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3D Printing Tips for Prototyping

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Here's my top-of-mind Top 10 quick tips and tricks for leveraging 3D printing in your development workflow (in no particular order)

1. Multiple Variations: Print multiple variations at once to shorten your development cycle. If you have several options to test of the same base part, but few different details, just CAD them all up, and order them all at once. Save days of waiting around for prints to run. If you order from a service like Xometry, the volume discounts more than compensate for the time savings waiting around. Plus, the box is shipping anyway, might as well throw in a few extra parts. Your development budget will thank you.

2. Wall thickness/feature size Choose your wall thickness and feature size appropriately. If you're designing a thick walled (2-4mm) urethane cast housing, you can probably easily get away with FDM or other more 'crude' printing method. If you're designing a micro injection catheter body, you probably want a high-res SLA print.

3. Sneak up on it This goes along with variations. If you're going for a certain fit between two parts, but not sure how to specify your fit? Say you have a shaft in a plate. The plate is machined, so you're confident in the drilled hole size. But the shaft is still early prototype, not ready for machining. So you're going to print it. Let's say there's a keyway in the shaft and you want an accurate fit for assembly testing. Order three different parts, Order one in the middle of the tolerance band, basically the dimension that you expect to work. Then oversize one by 0.005" and undersize one by 0.005" this will give you a range of parts to test. Two might go in the trash, but if you miscued the measurement you can continue building without waiting another couple of days.

4. Pair and a Spare If you need one, order two. If you need two, order three. You will always find a reason to put the additional parts to good use.

5. Share your designs with your team 3D printers are everywhere. Someone on your team has access to a 3D printer, or a printing service like Xometry or ProtoLabs. Sharing your CAD files allows others on your development team to experience the parts firsthand. Take the feedback. Sometimes it comes from the least likely sources.

6. Print internally (if possible) before using a service bureau. Many times, I've stopped my printer an hour into it's build, and scraped the parts directly into the garbage. I had started the print with good intentions, but after seeing just the beginnings of the part growing on the build sheet, I've noticed some error that wasn't obvious in CAD. Maybe it was an internal void, maybe a sharp edge, maybe the scale of my design was just way off. I've appreciated having direct access to see my designs ASAP. But I've leaned heavily on service bureaus like Prototype Solutions Group for my final deliverable.

7. Print even when you don't think you need to. Keep your machines running. Sometimes printed parts will expose the most unexpected flaws and bad assumptions. I recently had a pretty simple electronics enclosure design with a series of buttons, and I was confident enough to send it straight to mfg. It was only for qty w units for development purposes, so I figured low risk. I have done this so many times, that I thought I was safe. Just for kicks, we printed a sample unit the night before we placed the order. I found an interference in the button motion that we couldn't have expected/found in CAD.

8. Jigs/Fixtures for prototype mods Sometimes one of our prototypes needs some rework. If the prototype is complex, we may not have budget or time to rebuild it. However, I've used 3D printed jigs and fixtures to help rework prototypes on the fly. Maybe it's a quick dremel holding fixture to cut a slot repeatably. Or maybe it's a cradle/nest for holding a housing for CNC milling rework. Possibly it's a PCBA holder of ABS-ESD safe plastic for holding components for rework. The opportunities are endless.

9. Don't let your current printer limit your design - outsource it! Just because you happen to have only FDM printing in house, doesn't mean you shouldn't be printing water-clear headlight housings. Just outsource those until you can justify bringing that technology in-house. I've seen good designs hobbled because someone only sees what printing capability they have in house, and try to design a solution that works on that machine. It's a big mistake. Our tools shouldn't define our solutions.

10. Ask an expert I make a point to learn as much as I can about all the different 3D printing and additive manufacturing methods that exist. I am fascinated by the technology. Over the last ten years, I've ordered samples or tested almost every 3D printing technology as they've been released. I have samples on hand to understand surface finishes and color options, etc. And there's new technology coming every day. I try to stay at the leading edge of the industry, trying to figure out how to drive adoption and implementation of this technology and help others use it in their workflow.

Hit REPLY and let me know any tips that you have for 3D printing in prototyping environment. Over the next few months, I'll be writing more on additive manufacturing and 3D printing. Let me know if there's anything you would like to hear about.


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