Prototyping plays a crucial role in all phases of Trek’s product development cycles. Industrial designers, mechanical engineers, graphic artists and marketing staff all use prototypes. In most cases, Mike Zeigle, manager of Trek’s Prototype Development Group—a group of nine pros, are prototyping bike parts, but occasionally they also prototype tooling mockups and related accessories such as shoes and helmets.
Like many companies, Trek often outsourced its work to various prototyping service bureaus. When the company’s annual costs for service bureaus reached $275,000, the engineering and design manager decided it was time to consider purchasing an in-house rapid prototyping system. Initially, Zeigle researched only SLA, SD and FDM tools. He quickly narrowed the field down to SLA, but still had concerns about the machines’ cost, space and maintenance requirements. Then a colleague suggested Objet’s Connex500™ 3D printing system, a clean, office-friendly machine that can produce parts that rival those made with SLA in terms of quality and finish.
This printing system can print parts and assemblies made of multiple model materials, with different mechanical or physical properties, all in a single build. Parts produced have smooth and durable surfaces, with fine details. The system can print living hinges, soft touch parts and overmolds that other technologies do not prototype.
According to Zeigle, the fact that the Connex could jet digital materials—meaning, mix two materials together in order to increase durometers—was a key selling point, as was the printer’s ability to combine two materials in one part. Zeigle and his team were also impressed with the quality of the parts. “The part quality and finish are as good as the SLA parts we used to get from our service bureau,” he said. “And we can have a part in just a few hours, versus several days and lots of paperwork when we had to outsource.”
Zeigle’s team uses the printer for virtually every bike Trek produces. Most recently, it played a key role in the company’s launch of its new Speed Concept 9 Series bike – a time-trial bike used in the Tour de France and Iron Man Hawaii. Its unique frame design features aerodynamic cross-sections that lower wind resistance and improve speed. Virtually every part of the new design was prototyped on the printer and then shipped from Trek’s Wisconsin headquarters out to a California facility for wind-tunnel testing – where sample frames would be tested at wind speeds of 30 mph or more.
“The designers had several ideas for the aerodynamic cross-section design and wanted to see the impact on wind resistance,” explained Zeigle. “So we printed out multiple parts on the Connex that they could snap onto the main bike frame and then test in the wind tunnel.” The team even produced durable accessories such as water bottles and bento boxes to make the testing conditions more realistic.
“The fact that we were able to print multiple iterations quickly enabled the designers to experiment more and still make all their deadlines,” explained Zeigle. The end result represented a true breakthrough in bike design called the Kamtail Virtual Foil that’s garnered major media attention.
Prior to having the printer, the Trek team would have produced prototype parts out of aluminum or dense foam using CNC processes in its machine shop and mixed them with SLA parts outsourced to a service bureau. The time frame, says Zeigle, would have been quite different, as it can take a week or more to get a CNC part and several days to get an SLA part. By contrast, lead-time for a part made in house is usually less than one day.
Lupe Ollarzabal, the engineer who runs Trek’s 3D printer, said that having the unit in house has made a big impact on Trek’s productivity. “It enables us to either get a new product to market quicker, or to get a better product to market on time – and in many cases, it’s both. Either way, we win and so do our customers. If we’re crunched for time, it really helps us.”
Trek’s designers are thrilled with the printer—instead of waiting days or weeks for their prototypes, they can now hold a part in their hands in as little as 30 minutes. They are also prototyping more frequently. “75 percent of the prototypes we create are things we never would have prototyped before,” said Zeigle. “When we outsourced or had to rely on our in-house milling operation, it was just too expensive and time-consuming to do a lot of prototyping.” Zeigle noted that the Connex also helped significantly reduce tooling mistakes that can add weeks or months to a product launch schedule.
Today, said Zeigle, Trek’s printer runs almost continuously. “At first, we had one part time person who ran our Objet printer,” he recalls. “Within six months, as designers starting prototyping more, it became a full-time job. If we get any busier we will be at the point where we’ll need to add a shift or purchase another Connex, maybe both. Our current machine runs all day long, all week long, and sometimes into the weekend.”
Trek Bicycle Corp.