by Dave Opsahl and Jon Stevenson
As software continues to eat the world, garnering a fair amount of attention along the way, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there’s a hardware renaissance going on.
In the United States and elsewhere, increasing numbers of people that have never done manufacturing before are designing and making products. Even big-name companies like Google and Snap Inc.—entities typically regarded as being part of the software juggernaut—are getting into the game and producing hardware.
What happened to make hardware cool again? In large part, it’s because hardware is reaching the same tipping point of accessibility that software achieved about a decade earlier.
Starting in the mid-90’s, tools began to appear that made developing software products cheaper and easier than ever before. The appearance of Amazon Web Services in the 2000’s added an extra dose of rocket fuel to the equation, enabling scores of software products and apps to quickly get off the ground.
The result? An idea could become a piece of functioning software in a record amount of time. Concepts like continuous integration and DevOps have since become the norm, and people can release software multiple times per day, rather than on a six-month or eight-month release cycle.
Hardware is entering a similar phase, as a series of enabling technologies lower the barrier to entry and let people get to market quickly with a piece of hardware. The pressure to iterate faster and reduce cycle times will only continue to increase—and to succeed in this new world, there are a few things that these new manufacturers need to master.
Speed and quality with 3D printing
Manufacturers in decades past relied primarily on traditional subtractive manufacturing methods. Today, additive manufacturing methods like 3D printing have become tremendously popular.
The difference in time and cost between the two methods can be stunning. Take the example of creating the tooling for an injection molding run. In the past, it might take four to six weeks—and anywhere from $40,000 to $150,000—to cut some tooling out of metal. Today, people can design a mold using their CAD system, send the CAD file to their 3D printer—or off to a 3D printing service bureau, if they don’t have a printer of their own—and be ready to do their first run of 100 or 200 injection-molded parts in about 24 hours.
So far, so good: today’s manufacturer can turn an idea in their head into an actual physical piece of hardware quicker and with less cost than ever before. But quality can’t be sacrificed at the altar of speed if this hardware renaissance expects to continue blooming.
To achieve a high level of quality for 3D printed parts, manufacturers need to apply traditional manufacturing techniques such as geometry dimensioning & tolerancing (GD&T) and computer engineering analysis (CAE). Additionally, metrology can be applied for quality control purposes, to check the quality of a manufacture after it’s been printed. These methods are only possible when there is access to the data in the original CAD file, rather than just the STL version of the file, which is the file format often used for 3D printing workflows.
Fortunately, data translation products like those offered by Tech Soft 3D provide fast and accurate access to native CAD formats—ensuring that the data in the original CAD file is always accessible throughout the manufacturing process. This is critical, because manufacturers—even today’s nimble newcomers, who are starting with little more than an idea in their head—need to be successful at every stage of the manufacturing journey, from rapid prototyping, to working the kinks out of the first production units, to manufacturing at scale.
Collaboration and communication still matter
All this focus on the means of production shouldn’t obscure the fact that communication and collaboration remain just as essential for today’s new manufacturers as for their predecessors—perhaps even more so, given the accelerated pace of product development and iteration, and the “need for speed.”
Sharing the data contained in the original CAD file with others enables effective collaboration that supports these needs. Using the appropriate tools, a CAD model can be converted into a 3D PDF document that any user can open and view using a copy of the free Adobe Reader. This makes it quick and easy to send someone a design for review or approval, even if they don’t have a license of the CAD application that created the file—eliminating bottlenecks that can slow down getting a new hardware idea into production.
Meanwhile, further downstream, there is a need for manufacturers to ensure that end users have access to all the information that they might need to properly use, maintain, and service their new piece of hardware. Once again, 3D PDFs can play a big role here, allowing the original CAD data to enhance and enrich user guides, repair manuals, and other documentation. After all: what good is a hardware renaissance if no one knows how to best use or service your products?
Brave new world
It’s an exciting time for hardware. As more people and companies jump into the world of manufacturing—many of them for the first time—we’re going to see an incredible array of products, including many that we couldn’t even imagine being produced five years ago.
By properly leveraging design data to take full advantage of new manufacturing methods like 3D printing—while also supporting effective communication with various stakeholders—companies can keep pace with the dizzying pace of innovation and position themselves for success in this new environment.
When it comes to hardware, it’s a whole new world—and it’s anyone game.
Dave Opsahl is VP of Corporate Development at Tech Soft 3D, and Jon Stevenson is CTO at Stratasys