Top 4 Use Cases for 3D Printing in Product Development

Manufacturing teams are constantly seeking ways to accelerate and refine product development, especially in the competitive world of big tech. Additive manufacturing provides one such route.

Written by Anne Pauley
Published on Jun. 12, 2024
Top 4 Use Cases for 3D Printing in Product Development
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Additive manufacturing comprises industrial 3D printing, which big tech hardware teams often use because it provides speed and agility that traditional manufacturing cannot match.

Industrial 3D printing, as opposed to the consumer market, uses robust machines able to run for long periods of time, produce high-quality parts and has software that supports production environments and enterprise-level support.

In the consumer electronics space, designers need to be able to create and recreate extremely quickly. The ability to fabricate next-day prototypes to inform decisions and mitigate potential issues has had a transformative impact on the product development process.

In fact, one recent study found that, when used in product innovation, additive manufacturing could reduce lead times by up to 90 percent and cut manufacturing costs by up to 70 percent.

What Is Industrial 3D Printing Best For?

  • UX prototyping
  • Engineering prototyping
  • Assembly testing
  • Demo prototyping

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Past Challenges of Additive Manufacturing

Industrial 3D printing is ubiquitous in product development, but this didn’t happen overnight. It took decades of hardware, software, process and material refinement to reach this point.

For additive manufacturing to gain traction within consumer electronics, the technology had to overcome two key hurdles.

Cost-Benefit Ratio

The first hurdle was cost. When additive manufacturing initially came to market, it was prohibitively expensive. Before organizations could maintain their own equipment, they often relied on service bureaus to print parts. This added significant time and cost to the 3D printing process.

Now, it’s much easier to purchase machines, especially polymer and resin technologies. 3D printers have become so accessible that many companies, schools, research facilities and even individual households have hardware on-site. As the price point decreased — and companies gained the expertise necessary to print in-house — additive manufacturing emerged as a viable tool for widespread use.

Material and Process Refinement

The second barrier to broader additive manufacturing adoption was the process. In the early days of AM, it wasn’t always reliable enough to consistently produce high-quality parts and prototypes. If you’re counting on a prototype to gather data on whether a design works, you need to know that the print won’t fail.

Over time, additive processes have become more dependable and effective, making them easier to integrate into product development workflows.


Use Cases for Industrial 3D Printing

Now that additive manufacturing has advanced to a point where it’s both widely available and broadly reliable, it offers a range of benefits to designers and engineers in consumer electronics. For my team at Google, AM enables us to assess the feasibility of our approach in the initial stages of product development.

Designers must begin prototyping early on in the manufacturing process. Our end-use products primarily employ traditional manufacturing processes, which can be time-consuming and expensive. Once the item reaches the final phases of production, we need to have ironed out any possible challenges from a design and engineering perspective.

While additive prototyping has various uses in consumer electronics, here are four of the most impactful ways that designers and engineers can harness the technology.

1. UX Prototyping

Rapid prototyping can assist designers in gathering feedback on the user experience and how it stands up to actual human use. For instance, wearable technologies should integrate seamlessly into a user’s life. Additive manufacturing allows designers to test how the product interacts with the customer and refine the design as needed.

2. Engineering Prototyping

You can also deploy additive manufacturing to test design and assembly processes, allowing engineering teams to detect any flaws or inefficiencies in how they’re assembling an item. By addressing these issues before the product enters the production phase, companies can avoid costly mistakes down the line. This saves time and resources and improves the quality of the product, enhancing the customer experience.

3. Assembly Testing

On the operations side, assembly testing allows product developers to pinpoint risk areas, estimate cycle time and assess a product’s automation potential. This ensures they have a clear understanding of what the assembly process will look like before the product moves to production.

It also helps them identify any errors, such as two parts that don’t fit together. Left unchecked, these issues could significantly delay production and increase manufacturing costs. Through assembly testing, manufacturing engineers can determine which processes may be compatible with automation, uncovering additional opportunities to streamline workflows.

4. Demo Prototyping

When you launch a product, it represents months or years of careful planning, research and development. At each stage of development, prototype demo units can be used to build consensus between teams and leadership. This allows teams to test concepts and align on product direction, ensuring a product reflects their goals and will meet the needs of their target audience.

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What Field Uses Additive Manufacturing the Most?

While I’ve focused on additive manufacturing’s benefits for prototyping, it’s becoming increasingly viable for the mass customization of end-use products.

Industrial 3D printing is particularly well-suited to the healthcare sector, where developers use it to produce custom prosthetics, implants and dental applications. As a result, the field has emerged as one of the fastest adopters of additive manufacturing.

According to a 2023 report from the European Patent Office, between 2001 and 2020, almost 10,000 international patent families were published for the health and medical sectors worldwide — more than any other industry.

As a growing number of companies use additive manufacturing to enable mass customization, this could have broad implications for the field of consumer goods. For example, businesses are beginning to use this technology to produce customer-specific parts such as insoles and protective gear.


Start Experimenting With 3D Printing

Additive manufacturing is one of the most disruptive and exciting tools available within the consumer electronics space.

As 3D printing becomes more advanced and accessible, now is the ideal time for new users to begin researching its applications and experimenting with its capabilities. With additional materials and processes being developed every day, it’s clear we’re just scratching the surface of this transformative technology.

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