This week, a look into how companies are using 3D printing in their operations.

Industrial designer Ross Stevens is a senior lecturer at Victoria University's school of design, whose research interests include additive manufacturing (3D printing) technologies. He is also a founder, along with Gary Morrison, of Pure Audio - a company that produces high-end amplifiers.

What are some of the trends you're currently seeing in 3D printing, particularly in terms of how smaller businesses are using it?

I think one of the problems 3D printing has is we hear so many marvellous stories about things it could do, yet in terms of how small businesses are applying it we're yet to see many runs on the board. There's a problem around education with this technology, because it's not one process that does everything; there are a huge range of machines with hugely different capabilities, so you need to have an understanding of that and the process of printing before you can start to understand how you might be able to apply it.

Certainly one of the changes that has occurred in New Zealand industry that I think will help with the uptake of 3D printing is the shift from businesses being analogue to digital.

So that's shifting from taking hand drawn designs, then making and setting up tools on an analogue machine that stomps out the same thing based on those designs, to using digital files which tell a machine how to cut the shape you want and so on. From there, making the leap from a digital making environment to a 3D printing environment is not such a big one.

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You've talked about 3D printing potentially offering New Zealand a particular competitive advantage. Why?

New Zealanders are very good at thinking up new ideas and if 3D printing is a platform that allows us more easily to turn ideas into commercial products I think it's a real boon for us. In some other countries people aren't as good at thinking outside of the box, and I don't think those countries will see the same advantage from this technology.

Pure Audio's 3D printed amplifier remote.
Pure Audio's 3D printed amplifier remote.

How have you used 3D printing in your own business?

What we're trying to do is use digital technologies to make different products. For example, we recently 3D printed a remote. We're a classic example of a company that's too small to make a good one using traditional manufacturing processes; to tool a remote traditionally would easily cost $100,000, and if you're a small business and only ever intend to make a few thousand of them you can't afford to do that.

We originally made the remote in timber using CNC machining, but it involved a lot of time using an expensive machine. So we thought we'd try to 3D print one. The beauty with 3D printing is we could get a much more detailed result at a price that was cost competitive.

What were the challenges of that process?

I initially used the original design file for our timber remote, but it turned out to be way too expensive to 3D print that. So we had to keep refining the design to make it better and more cost effective. The process made me realise just how much I had to rethink my design thinking, even though I've been using these technologies for a long time.

For example, with traditional processes you pay more for added complexity, but when you 3D print the complexity of the design is not usually what dictates the cost; it's more about how long it takes to deposit the material. The 3D printed remote we designed is covered in tiny triangles, for example, which is something we couldn't consider with conventional machining, but was relatively simple to 3D print.

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COMING UP: The 'lean' concept involves reducing waste in a business and more effectively using available resources. It's often something we think of big manufacturing companies doing, but what are some smaller businesses that have embraced lean thinking? If you've got a story to tell, drop me a note.
What do you think are some of the future trends we might see in terms of how small businesses could embrace this technology?

I just think a lot of traditional barriers to product development will disappear. For example, I've got a friend who wants to build a gearbox; he's a farmer and he's had this idea knocking around in his head for years. Gearboxes are complex things, but they're probably not that hard to print so I said 'let's find out if this mad idea will work'. He's now going to 3D print a prototype. The threshold to turning a mad idea into something you can actually test is becoming very low. In the past you needed a huge workshop and a heap of time to find out if an idea like that was even partly useful, but the kind of modern day tinkering you can do with 3D printing is a lot more accessible.