Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Building Multi-Component Functional Models

This week’s blog posting is by Z Corp.’s Derrick Topp. Derrick began his career at Z Corporation as in 1999 as a designer and, in his words, has "had the pleasure of seeing our technology develop since then."   He took a few years off to start his own company designing and building children's furniture and play structures before returning to Z Corp. full time in 2007. He has worked on the ZPrinter 310, Spectrum Z510, ZPrinter 450, ZPrinter 650 and, most recently, the ZPrinter 350. In his spare time, Derrick enjoys chasing his 3 year old son, sailing and mountain biking.

When I first started at ZCorp back in 1999, I was immediately interested in printing and building models of my own designs on the new Z402 that we were all busy developing. Since then our 3D printing technology has improved dramatically and the passion to imagine, design and create interesting models is still there. It's a great feeling to be able to get a design out of my head quickly, onto the computer screen, and then into the printer. Not long after that I would be holding the part in my hand - the essence of rapid prototyping.

The idea of creating functional models was a natural progression from there. I didn't just want a model, I wanted that model to do something and to look good doing it. From rockets that fly (albeit not straight up) to wheels that turn, I have tried out many different ideas with our technology. No matter what I do though, I always come back to boats.

A few years ago, Z Corp. founder Tim Anderson gave me an antique catamaran, a Tornado class, to restore. I spent countless hours sanding, painting, wet sanding and finishing until the lines of the hulls were stuck in my head for good. Not too long ago those lines emerged again thru Rhino and our Z810 and, behold, I had hulls! After infiltration with ZMax and light sanding I painted them white and added other components, piece by piece over a few weeks. Since most of the components are small parts, I could easily print out a few sets for fit very quickly and with no need to infiltrate. As soon as the models were tweaked just right I printed the final versions and infiltrated, sanded and painted. The rudder blades, for example, took about 1 hour of total time from printing to painting.

One real advantage to printing out multiple parts and assembling a model, as opposed to printing the entire assembly as one piece, is that (aside from ease of painting) it brings a real look to the model, and makes for an eye catching display. Not shown in the photos of this version of my boat are the aluminum crossbars and mast, which are still to be installed. The trampoline and the sails will be of real fabric and the stays and shrouds will be realistic wound cable. I hope to cast the small blocks and tackle with bismuth alloy into printed molds. A disadvantage that I ran into was that small features like the rudder pivots scaled way to small to print and had to be beefed up for the desktop version.

So, as the boat progresses, my mind has already started wandering. The next logical step, if I get some free time, is to print a larger (30 inch?) model with thin walls, infiltrate with ZMax, and get a remote control hooked up so I can sail it across the pond. I'll give everybody fair warning if I get back into rockets again!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can designers really have it all?

Guest Blog by John Kawola, CEO, Z Corporation

Design professionals are challenged by three imperatives: speed, quality and affordability. Designers, engineers and architects must create the highest-quality products or buildings fast, while controlling costs at every turn. And while these imperatives have traditionally involved tradeoffs – e.g., “quality can be unaffordable” and “speed jeopardizes quality” – our vision is to enable designers to have it all.

Today, we deliver. I am pleased to announce the ZBuilder Ultra functional prototyping system, which together with our inkjet 3D printers (ZPrinters) and portable 3D laser scanners (ZScanners), enable you to streamline the entire product development process from concept through testing and design verification – an industry first.

For concept modeling through prototyping when you need speed, low cost, and visual appeal, our ZPrinters are the fastest, most affordable and only multicolor 3D printers on the market. And when the material properties of a part are important for final design verification, the new ZBuilder Ultra delivers accurate, durable, ultra-smooth plastic prototypes that rival injection molded parts.

Combine both with the most portable 3D scanners available for reverse engineering, and you really can have it all. From Z Corporation.

I invite you to explore the new ZBuilder Ultra, and since we’re not done innovating, be sure to join the conversation on Twitter @ZCorporation, Facebook, YouTube, and here on our MCAD 3D Printing and Prototyping ZBlog.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Using 3D printing as a communication tool

I use 3D printed parts for many different and specific purposes in my job developing new products. I might print a part very early in the design to better visualize it before going back to CAD for refinements. I might create a mold for casting rubber-like prototype parts. I might print several scale models of printer concepts in order to select the industrial design direction for the next new printer. Or, it might be for any number of other purposes.

When I step back and think about it they all have one thing in common. They all improve the way something is communicated. An example I often use to describe this is when a part needs to be revised. For example, if it is discovered that an injection molded part needs a stiffening rib, a hole moved or a new boss added, I can print the original part and the revised part, both with annotations, arrows and color showing the specific changes. These parts can be sent along with the 3D database to the mold maker for review. The same information can be communicated by sending a 2D engineering drawing or the 3D database alone. But, having the actual revised part in hand has proven to be extremely valuable. The 3D database represents what the part will look like but the 3D printed part is the actual part and can communicate the changes much more clearly.

Our industrial design efforts have also benefited by improved communication. If industrial design is part of your development process you already know that the final product rarely looks like those glossy renderings that are typically used during presentations. The renderings look real but they leave a lot to the imagination. By 3D printing scale models of the design options, we can better visualize the subtleties of the design. The curves, gaps between panels, relative scale of features and other details become clear. Before committing to a direction for any industrial design effort, we always print a scale model. The same holds true for any user interface point. Communicating something as simple as the size or shape of a knob or button is significantly improved with 3D printing.

So, whether a 3D printed part is used for functional testing, ergonomic review, industrial design selection, or some other purpose, the underlying benefit is to improve communication. My examples only scratch the surface of ways that communication is better with 3D printing.

As always, I’m curious to hear about your experience with communication. Are there times when you thought the communication was clear but turned out to not be? Have you selected a design from a photo glossy rendering that turned out to look completely different? Do you think 3D printing might have changed the final result?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How do we use 3DP in our development process?

When I first started here at Z Corp. some 5 years ago I was very familiar with rapid prototyping. Having been involved with new product development in one form or another for nearly 20 years, I thought I understood how prototyping could be used to improve the final design and to get to market faster. It didn’t take long to realize that the prototyping environment was changing fast and that RP and 3D printing in particular could be used in more ways than I had previously thought.

Although the R in RP stands for rapid, what constitutes “rapid” is relative. RP parts (SLA or SLS) from a service bureau typically take two to three days or longer to receive. And, although they are usually worth the cost, they aren’t all that cheap. As the capital cost of equipment comes down and more companies bring RP in house, the usage has gone up. Needless to say, as one of those equipment manufacturers, we have in-house capabilities. So, how do we use those capabilities in our development process?

I thought that instead of listing all the ways we use 3D printing in our development process, I would share some examples that I find particularly useful. One of the first projects I worked on at Z Corp. required the redesign of a small plastic injection molded part. The task was simple but required a modification to the mold. In the past I might have used a prototype to check the modifications before ordering an expensive change to the mold. In this case I did that but I also printed a part two times larger than the actual size and annotated the changes with arrows and text that clearly showed the changes right on the part. I sent this part to the mold maker and he was blown away. The communication about what had changed was clear and he was able to better visualize what needed to be done to the tool and how that would affect things like mold flow and venting.

Another example I find interesting is prototyping rubber-like parts. Again, in the past, the process from a service bureau might have looked like this: create an SLA of the part, cast rigid urethane around the part to create a mold and then pour soft durometer urethane into the mold to create the final part. In developing a new print head parking station, I quickly realized that printing the actual mold and skipping the first two steps in that process had become common practice at Z Corp. I used SolidWorks mold creation tool to design the mold. I then printed the mold, sealed it with mold release, and poured the urethane directly into it. What I love about this process is that I don’t have to wait a week to find out the design isn’t quite right or that I need a different durometer.

One last thing worth mentioning is using 3D printed parts for functional testing. The example that stands out in my mind is a six-port vacuum valve that is used in all of our new ZPrinters. The concept was simple, but the design was novel, and we had no idea if it would actually work as intended. It involved a gear, an inlet port, and six outlet ports. The idea was to rotate the inlet port to the appropriate outlet port to direct vacuum to the appropriate location in the printer. The components were printed, refined and reprinted. After several iterations the design was finalized. Before spending money for plastic injection molds, we printed several valve assemblies, installed them in printers and ran them for several months to test functionality and overall performance. The testing results gave us very high confidence that the final valve would work as planned.

What I am curious about is if you have in-house capability, how do you use it? And, if you don’t have an in-house capability, how do you use RP in your process and how do you think it would be different if you had a 3D printer in house?