Three Tips for Fast and Furious 3D Prototyping

Never before have engineers had access to such a bounty of tools to get creative with design. Advances in simulation and 3D modeling software make it easier than ever to dream up and refine concepts that would have never have been feasible with past-generation tools. Couple the freeform shape possibilities with new office-style 3D printers, and the engineering desktop transforms itself into a bona fide DIY (do-it-yourself) workstation for fast and furious prototyping.



The flood of new 3D printer offerings, which look and feel a lot like the staple desktop printer, promise a whole new level of prototyping freedom. Forget about eating up precious development hours as you wait for a dedicated in-house or third-party rapid prototyping service to turnaround one possible prototype. Today’s desktop 3D printer/3D modeling tool powerhouse lets engineers flex their design muscle on their own time, using their own dedicated resources.

Enhancing Design Exploration

The promise of the DIY design workflow is indeed enticing.

Instead of sending one (okay, maybe two) best-case design alternatives off to the internal prototyping department to prove out a particular concept, engineers are encouraged to crank out as many early prototypes as they see fit. This 3D printer-dominated workflow is great for enhanced design exploration as it encourages a more iterative design process. At the same time, seeing and touching a physical prototype, even at the onset of conception, goes a long way in helping engineers pinpoint potential problem areas far earlier when it is easier and cheaper to alter course.

The Problem with 3D Printing

Not to burst the bubble, but there is a bit of a wrinkle in this 3D design-inspired nirvana. Just because it seems like the sky is the limit on design possibilities doesn’t mean it’s always easy for the average engineer to produce these early-stage prototypes effectively on a 3D printer, despite their new-found accessibility.

While some designs may be turnkey for 3D printing output, a greater number are not, especially those funky organic shapes and complex lattice structures now possible thanks to advanced 3D CAD and modeling tools.

Don’t mistake the above for a lack of enthusiasm for 3D printing —I couldn’t feel stronger that the possibilities for design freedom are only now just beginning—engineers need to be prepared to expand their repertoire. Specifically, they need to come up to speed quickly on a bunch of new constraints if they want their flurry of design ideas to translate nicely to the world of 3D printing.


With PTC Creo, you can check for problems, like walls that are too thin, before sending designs to the printer.

Three Considerations for 3D Printing Success

With that in mind, here are three considerations for readying 3D printer-optimized designs:

1. Get acquainted with the build. Not the BOM or the latest design iteration, but rather the actual size of the 3D printer’s build envelope or volume. This coveted real estate will vary depending on the printer model, and while a bigger build envelope will enable you to produce a larger part, it’s not just size that matters. Understanding the orientation of the build envelope when designing the part is critical to successful use of 3D printing without time and material waste. With a clear picture of the environment, engineers can optimize model orientation for 3D printing—in some cases even split a model in two, perhaps—which goes a long way in establishing desktop 3D printing as a staple prototyping tool.

2. Rethink use of support structures. This is a big one and a potential hurdle for many engineers. Most 3D printing technologies, whether it’s Direct Laser Metal Sintering (DLMS) or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) use support structures as part of the process, which are eventually removed. These scaffold-like structures are integrated at certain angles to stabilize a part as the detailed features are built. However, if not accounted for properly in the design, the support structures can cause a range of issues, from trapping excess material from a 3D print job to popping up in hard to reach places, making their removal difficult. In some cases, the structures can actually create stresses during the 3D print, which end up deforming the part and resulting in a bad build.

3. Design for materials. The new crop of desktop 3D printers, and especially departmental office units, offer an abundance of materials, and the options just keep stacking up. Knowing the qualities and limitations of your designated printer’s materials choices should be another constraint considered during design. In this way, engineers can avoid overdesigning parts in the hopes of increasing structural integrity, which runs counter to the trend of leveraging the 3D modeling software and 3D printer duo to create lightweight, more organic shaped parts.


What the Future of 3D Printing Looks Like

Beyond building fluency in 3D printer-led design, engineers should also look for 3D modeling tools to get better at the job. Many of the CAD providers, including PTC, are partnering with leading 3D printer companies to add new features to their CAD tools. Thanks in part to a relationship with Stratasys, for example, PTC Creo 3.0 M040 now makes it easier to prepare and check models for 3D printing, including helping with the proper build orientation and for optimizing placement of support materials.

So get ready for a design revolution, but be prepared to study up. The design flexibility and prototyping freedom will be well worth the effort.

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