There’s an underestimation among hobbyists and people who haven’t been through full product development cycles around how much time it takes to get a product to market. I was guilty of this myself before I started my company (we thought we’d be shipping within a year). Products need to consider a full feature set, industrial design constraints, usability testing, the realities of high-volume manufacturing, reliability and environmental testing (like drop testing, temp/humidity cycling and vibration studies). Meeting all these needs takes time, and for any product development team, especially a startup, getting a product to market quickly is a high priority. People talk about technologies like 3D printing making it cheaper and faster to manufacture a hardware product. That is not accurate, and I’m here to set the record straight.
3D printing should NOT be considered additive manufacturing. In fact, 3D printing is very rarely used in manufacturing at all – it’s too slow, too expensive, and not structurally sound enough to be a feasible option in 99 percent of high volume products. 3D printing is rapid prototyping and, if utilized correctly, can save huge amounts of time and money in that arena.
With a combination of 3D printing patents expiring, new technologies becoming mainstream and innovative startups coming on the scene, huge improvements have been made in 3D printing over the past decade. When I was a student at MIT just five years ago, only a handful of labs had access to 3D printers, which cost upwards of $100,000 each. Today, the high-end printers might still cost that much, but there are also printers that produce high quality in a more affordable price range. Products from companies like Makerbot, FormLabs and Stratasys range from $4,000 to $7,000 and can deliver very high quality that is excellent for quick functional or form factor prototypes. These new “desktop” 3D printers have also gotten much easier to use, with user-friendly software and new features constantly being updated.
Even if you still can’t afford your own 3D printer, accessibility has vastly improved. Services like ProtoCafe own their own printers and can deliver a 3D print to your door in a matter of days, while innovative startups like Fictiv utilize distributed manufacturing to make use of downtime on their partners’ printers that are closest to you. The times of waiting two weeks to get a 3D print back from a university are over.
For people or companies doing a lot of 3D printing, these machines have a two-fold advantage. The first is the cost of the prints themselves, and the second is the time saved on waiting for the print to get shipped to you. Let’s do some quick math to illustrate this point in more detail.
Assume that a product requires 50 cycles of prototyping, testing and redesigning for all the various components in the product before it’s ready for mass production. Assuming that the test/redesign time between each prototype cycle is constant no matter what prototyping technology was used, 50 cycles is now the limiting factor on how quickly a team can get their product to market. So for every day a team cuts out of each design cycle, they save that number of days times 50 cycles to get their product to market. Working with a 3D printing service like ProtoCafe is crazy fast, but it will still usually take 1-2 days to receive a prototype back from them, rather than the few hours it will take to use your own 3D printer in-house. Assuming that a small hardware startup is burning $150,000 a month, you can save $10,000 per prototype cycle in time alone – at 50 cycles before shipping, that’s $500,000 saved.
Beyond just the time and money saved, 3D printing also allows companies to try more design variations simultaneously and higher risk-reward designs than would traditionally be acceptable. A great engineer will try to develop a good understanding of how a mechanical system will work and function before prototyping it (either through calculations, models, simulations or mental run throughs), but nothing compares to physically testing something. Models and simulations aren’t perfect, and new learnings will always be had when actually running a system in real life. We’ve had tremendous success with this approach, where we’ve simultaneously prototyped two to four different designs that should all work well in theory, but in reality only one of the designs actually worked as intended. By prototyping all at the same time with our own 3D printer, we’ve saved weeks and months of wasted time.
Hardware is hard and manufacturing a hardware product and scaling a company is no easier than it was 10 years ago. The challenges that companies had 10 years ago are still there today – tolerances, quality, speed, cost, supply chain, working across timezones, customer acquisition, customer support, etc. But, prototyping today is far easier, cheaper and faster thanks to 3D printing.
Written by Scott Sundvor, co-founder and chief product officer, Nima