When product design makes the leap to digitally optimized design

Product Design
Posted by Brenna Sniderman

I’ve been reading a lot about 3D printed things lately, and thinking in wonder about how much more complex they seem to be getting. There’s the 3D printed car 1, the 3D printed bridge (created in mid-air) 2, 3D printed skin—it just seems to keep getting more and more complex, more and more sci-fi. More and more . . . well designed?

The role of additive manufacturing (AM) in product design has long been an important one. AM has traditionally been used for rapid prototyping, so much so that the two terms have often been used interchangeably, even if they don’t mean quite the same thing. And yes, companies routinely use AM for this very purpose, to positive effect.

AM can help save time by shortening how long it takes to move from design to prototype, and ease the process by involving fewer stakeholders—after all, if you can print a design right in your office, there’s perhaps less need to work with a third party. But AM can also do a lot more: it can reduce the time and effort it takes to iterate. It can also help speed up decision making, because organizations can see and hold options much faster, and in farther-flung locations—rather than a few precious prototypes held close and guarded zealously to avoid loss or damage, engineers and designers can print prototypes whenever and wherever needed. This way, decision makers get their hands on the thing they’re evaluating that much more easily.

But to suggest that AM’s function in design is best served simply in prototyping is to overlook all the other ways in which it can create value.

Deloitte’s recent article “3D opportunity for product design” explores AM-enabled design more deeply. It delves beyond rapid prototyping to examine the concept of digitally optimal design. Rapid prototyping improves on traditional product design and development, and digitally optimal design represents a further leap. Yes, rapid prototyping often enables companies to deliver new products faster and cheaper, with more design alternatives and fewer investments in things like setup and tooling. But they are still, in the end, the same products as before. With digitally optimal design, on the other hand, final-part production is considered during design, and the end-use versions of the prototypes are also meant to be created using AM. This makes it possible to create products that were previously impossible to make, because traditional manufacturing methods would not have been able to do so: parts may be lighter than would be possible with traditional approaches, can be produced in fewer parts, and can include highly-complex geometries for improved performance.

Integrating AM into production—rather than simply design—takes things one step further. This in turn can create a cascade of other efficiencies: alternative types of sourcing, greater competitiveness, less waste, improved speed to market, ability to reuse and repurpose designs more easily, ability to execute smaller-batch production runs, better aftermarket services, and ability to design for performance with fewer limitations than seen with traditional manufacturing.

To be sure, there are challenges: Who the designer actually is, how design can be done in such a nascent market where software and AM product-design principles have generally not yet caught up, and economic viability can be difficult to determine. Essentially, however, as additive manufacturing continues to evolve, it can—and should—play a deeper role in product design, and beyond. For more information and to learn more, please read “3D opportunity for product design,” on Deloitte University Press (www.dupress.com).

1Greg Watry, “Design for First 3D-Printed Vehicle Fleet Released,” R&D, July 10, 2015.
2Michelle Starr, “Gravity-defying 3D printer to print bridge over water in Amsterdam,” CNet, June 14, 2015.

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