3-D printing: An alternative to expensive prototyping.

I was talking with my friend Hank yesterday.  Hank is an old friend from my “China days.”  We lived in the same Guest House at Jiaotong University in Shanghai way back in the day.  Hank, like I, has a lot of China manufacturing experience, although for the last ten years or so he has been working in a role completely unrelated to China, as a Senior Manager at a well-known Silicon Valley co.  We were discussing sourcing in China and I mentioned to Hank the high, often prohibitive, cost of molds for plastic injection molded products.  These molds can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars.  And, believe me, the high cost of a mold has stalled many a promising product launch.

Hank mentioned 3-D printing which is a new technology for making prototypes and which is much cheaper than the old technologies. 3-D printing is also known as Additive Manufacturing, Desktop Manufacturing, Rapid Manufacturing, Rapid Prototyping  etc etc. The best way to think about this is as follows;  In traditional prototyping when you make a metal or plastic part you cut that part from bar stock or plates. You are basically subtracting a part from the whole and for this reason traditional prototyping is also known as Subtractive Manufacturing. Another term you often hear is machining. A good analogy for traditional prototyping is chiseling a statue, which is labor intensive and expensive.

With 3-D printing, on the other hand, you are developing a product from nothing. After your computer makes a 3-D rendering of your design you send this design to your printer as you would a normal document.  Instead of ink, however, a 3-D printer contains glues, powders, resins, molten plastics etc etc and these are fashioned via a nozzle into a prototype according to the CAD design. Materials are then cooled to harden. This is why 3-D printing is also known as Additive Manufacturing.  In fact the term “printing” can be a little confusing because nothing really is being printed, but is being built instead.   I like to call it “Organic Prototyping.”  And whereas a good analogy to subtractive manufacturing is chiseling, a good analogy for additive manufacturing is baking a cake, where you pour successive layers of batter into a mold and then harden the whole in the oven.

Some vendors in China have 3-D printing capabilities but as 3-D printing is more suited to prototyping samples and very small production runs, I think the technology has only limited application in China right now.  Injection molding is still the way to go for big production runs.

Hank sent me a link to a company in New York that specializes in 3-D design.  I am pasting that link here as it might be helpful to inventors who have a great idea but lack the resources to get expensive prototypes  or molds made in China. 3-d molding company .But ask your vendors in China as well if they have these capabilities. As I said, some do and some don’t.

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