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Invention, Innovation and 3D Printing

by Katherine J Stephenson, PhD



3D Printing is both less and more than the hype that has surrounded it for the last thirty years. It will not put machine shops out of business, it cannot outperform every other fabrication method out there, and it will not turn every 6th grader into the next technical wiz kid. However, 3D printing has created some significant changes to how we invent and improve the products in our lives. As such, anyone engaged in that process, whether the head of an R&D department or an independent entrepreneur, should understand just what 3D printing does.

This is not just a basic understanding of the technology, but knowing the strategy of how, when and where to use it effectively. Looking forward, innovators should understand how any new manufacturing technology (of which 3D printing is just one example), can drive innovation.

A machinist family tradition

First, some disclosure: I am the daughter, grand-daughter, and great-granddaughter of machinists. Like them, I spent my formative years at a workbench building things. Unlike them, I had the opportunity to attend college and become an engineer, a designer and a creator of new things. I have invested years in the intense study of the design process, and its sources of inspiration, with far too much time in front of a whiteboard with a stack of sticky notes. Even so, few things spur my imagination like the tools on the workbench. Tools and processes are what connect those neon sticky notes to the reality we want them to be.

Too often, in my career experience, manufacturing engineers are considered the professional killjoys of new ideas. They look at sketches, renders and hypothetical ideas and become the voice of doom chanting, “But how are you going to make it?” This stereotype only holds true when one fails to understand, just like every other industry, manufacturing technology is constantly striving to become better and faster. It experiences its own rapid leaps in technology. The invention of any technology that allows for part geometry, processes or materials that were previously impossible (or at least very expensive and time-consuming) leads to new opportunities.

The value of chains

New product developers need those opportunities badly to stay competitive. Every product on the market is the output of a long and expensive chain of employees, materials, and equipment. The more regulated the product, the longer and more expensive the chain. A revision to an existing product is a tweak in the chain; completely new inventions involve building the chain along with the idea.

This is a source of great disappointment for every car enthusiast. No matter how gorgeous a concept car will appear in a showroom, the final production unit will look very much like the previous year’s model. Automakers must balance their new designs with the cost efficiency of reusing links in the old model’s chain. An expensive chain can still produce a cheap product if enough of the product is produced and sold. However, as the market gets smaller, as the product becomes more specialized, new chains are built on smaller and smaller foundations, until that chain breaks and the product cannot be made.

3D printing new chains

What does this have to do with 3D printing? 3D printing makes the creation of new chains cheaper. Aside from the parts to be included in the final product, many of the links in each new endeavor require the creation of custom physical objects. These include models for market studies, technical prototypes to evaluate mechanical designs, performance test fixtures, manufacturing tooling, assembly jigs, quality assessment gauges, demo models for sales…there’s a very long list. Each of these objects are produced in such small quantities that the expense to design and manufacture them far exceeds the cost of the product they are used to produce. A plastic part that is sold for a quarter is made inside a hardened steel mold that took three months and 100,000 dollars to machine. A 3D printer makes the same part for ten dollars, but without the six-figure tool, and it makes it in 30 minutes. Apply this to each of the items listed previously and the cost (in both time and money) of that chain shrinks rapidly.

3D Printing has had a particularly large impact on the early stages of design and prototyping. Because creating physical things cost money, each prototype can be viewed as an investment being made on the assumption that it will return something of value. This may be the answer to a mechanical question, feedback from a user group, or a refinement of a new manufacturing process. What 3D printing does is change the rate of return on those investments by an order of magnitude.

I’ve designed new medical catheter handles that took three weeks and $500 each to produce in 2006. By 2012, we were printing similar parts for $30, which meant we were ordering quantities of thirty to forty pieces instead of three. When we had three units, they were handled with kid gloves and only used when necessary. With thirty, they were tested extensively, shipped to a dozen doctors for feedback in the far corners of the country, and provided peace of mind via multiple back-ups for our clinical trial operators.

Adopting 3D printing

When thinking about how to integrate this technology into a company, consider how the company currently obtains physical parts for their development projects. If the company is large enough to support an existing model shop with the necessary operation staff, they can take on very large, high volume 3D printing systems that can significantly improve the turn-around times needed to produce parts. If the company is small and relies heavily on a wide range of different suppliers to produce, this is ideal for partnering with a good 3D printing service provider. The middle case is the most difficult to act on. If a growing company is repeatedly ordering small parts out of similar materials and has engineering staff that can be trained to operate it efficiently, buying a mid-range printer can be a good investment. However, this requires a careful analysis of the total cost of ownership for the machine, including just how much time your engineers spend “calibrating” the machine by printing objects off Thingiverse.

Besides making the overall innovation process cheaper, 3D printing also changes the nature of what can be made. The design limits of a part (how tall, how thin, how strong and in what shape) are directly linked to the process used to produce it. Injection-molded parts need consistent wall thickness and a clear path to separate the halves of the mold. Parts made on a lathe need to be radially symmetric. Engineers and designers have developed an entire professional practice known as design for manufacturing (DFM) that encompasses this entire body of caveats and guidelines. While 3D printing has its own manufacturing limitations, it lacks many of the restrictions associated with traditional methods of molding and machining. This includes restrictions on part geometry, part strength and part materials.

The two overall opportunities offered by 3D printing – changing how we design and changing what we can design – offer us a third gift: criteria to assess future technologies of impact. 3D Printing is just one innovation. There will be others for smart entrepreneurs to keep an eye out for. Any manufacturing technology that cheapens the chain of new products, or makes previously expensive or non-existent parts attainable, is an opportunity for innovation.

For example, 3D printing itself will continue to develop over the next decade. Just like the material limitations that kept 3D printing as a “prototyping tool” for the first 20 years, developments in design software and post-processing of the printed parts will greatly expand how it can be used in the next decade.

Looking ahead

Today our software struggles to process something as complex as a generic mesh to reduce the printing volume of parts. Future software will use artificial intelligence and borrowed computational power (cloud computing) to form potentially millions of functional microfeatures throughout a design. Implants could be given a customized surface with precise micro-environments to support the growth of targeted cells, and discourage the undesired ones, without the use of drugs. The dynamic properties of each part in a complex moving assembly could be precisely shifted by changing the mesh density inside of what appears to be a solid piece.  Imagine optical lenses with thousands of individually oriented and AI optimized angled facets, shifting, splitting and bouncing light in full 3D.

These are just opportunities that affect what can be made; there are many, many more waiting to accelerate and optimize the way we make things. As much as 3D printing has impacted part fabrication, the ability to rapidly quote the manufacture of new parts has been one of the biggest game-changers in modern manufacturing. Twenty years ago, getting a quote for a basic part from a machine shop in less than a week was considered a good service. Now, there are online fabrication services that have instant, automated quoting via AI software, making the purchase of custom parts nearly as simple as buying any existing product online.

The rest of the chain is still waiting for this level of automation. “Generative Design” is being used on single parts, but there is no program that will tell you the best way to put them together into an assembled product. After the parts are made, there is no “debugger” for working out the most efficient tasks to assemble them in a factory. The list of high skill, labor-intensive processes go on from there. Thanks to 3D printing and the digitalization of older fabrication techniques, custom parts are now commonplace. Truly custom products will require innovation through the full length of the chain.

Leaders in new product development cannot rely on existing manufacturing limitations to determine what can and cannot be made five, ten or twenty years from now. Each assumption runs the risk of becoming a missed opportunity. Instead, just as we forecast the change in markets and societies to innovate effectively, we need to imagine the evolution of our tools as well.

Dean Kamen once said, “Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.”  As entrepreneurs apply their ideas to the world’s problems, they must keep an eye out for the tech to see the innovation through. Sometimes, the greatest of these technologies are not the ones that end up in a final product. Like 3D printing, they are simply the technologies that (literally) made the idea a reality.

* * *

Dr. Kate Stephenson is a Stanford University Mechanical Engineering PhD with over 20 years of design experience, 15 of those spent exclusively in new medical device products. She is the founder of Dyad Engineering, a consulting firm that provides highly personalized, strategic consulting services to accelerate new medical technologies to their next milestone. Built on both deep technical knowledge and broad industry experience acquired from over 40 device projects, Kate focuses on short-term, high-value projects that de-risk new initiatives, and provide clear, actionable pathways for growth. She is interested in start-ups and new product initiatives, where she can provide service as an on-call technology executive to fill the “gap” between founding and funding that can support high quality, full-time hire.

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