With time-to-market being an increasingly important factor for a successful product launch, 3D printing has fast become an integral part of the product development process. The speed in which products can be reiterated to perfect the design and functionality is, of course, highly valuable. But 3D printing isn’t limited to just product. Some manufacturers have found creative uses to capitalize on the speed of 3D printing.
Romeo RIM, for instance, is a composite manufacturer that has adopted lean principles to create a culture where waste reduction is a priority. This waste can include materials, movement on the job, and…time. One way to save time in composite manufacturing is to utilize 3D printing to create prototype molds. This helps to reduce mold construction time which, in turn, reduces time-to-market while improving quality and cost.
As an example, some of Romeo Rim’s unique, proprietary products require a series of relatively thin, deep draw rib features over 120mm in depth and 60mm apart. Traditionally, for prototype epoxy mold construction, this required the time-consuming process of CNC-cutting master sections of the close proximity ribs or hand-cutting the patterns prior to application of the epoxy mold substrate. With the introduction of 3D printed capabilities, these sections are now printed, sectioned together, and the epoxy mold matrix applied directly over them. This has reduced mold construction time from 8–10 weeks to six weeks and sometimes less. The extra cost of the 3D printed sections is offset by the significant reduction in mold construction labor, allowing for a more accurate prototype mold at the same cost but at a significantly reduced lead time.
The same 3D printed process is also used in fixture development and validation. Historically, a secondary drill or assembly fixture would be designed and built with production intent using CNC-cut aluminum, nylon, or other durable material. The procurement of materials and time and labor to machine and assemble would take several weeks to complete. The wide range of available 3D printed materials now allows us to generate a fully functional fixture in hours or days instead of weeks. Functionality, alignment, and repeatability can be evaluated and altered quickly and at lower cost. Once the final configuration is validated, a more durable fixture is then produced saving the cost and time often required in the “tuning” of a fixture.
Utilizing 3D printing for prototype molds and fixtures has had a significant impact on our bottom line as well as our customers. It has helped to improve accuracy of each prototype iteration, which results in fewer iterations and, thus, faster time-to-market.