The rapid expansion of prototyping with 3D printing

One of 3D printing’s strongest selling points is its prototyping capabilities. A single 3D printer can produce several iterations of a design in the same day for just a few dollars. That’s a considerable efficiency gain over the weeks and thousands of dollars it takes to do the same thing with injection molding. For this reason, Reebok has been using 3D printing for prototyping since the ‘90s. But prototyping with 3D printing isn’t limited to million dollar companies; personal 3D printers have prototyping capabilities too.

Take, for example, the WIDE BODY strap for the Pebble. The Pebble smartwatch was one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, raising over $10 million. You can get one here. There are all kinds of colorful straps for the Pebble now too, so you can personalize and match it to your outfit. The straps are all thin, though, making the Pebble look bulky. Jason Hilbourne decided to do something about that, and he came up with WIDE BODY. These straps are about the same width as the Pebble, giving it a more professional look. What’s really interesting about these straps is that they were prototyped with 3D printing and without an actual Pebble in hand. “Eric and the Pebble team posted a 3D CAD model of their device in January. We learned about it on Reddit, downloaded the file, and 3D printed it the same day. We tried a few different iterations of WIDE BODY before we landed on the design you see here. Our approach to fast/casual prototyping yields all kinds of advantages during the design process. We can explore diverse concepts, find flaws, and even learn unexpected use modes. For WIDE BODY, the greatest benefit from our prototyping was speed. Some of the models from the video were completed before Pebble even arrived!”

If you don’t have a 3D printer, you can still use 3D printing services for prototyping like Dave Basulto did with his iOgrapher. Dave is a media teacher, and his concern with the high costs of filming equipment led him to design a mount that turns the iPad mini into a robust filming device. He sketched his idea on the iPad and, with the help of a mechanical engineer, turned the design into a CAD file. He sent that file to Shapeways and had a fully functioning prototype for (probably) less than $200. The iOgrapher has a tripod mount, three shoe mounts for audio and lighting equipment, a lens mount, and grips on each side, making an iPad mini incredibly versatile.

And about those high costs and long turnaround times with injection molding… Stratasys has a 3D printed solution to cheaper and faster mold casting. By printing ice cream spoon molds in their Digital ABS material, over 100 injection shots of polypropylene caused no visible deformation to the tools. The printing of the molds took only seven hours with a cost saving of 75% over steel casting. Impressive.

So if you’ve got a great idea that needs prototyping, consider a 3D printing service. Better yet, buy a 3D printer. It will probably (definitely) pay for itself.