Going flat out toward a 3D future

By Alexander Speirs

A centrepiece confection made with a ChefJet Pro 3D food printer on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
A centrepiece confection made with a ChefJet Pro 3D food printer on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Fisher & Paykel Healthcare is just one New Zealand business that has seen a significant impact in their innovation processes with the implementation of 3D printers.

"In terms of the innovation process, the turnover of ideas is much quicker," says Peter Graham, product development manager at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

"Where previously you might have been able to test one idea per week, now it's well within reason to trial ten. Sometimes innovation is having an idea and then going through the trial & error, and the faster that can be achieved the better."

In the past an engineer needed to have a lot of information in order to create a prototype for an idea; a process which previously required in-depth knowledge of how a part would be designed and then built which was both a knowledge and time intensive process.

"For us now the prime thing is to have a good idea and the ability to create and prove that idea is rapidly truncated because as long as they can draw it, they can make it and have it on their desk the next day," says Graham.

"If you can see a result fast, it's natural to be more enthusiastic about it. If you have an idea and it takes quite a long time to play out, you lose your chain of thought and the innovation process can stutter."

F&P Healthcare took a cautious approach to assimilating 3D printing into their business, testing the waters with a second hand machine because of the unknowns and risk associated with purchasing a new printer.

"I had seen a couple of example where it was working well in other companies and I thought with a second hand machine it was low risk and we would have enough work to keep one printer going," says Graham. "Very quickly though we couldn't keep up. We were having to work late into the night to keep the printer running which allowed us to argue the case to get a second."

Today F&P Healthcare boasts a number of 3D printers at their Tamaki headquarters, each with different capabilities and purposes. Graham estimates that they were producing 250 items in their printers every week that would be "the most of any company in New Zealand".

For F&P Healthcare, 3D printing is not only delivering significant cost and time savings, but better products as well. "If you have a timeframe, often there's a constraint there on when the product is expected to be released. If you can do more in that time frame with a lower number of people and less capital, that means you can afford to do more iterations and trials."

Where previously time and money constraints would limit the number of prototype products which could be produced, the cost and time frame required by 3D printers has enabled the company to test a bevy of ideas that previously might not have made it off the drawing board. Using traditional manufacturing technologies, the turn around time could take up to 2 months and $20,000 to produce a prototype, making mistakes and further adjustments an expensive process. Using 3D printing, prototypes could be produced overnight and cost as little as $100 to produce.

"It's allowed us to take alternate paths. If you're constrained by traditional manufacturing techniques the innovation and development process takes so much longer and you don't have opportunity to explore all of the different paths and ideas that could make for a better product," explains Graham.

The next frontier for Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and their 3D printers involves the use of 3D scanners, which analyze objects and replicate them as digital files that could then be used as a design for 3D printers. "You could use scanning to work out the shape of what something might be or to try it out specifically for a person. If these devices are used to customize products specifically for one patient then that's when a scanner becomes the most important. That's a developing thing for us, marrying up scanning with printing."

For business in New Zealand, 3D printing is not limited to the realm of big corporates. Vivenda, founded by Daniel Dillen, is bringing 3D printing to the masses by working with business and individuals for small run projects. "Big companies like Fisher & Paykel have their own machines but overall if you need a one-off job done there's only two or three places you can go to, but what we deliver is a finished product that can be tested or shown to clients, ready for large scale manufacturing," says Dillen.

What initially began as small jobs to help Dillen justify the purchase of a printer for his personal design work has become a fully-fledged business. "I have people coming from architectural and engineering firms, designers, artists, inventors, marketers. People who don't come from backgrounds familiar with 3D printers who want to utilize the unique abilities of the printers."

"I'm thoroughly surprised that more small businesses don't have high-end consumer level printers. Architectural and product design firms could use these relatively inexpensive pieces of technology to be able to do more work in-house and rapidly improve their production processes".

Dillen thinks that previous encounters with 3D printers and rapid prototyping in the past that haven't been effective are discouraging their widespread adoption amongst businesses. "A lot of people are still stuck in the older model of thinking with 3D printers and haven't quite caught on that the machines are affordable and the materials are getting really cheap. It's just continuing to progress in leaps and bounds too."

New Zealanders have been at the vanguard of 3D printing for a number of years. Tim Carr established Mindkits in 2008 and has worked with Vik Olliver and Diamondage to develop New Zealand made 3D printers. They come pre-assembled or as kit sets and their affordability is seeing them find their place at both the consumer level and in the classroom.

- NZ Herald

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