-house or subcontracting to subcontractors. It’s difficult to determine how many unique prototypes will be needed for your specific application, but it’s important to make an educated guess as outsourcing prototype parts can get expensive.
Recommendation: Generally, 3D printing is the ideal process for one-off prototypes because of the advantages of speed and precision. In some scenarios, machining is a great option, so it ultimately depends on your early stage product development requirements. Consider how many different iterations you can go through and the type of materials needed to test shape and fit.. The only downside to this process is the ability to test the functionality and performance of the parts.
Functional tests and feedback
Successfully advancing the NPD calendar relies on the ability to make rapid improvements. While the definition of quick is subjective, the process of testing prototypes and collecting technical feedback is not. This involves determining the absolute qualities of the product and ensuring that the mechanical properties meet the required standards and customer expectations. Once the design of a prototype is defined, the next step in the NPD life cycle is functional testing. Note: Poor performance in functionality testing may force redesigns and re-examination of the initial process.
It is not uncommon for an engineering department to need 30 to 50 identical prototypes for testing or feedback purposes. Depending on the intention of the product, this includes measuring impact resistance, ductility, bending, fatigue, UV resistance, etc. In addition, there are several stakeholders involved in the NPD who may or may not be physically located in the same location. Having access to this quantity of prototypes improves technical communications between several departments and eliminates unnecessary delays. Functional testing alone justifies the need for many parts, but the intangible benefits that come with the ability to communicate quickly internally and externally will certainly lead to a faster time to market.
Recommendation: Correct examination during the functional testing and feedback phase requires several identical parts. This type of low volume production demand can be accomplished with 3D printing, machining or molding processes. However, the time required to produce this amount of parts with 3D printing negates the inherent speed advantages, and traditional molding tools can be expensive, especially when a final design is not approved. Determining your break-even point between these technologies will make a difference in your bottom line and keep your product development ahead of schedule. Find out how DeMarini Sports solved this dilemma in a case study posted on the Fortify website.
The healthcare market is known to bring products early to high-end users and influencers. A soft launch approach like this occurs frequently for all industries, but the medical device market is certainly unique. Obtaining concrete feedback from those who use the product in its operational environment is particularly beneficial for several reasons:
- This is the last chance for engineering to make design changes.
- It allows the marketing team to validate the message, the brand image and the packaging.
- Early adopters are more likely to become credible testimonials for your product, which will lead to new sales opportunities.
As your business enters the final stages of development and prepares for product launch, engineers may be tasked with producing over 100 prototypes for beta testing. Prototypes, or early products, should look, feel, and perform as intended. At this point, it’s important to make an honest assessment of your 3D printing abilities and recognize that this technology may not be the right solution. Costs, material limitations, or a combination of both can be barriers to producing low volume parts.
Recommendation: For the most part, the design is complete and your product is ready to go. It is rare in the 3D printing industry to find a technology capable of simultaneously printing end-use materials that meet acceptable cosmetic qualities. This limits the use of 3D printing for low volume production. While molding is a much better option for producing parts that meet functional and aesthetic standards, tooling can become very expensive, especially when errors or design changes result in multiple iterations.
Is there an option between?
3D printed molding tools is a production transition method that allows engineering teams to combine the low cost of 3D printing with the productivity of injection molding. When your team needs 30-100 identical prototypes to quickly advance the product development lifecycle, 3DP IM tooling can be the answer. It’s an inexpensive way to quickly redesign and print on-demand tools that are injected with end-use materials and exceed quality expectations.
About the Author:
Ben Arnold leads Fortify’s sales and marketing efforts as vice president of business development. Arnold joined the 3D printing industry in 2006 and has decades of experience helping companies bring new equipment technology to market. He has been at the forefront of several industry innovations, including multi-material polymer printing (Objet Connex); multi-laser metal printers (SLM Solutions); and the evolution of metal printing based on MIM (Desktop Metal). Arnold brings this experience to his role at Fortify working with customers to identify key applications for manufacturing digital composites. He holds BSME (WPI) and MBA (Northeastern) degrees.