Editor’s Note: If you’ve seen the Summer issue of HOW Magazine, you’ve explored Jason Tselentis’ epic feature on 3D Printing in Design. If not, check out the full issue for practical advice, industry insights and some exciting creativity exercises, or subscribe to get HOW all year long.
A product you hold in your hands might start out as a drawing or computer rendering, but it has to become a three-dimensional prototype sooner or later. As the price of 3D printers has gone down, more studios are bringing the rapid prototyping process in house in order to test their designs and make sure everything’s just right.
Charlotte, North Carolina’s BOLTgroup has used 3D prototyping for years, and now that they have their own 3D printers in-house it’s given them an edge. “We are able to more quickly evaluate design concepts at various stages in the design process. We still go outside for some prototypes, but having the fast turnaround in-house benefits our process,” said BOLTgroup principal Monty Montague.
3D Printing In-House
There are a variety of 3D printers on the market and a variety of production methods: fused deposition modeling (FDM), laminated object manufacturing (LOM), stereolithography (SLA), and selective laser sintering (SLS). One method, ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM) also called ultrasonic welding, uses sound waves to fuse metal materials.
BOLTgroup’s SLA Form 2 printer “offers a better finish” compared to FDM according to Montague. “We use two 3D printers in-house. The SLA is a bath of resin that is laser cured and has a finer resolution. That means each tiny step-up you see along the surface of the SLA part is only about .025mm high. The FDM printer extrudes a tube of resin—each step-up along the surface is approximately .1mm high, four times as high as the SLA, so the surface finish is coarser. But with FDM we have more choices of materials, so we can more closely replicate the strength of the plastic of an actual molded part. That’s why we use the two different technologies. It depends on the project and whether we need a cleaner surface finish or a wider range of plastic options.”
BOLTgroup works with Fortune 50 size corporations, but it specializes in “mid-sized US manufacturers” according to Montague. They’ve also partnered with one or two start-ups per year, such as the collaboration with Little Burros. BOLTgroup worked with Bob Thorsen to design, engineer, and prototype the Little Burros wheelbarrow attachment. BOLTgroup also did its brand strategy, architecture, and identity, as well as package design and online presence, among other brand extensions. BOLTgroup helped Thorsen bring his vision to life, and the work paid off at the 2014 National Hardware Show when Little Burros won Retailer’s Choice for best new product.
Getting it Right
Although some of their clients haven’t wanted prototypes, Montague and his colleagues suggest that “you have to make a prototype” and these days, 3D printing has made it more acceptable.
But the 3D prototype doesn’t always represent the last line in the creative process. There are a number of 2D and 3D iterations. Montague explains how BOLTgroup goes through a multi-step, cyclical creative process. “Typically there is initial sketching and CAD, followed by prototypes that are evaluated either by us or by consumers, then more refined sketching and CAD, more prototypes, and so on.”
The entire process requires BOLTgroup to reflect on a number of external and internal factors, putting the knowledge they gain to use. “It’s an iterative process starting with our client’s goals, then our team gaining empathy with the user through research, then concepts developed in CAD, then prototypes and testing, then refinement and more prototypes until we are satisfied that the design is right.”
Be sure to check out HOW’s Summer 2016 Creativity Issue to read more about 3D printing in “Close Encounters of the 3D Kind.”