One of the top uses for digital fabrication is rapid prototyping directly from 3D CAD data. Tim Hornberger, new product development manager for KI - the Green Bay-based manufacturer of furniture and movable wall systems - explains some of the benefits KI gains from leveraging digital fabrication services for prototyping.
Q: What's your history with digital fabrication?
A: We began using digital fabrication services shortly after we made the move to 3D, solid CAD modeling about 15 years ago. Since then, we've made use of various digital fabrication technologies, depending on the size part we needed and the characteristics we wanted from it. We've looked at bringing some of that machinery in-house, but basically, as the price of that machinery has dropped, so has the cost of the outsourcing.
Q: How do you benefit from digital fabrication?
A: It definitely reduces overall cycle time. It enables us to very quickly take something from the virtual, 3D design world and get it into the real world for things like market research, testing, trade shows, photo shoots, or reviewing product options with internal management.
Q: Today's 3D software is so good at panning, zooming and measurements, why even produce physical prototypes?
A: As good as the virtual tools are, it comes down to being able to visually validate scale and proportion or to get the actual feel of something - how a part feels in your hand or how two parts snap together.
Q: Does digital fabrication help you with tooling?
A: As we move into creating a production tool, there is a technique called being steel safe, where basically, when you have two parts that need to snap together, you start very small on creating the undercut in the tooling, because when you go too far, it's very hard to go back. Digitally fabricated prototypes help us get the feel we are looking for much faster and with fewer revisions to the production tool.
Q: Would you ever use digital fabrication for production parts?
A: Typically, when we are working on a new product, we'll be making thousands of a part per year, which offsets tooling costs. As the cost of digital fabrication machines and the parts drop, you can start talking about production runs of 30, 40 or 50 parts being cost effective, but typically we are producing at much higher volumes. Then there are some cosmetic issues for us, such as getting the right surface feel or colors that might require additional finishing if digitally fabricated. So today, I don't foresee it using digital fabrication for our production runs. But I would never say never, because technology changes so quickly.