Imagine this: Your startup is only weeks away from its first investor meeting. You found materials from the hardware store and a local thrift shop to make your first prototype. It works perfectly—but sort of looks like a fifth grade science project.
Or, let’s say your website finally works and online ordering is about to go live. That’s when your relative calls to point out a fatal flaw in the design of your product. The fix is a simple bracket, but every manufacturer you talk to says it will be months before the size you need could be made.
In both scenarios, speed and cost are critical factors. Additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, and virtual inventory solutions can seriously accelerate your ability to move from prototype to production, or fatal flaw to solution, in a cost-effective way.
Advances in additive materials and new printing technologies have also reduced the cost of 3D printing, and leveled the playing field for startups and large businesses alike. From rapid prototyping to on-demand manufacturing, additive techniques are allowing startups to upend convention and think differently about growth.
It is likely that you’ve created a rapid prototype before, as the concept is nothing new: businesses and entrepreneurs have always wanted to test out new ideas fast. The prospect of being first to market for product innovation is a powerful draw.
While every product prototyping initiative is ultimately customized to your needs, there are some core features to the process:
Because of technological advances, prototyping can happen faster now, to kickstart production. "For startups, speed to market and flexibility are key,” explains Pat McCusker, COO of Fast Radius: an additive manufacturing leader and UPS partner. “Industrial-grade additive manufacturing provides both.”
For startups, there are a number of potential benefits of additive manufacturing, but the biggest three factors are time, cost, and design freedom. Although we will cover primarily prototyping applications in this article, it is important to mention that there are numerous applications for additive manufacturing in full industrial-grade production.
Additive processes can reduce the time between design and production. This is compared to other methods with geometry and material-limiting processes such as computer-controlled (CNC) machining. The broad catalogue of additive materials also creates opportunities to prototype with end-use materials much sooner. “Startups developing new physical products can now design, iterate, and produce end-use parts in weeks instead of months, leveraging the latest additive manufacturing technologies and materials,” says McCusker.
Additive is also less costly, particularly for smaller runs and for prototyping. Previously, you might have needed to use machine tooling to prototype with a certain metal or polymer. Tooling is expensive and can prove prohibitive for startups, where every dollar counts. But with the combination of 3D printing and the latest design-focused software, you can be less restricted in your design. You can challenge traditional design frameworks, creating more lightweight structures and unusual shapes.
To better understand additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, it helps to know how they differ from traditional processes.
With subtractive manufacturing processes, you’ll always start with a larger volume of material (like metal, plastic, or porcelain) than you need for the end product. The material is cut using processes like machining or milling to achieve the desired end result. Compare it to a sculptor practicing their craft. The end product appears from the larger piece of the same material, like a sculpture emerging as the artist chips at a block of marble.
Other traditional manufacturing processes, like injection molding, can be helpful when you’re mass-producing parts at high volume. They require significant upfront costs and focused engineering to create a detailed tool that can be used over and over again to create a part. But if you’re anticipating design changes, you’re locked in. And if you have a low-volume prototype, the price per piece is still high.
“Printed parts allow for more creativity in design, by opening a whole new world of geometry possibilities,” says Hunt.
This is particularly helpful for service parts that need to be delivered quickly to keep a manufacturing line in operation. "Whereas previously you might have had to pay to store that service parts throughout a network of strategically-located warehouses around the world, now you’re able to access that critical part digitally, and print it much closer to the point of need and use." says Hunt.
Additive manufacturing and virtual warehousing offsets the pressures of production in several ways:
Digital manufacturing will be a key driver in the next wave of industrial innovation. The dual promise of additive manufacturing and virtual warehousing represents a radically different way of navigating supply chains and international trade. Instead of physically sending parts across borders, we may be trading in digital files instead, in what Fast Radius CEO Lou Rassey describes as the blurring of manufacturing and logistics.
Companies like Fast Radius focus on helping businesses identify applications for additive manufacturing, and then moving those applications into production. The result? Significant acceleration in product development and time-to-market.
Take one Fast Radius customer: a startup building a next-generation robot for warehouse automation. Working with Fast Radius engineers on the robot’s design and production, the company was able to incorporate five additive manufacturing technologies into product development.
This customer is now ramping up production of the robot to thousands of units per month, using production-grade additive technologies. Adopting an additive approach shortened the product development lifecycle by more than 18 months.
Through parts consolidation and reduced warehousing, Fast Radius companies are often able to get custom product to a customer’s door within 24-48 hours of ordering it, supported by UPS’s global logistics network. "Together, UPS with Fast Radius enable a unique business case for customers to leverage the full potential value of digital manufacturing,” Hunt says of the partnership. “With co-located printing and shipping centers customers can not only bring manufacturing dramatically closer to the point of consumption, but get their products in record time."
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