3D Printing Supports Collaboration with Suppliers Around the Globe

Fast, affordable 3D prints facilitate interaction between product design and manufacturing.

By Terry Wohlers

"3Dprinting" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the March/April 2005 issue.

Efficient collaboration-not only among engineers on a design team, but between product designers and vendors, suppliers, and manufacturing specialists-has long been a strategic objective for many manufacturing organizations.

The term "collaboration," which Webster's New World Dictionary defines as "to work together, especially in some literary, artistic, or scientific undertaking" has become a common buzzword in product development circles. Many manufacturers have adopted design practices and invested in technologies, such as 3D computer-aided design (CAD), product data management (PDM), and teleconferencing systems, which support increased collaboration based on the rationale that by involving more people in the design process, manufacturers can achieve greater design creativity that results in fewer design errors and higher quality products.

But how do product developers collaborate effectively in the current, global product design and manufacturing environment? Today, product design often occurs at different locations, and manufacturing facilities are often located on the other side of the world. Unlike internal collaboration, during which engineers generally speak the same language and have common work experiences to draw from, working with overseas vendors, suppliers, and manufacturing partners presents unique communication challenges that make efficient collaboration difficult.

In addition to language and cultural barriers, many international partners use different CAD systems and are asleep when design engineers are awake, and vice versa. CAD files, 3D images, e-mail, and teleconferences can be effective communication vehicles for supporting collaborative design reviews, but nothing bolsters collaboration with suppliers on a worldwide scale like a physical prototype part, and today many manufacturers are using fast, affordable, 3D-printed models to facilitate and streamline interaction with partners located around the globe.

What You See is What You Get

The greatest benefit of using 3D-printed models and prototype parts to collaborate with production partners is that 3D prints leave no room for any doubt, confusion, or misunderstanding. High-resolution prototypes constitute the universal language of engineering. It does not matter if the person receiving a 3D print speaks another language, works in some other CAD package, or uses a different measurement or dimensioning system. The actual physical part simply imparts more information than any other means of communication.

Because manufacturing partners can touch, feel, and hold a 3D print, they can be far more thorough, accurate, and efficient in assessing potential tooling, production, and assembly problems. In the case of plastic injection-molded parts, for example, overseas mold specialists can use the physical part to identify areas of insufficient draft, unnecessary features such as undercuts that increase the cost of mold, or cosmetically displeasing knit-line locations.Will mating parts fit correctly? Will non-moving parts interfere with moving parts in an assembly? Will a mold wear too quickly? These are the types of questions that partners can more readily answer by evaluating an actual proto-type.

Something as seemingly trivial as the placement of a company logo can become a big deal if a manufacturing partner gets it wrong; a misstep that is far less likely when a designer supplies a 3D print.

By sending 3D-printed models, or e-mailing STL file attachments that can be printed at the other end, manufacturers can collaborate more effectively with overseas partners and more efficiently work through potential production issues upfront, before they become costly or result in protracted delays. A physical model translates the same in any language, and 3D printing provides manufacturers with a fast, cost-effective means for improving communication and interaction with domestic and international partners.

Streamlined, Cost-Effective Production

Strottman International (Irvine, CA) is one company that is benefiting from the use of 3D prints for collaborating with overseas suppliers.

A leading manufacturer in the extremely competitive promotional toy industry, Strottman develops design concepts in the U.S. and works with production facilities in China.

Aside from creativity, the most important aspects of Strottman's designs are safety and material usage. Strottman's products must pass rigid safety requirements because they are marketed to children. Material cost is also important because of the large volumes and slim margins involved.

The company's engineers use finite element analysis (FEA) and 3D prints to validate design concepts and make sure that they will satisfy all applicable safety standards, including a 100-pound bite test. Instead of throwing plastic at areas of concern, they also use FEA and 3D prints to optimize designs so they use as little material as possible without sacrificing strength and safety.

Sending a 3D print of the final, validated design to its production facilities in China helps the company ensure that the final product matches the analyzed, validated design.

Collaboration, communication, and manufacturing needs vary greatly from company to company and industry to industry. But in today's global product design and manufacturing environment, in which design and manufacturing often take place at different locations around the world, efficient collaboration has become critically important to avoiding unnecessary costs and delays.

3D prints facilitate efficient collaboration because they provide little room for misinterpretation. With 3D prints, what you see is what you get.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). Visit wohlersassociates.com for more information.