3D solid model software has come a long way. It makes complex finite element analysis an integrated feature so that new designs can be explored in hours, rather than days or weeks of building prototype parts and making changes. New product development costs have been falling consistently since the advent of this technology.
The logical extension of 3D solid modeling software is 3D rapid prototyping. This technology has also gone through significant changes over the last twenty years to reduce the cost and make it available to a wide audience. Development of file format conventions have made the link between 3D solid modeling and 3D printing very straightforward.
In its early days, 3D printing started out as stereolithography. This term was coined for the two laser beams that were used to cure liquid polymer in a large tank. Precision steering and focusing of laser beams has been around for a while from the laser printer world. Adapting the laser printer technology resulted in tremendous precision with part accuracy of .001″ in any dimension being easily achieved. This made evaluating complex fit and function very easy for manufacturers. At its inception, stereolithograyphy machines were $250,000. The high price tag made stereolithography the domain of Fortune 500 companies. But for high volume, complex parts like intake manifolds for automotive engines, stereolithography was, and still is, a great way to save money when a new part design is required.
Heat curing a liquid polymer gave way to heating a low melt point polymer to a liquid and dispensing it in small beads as a lower cost solution for making complex shapes. To the point where there are a wide variety of solid model printers in a desktop package that are priced under $20,000 with really sophisticated features like multicolor part generation, and new low end machines coming in from China at $1500.
Experimentation with different chemistries has created a wide range of options with regard to material strength and imparting unique properties to the parts. One variation is ABS plastic that is available with glass fill. This produces much higher strength parts than the polymers. Another whole branch of 3D printing is dedicated to making metal parts that are too complex or expensive for conventional machining. Amazingly, the 3D-based solutions are resulting in much lower costs.
The implications are transformational for new product development. First, the combination of 3D solid model software and 3D printing technology taken together represent an order of magnitude reduction in the cost of developing new products. The technology make more information available leading to, hopefully, better design. This also means that the amortization cost of the development activity is also greatly reduced. Leading to better goods at lower prices.
The second transformation is that lower development costs mean that the technology can be applied to lower price products. Previously, these technologies were only cost effective in automotive and medical instrument design applications. Now, the potential exists to dramatically improve products at lower price and volume levels. Sneakers, for example, have been impacted by this technology leading to a wide range of new products incorporating a variety of new ideas.
And the transformation is just beginning. And all of it mechatronics driven.