Kevin Quigley runs his own successful product design agency in Shropshire and has been a first hand witness to the evolution of digital tools for product development — which includes but is in no way limited to 3D printing — over the last couple of decades. Never one to shy away from controversy or debate, in this guest blog post for PersonaliZe, Kevin’s views provide honest and realistic insight into how 3D printing, as a service, has contributed to his business and why, until now, he has resisted buying into the tech directly.......
The other day I was clearing out some debris from my office and I came across some prototype parts I had "3d printed" back in 1996 by a third party. I recall the project very well. It was a typical "mission impossible" type project for a customer that was really up against it. The company had a small in house design team who were working flat out on a major project when the proverbial brown stuff hit the fan on another project. Without naming the company or the product, what happened was that a system they had been developing over a two-year period had developed a critical fault during the final testing stages in the field. The problem for my customer was that the product was part of a larger system and their customer had threatened to pull out of a £0.5m contract if they could not resolve the issues with this one product.
I happened to be doing some other work for them at the time, and was on the premises when this came through so I was hauled into their design manager’s office and presented with a seemingly impossible task. Redesign the product, to make it work with the existing ancillary systems and correct the new found faults …. and it had to look like the existing one …. and it needed to be in a product trial in two weeks. As I said, mission impossible, but without the gadgets!
Bear in mind this was 1996 — before widespread use of 3D CAD, rapid prototyping or even CNC. This was a time when most prototypes were hand made.
The hard part for me was not the design side, or even getting the parts made, but rather that there was no margin for error — this had to work first time. So we set to work. We took the 2D Autocad files from the customer, imported them into our 3D CAD system, modelled up the existing system then used this to redesign the product. After a few days we thought we had a solution that would work, but the only way to know was to build it. Now this was a fairly complex system so the only option we had was to get the parts 3D printed.
Back then I used FDM almost exclusively for rapid prototyping — mainly because I knew a company that had a Stratasys FDM machine. So we saved out the STL file, couriered the data disk (yes, a disk; and yes, couriered) to Coventry and waited. A couple of days later I drove down and picked the parts up. Most designers can relate to this, but when you see your design, physically in 3D, and it all goes together perfectly, that definitely classifies as a good moment in your life! I was so pleased I called up the customer, said I was holding a prototype and it seemed to work. He asked me to come straight down so we could try it on the their factory test rig.
A few hours later I arrived and was led to the boardroom, where I was asked to demonstrate the product to the company MD and the problematic customer! Their customer picked it up, fiddled around with it, threw it down on the table, and a small exposed piece of the prototype snapped clean off. "What good is this he said — it breaks too easily!"
That, in a round about way, is the whole issue with 3D Printing. As soon as you go away from the comparative protection of the 2D screen or paper print to the 3D object, there is an expectation of functionality. It should work. Everyone can relate to a 3D object. There is no interpretation needed. There is nowhere to hide!
So moving forward 16 years, I look at that project, and wonder how differently I would have done it today? How easy would it have been to undertake? An interesting exercise (I thought).