One of the most common applications for 3D printing is prototyping. The insight gained from being able to interact with a scaled product model is invaluable. With decreasing machine and material costs, and increasing quality, 3D printing is becoming increasingly more useful not just for prototypes but across all stages of the product development process.
Prototyping as a Marketing Tool
One of the many ways 3D printing can be utilised as a marketing tool is through the production of functional samples. A functional sample not only serves to validate the product, it acts as a live trial in the hands of the customer that provides valuable feedback prior to production. As a marketing tool, providing a potential customer with a functional sample for evaluation is an effective way to cultivate a market for the product.
I've experienced this anecdotally through my work at Pixalux® Manufacturing. As a product that defines an entirely new product category, Pixalux® required significant effort to establish its market. It's impossible to sell a product if no one knows what it is or what it does. Taking the direct approach of providing a customer with a working prototype is a great strategy for direct marketing that can be a fraction of the cost of a full blown traditional marketing campaign.
A Targeted Approach
It can be hard to stomach the upfront capital cost of a machine, however in comparison to the costs of a traditional marketing campaign they're not so hard to justify. A business could purchase a machine (several depending on cost) or run a print campaign for a similar price. The former is a great investment because the machines can be used again and again to offset the initial capital outlay.
This is the thinking employed at Pixalux®. Rather than saturate traditional marketing channels, Pixalux® provided a small number of high level clients with something tangible. It's a targeted and high level approach suitable to the B2B market that Pixalux® operates in.
Quality > Quantity
For functional prototypes to be effective as customer samples, it's imperative that they don't look too much like prototypes. I often use my consumer-grade desktop 3D printer to produce simple function or form studies, but this machine doesn't produce suitable quality parts for end users. That's why it's important for a business to invest in a reasonable quality machine. Of course there are many other factors to consider such as usability, reliability, labour and user skill level that will determine how effective a business can be with their machine. There are plenty of options available ranging from pro-sumer to professional grade 3D printers to suit different user needs.
Battery Powered Glowpro® Prototype
The recent example from Pixalux® of this marketing approach is our battery powered Glowpro® product. Glowpro® is a free standing A4 Illuminated sign, however we received numerous requests for a portable version so that customers have more flexibility by removing the need for a power cord. We're able to produce a working product sample in order to establish our market first and when the customer has accepted the design, it's much easier to gear up for production on the back of an order.
Our Glowpro® prototype was printed on a Stratasys F170 in black ASA (UV stable ABS). The F170 printed the parts with a resolution of 0.254mm. A 0.2mm resolution or above is often referred to as 'draft' quality in many slicing utilities, yet the Stratasys F170 produces much better quality prints than lesser machines printing at more than double its print resolution.
The real advantage of the Stratasys machine is that we could take our design straight to print with minimal effort because of the dissolvable support material that makes overhangs easy, and eliminates the need for any significant post-print cleaning. The high quality finish is achieved from various factors such as the type of machine movements designed to minimise rocking and vibration in the frame, the rigidity of the frame, quality of parts, and a proprietary filament that ensures optimal and consistent prints without calibration. For a small team covering a broad range of tasks, the ability to print and forget is a huge asset and is a feature that makes additive accessible to any kind of business.