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3D Printing in the Product Design & Development Process

18 September 2020

The September 2019 Cornwall Innovation Club was themed all about ‘Product Design and Prototyping’. We were lucky enough to be joined by Chris Booker, Founder of Vital Spark Creative and one of ATI’s specialist consultants, who delved into the realms of 3D Printing and how it can be used in the product development process.

“3D printing really allows us to rapidly progress the project, enabling us to assess, refine and redesign”, says Chris. 3D printing enables designers to print objects from a computer-aided design (CAD) model, often allowing them to bring to life designs that would be impossible to mould or machine using traditional manufacturing methods of the past.

As this technology becomes more widely available, the cost of 3D printing has reduced significantly and made it more accessible for businesses looking to design, prototype and test new products.

Currently there are 3 different types of 3D printing: Fused Deposition Modelling, Stereo Lithography and Selective Laser Sintering.

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)

This is the most common and low cost method of 3D printing. FDM printers come in all shapes and sizes, depending on how big the model is that you want to print, and are available in a range of prices (from the low hundreds to the thousands). These printers use plastic filaments to print the CAD model by heating them up and piping it layer-by-layer to build the model.

Stereolithography (SLA)

This method allows you to effectively grow products out of resin. Each layer of the model is formed using a photochemical process, by which light causes chemical monomers to link together to form solid polymers. These polymers then make up the body of a three-dimensional design.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

This additive manufacturing technique uses the power of laser to sinter powdered material (typically nylon or polyamide), aiming at the points in space defined by a 3D CAD model, to bind the material together to create a solid structure.

Pros & Cons of 3D Printing

Each 3D printing method has its strengths and weaknesses, and some will be more suitable than others, depending on the design and desired product finish.

Reasons FOR 3D Printing

  • Freedom of design – not restricted by traditional moulding and machinery
  • Increases the speed at which you can go from initial design to prototype
  • Lower costs to produce a one-off prototype, test and redesign until the product is refined and ready for manufacture
  • Print products on demand – reduces need for storage and stock control
  • Reduce waste – only print what you need
  • Lighter, stronger parts – plastic is the primary material used in 3D printing, which may seem inferior to steel or aluminium. However, using plastic in place of metal has great advantages. These plastics are much lighter than their metal counterparts are. Many automobile manufacturers have switched to using 3D printed parts for their vehicles, to make their cars lighter and, therefore, more fuel efficient.
  • Could it be better for the environment? As a newer technology, there’s not much research available yet and it can be difficult to determine how friendly 3D printing is to the environment. We do know, however, that in addition to fuel efficiency and waste reduction, 3D printing has the potential to be more environmentally friendly than most other manufacturing methods because parts of the design can be altered to save material and conserve energy. Also, you can now print using filaments made from recycled plastics such as those created by the Cornish start-up, Fishy Filaments.

Reasons AGAINST 3D Printing

  • Limited materials to print with, mainly plastic (a limited selection of plastics of varying mechanical properties). Some 3D printers can also print metal. Once again, there’s a small selection of metals available as not all metals and plastics can be temperature controlled for the printing process.
  • Limited build size – The vast majority of 3D printers have small build chambers, at least when compared to mills and injection mould presses. Any part larger than a printer’s build chamber would need to be divided into sections and glued together in post processing, which can incur costs as it will take longer to print and requires some manual labour.
  • Post print processing – Larger parts may require assembly in post processing and most 3D parts typically need some type of clean up to remove support material and smooth the surface finish. This can include water jetting, sanding, a chemical soak and rinse, air or heat dry, and more.
  • The downside of layer-by-layer printing is that, due to the lamination process, under stress the layers can separate causing the part to become brittle and break.
  • If you need a large number of parts, generally anything greater than a couple hundred units, 3D printing is not the best production process. When seeking to produce large volumes, it may be most cost effective to injection mould the part.

For more information about 3D printing, product design and prototyping support, register you interest in the programme by visiting

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