A common question visitors ask when I show them around my workplace, specifically the workshop is “Do you have a 3D printer?” Well, we do. In fact, we have a couple of desktop 3D printers.
The press exposure the technology has had has certainly been appropriate, because being able to print in 3D is quite frankly the nearest thing to magic! However, although affordable 3D printers have hit the headlines in the last couple of years, the technology has been around for a couple of decades. At 4c Design, we’ve been 3D printing since we started up in 2002. So they are important and extremely cool, but they are also simply another tool.
For me, the crucial point is using the right tool for the job. Sometimes that’s a complex Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machine, sometimes it’s best to get hands on with a hacksaw. Although 3D printing technology is amazing it often doesn’t give an advantage in the early stages of product development or even in the final prototypes.
Let me explain: we build different types of prototypes as we progress through our product design process:
During intense brainstorming we create a bunch of ideas that just need to be tested. This is where the 4c Design workshop comes into its own. In just a couple of hours we can grab bits and pieces from our vast materials collection, get our hands on a wide range of tools and build and test ‘proof of concept’ prototypes.
Usually the prototypes built during the problem solving stage are crude, wobbly and not quite right. The next step is to refine the prototypes we want to take forward. This might involve researching and sourcing alternative parts or machining components. 3D printing can be useful at this stage for small components that would take a long time to machine. Sometimes we even find the perfect component in our bank of materials and parts from past projects!
At this stage we invest time in making accurate components designed in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software by one of our engineers or designers. Depending on the component we might machine these using our CNC lathe or mill, use one of our 3D printers or outsource to specialist providers if particularly high tolerance prototypes are required.
The methods we use for final prototypes are highly project specific – involving anything from complete in-house manufacture and assembly to full out-sourcing to one, often more than one, of our network of trusted suppliers.
As you can tell, our workshop, its wide range of machines and our hands-on staff are the heart and soul of our product design process. That’s why we’ve chosen to invest in our workshop ‘toolkit’ and ensure our staff are ‘tooled-up’ with everything from the latest desk-based design software to advanced training in practical workshop skills. Delivering creative product design efficiently and effectively can’t be done with a single tool (not even the latest, shiniest 3D printer!) What matters is having the range of tools, skills and experience to always pick the right tool for the job.