3D printing – helping tech start-ups to push the boundaries - Central Research Laboratory Skip to main content

Supported by

3D printing is radically changing how manufacturers, large and small, approach product development. With the ability to print increasingly sophisticated prototypes, and parts for the production process, at a reasonable cost, our imagination is possibly the only thing that will limit how the technology develops. That’s got to be good news for tech hardware start-ups. If the co-working community at CRL is anything to go by, they are not short of imagination and they will be making the most of it.

Speeding up prototyping and driving down the cost

You can probably knock a zero off the previous costs of a 3D printer which now puts it within reach of some consumers but more importantly small businesses. Now there’s the opportunity to push the boundaries, from the comfort of your own garage, without the huge development costs that were once needed.

Traditionally, a start-up with an idea for tech hardware could spend a lot of time, and money, refining their ideas and developing and tweaking prototypes until, after many iterations, they got to a point where they had something tangible to test or put in front of investors.

According to Simon Hayden, CRL’s workshop manager, 3D printing is accelerating new product development and making the prototyping process easier and more accessible for hardware start-ups. The model-making process is a lot less constrained. Now start-ups can easily produce solid objects, with relatively complex shapes, and quickly move through the iterative process to a polished product.

Previously the process would have started with square-edged shapes, which would be whittled down to create the final shape ready for post-production. 3D printing, also known as additive layer manufacturing on a more industrial scale, builds up material in thin layers to create 3D shapes and allows greater scope for sweeping bends and more ergonomic shapes to be developed from the start. There’s still the need for the final ‘spit and polish’ but the time getting there is a lot quicker.

Prototyping made easy

For start-ups making small tech hardware and gadgets, 3D printing can be used to create moulds or the actual parts. As an example, previous Accelerator cohort member Lauren Bell, founder of Cosi Care, developed an award-winning product that helps relieve the discomfort of eczema particularly for children. Simon explains, “An essential feature of Cosi is its very ergonomic shape, and beautifully curved edges. The prototype would have been more difficult to machine, and the development would have taken longer, using traditional methods. With 3D printing you can make either the tooling for 3D moulds, or the parts themselves.

“One start-up within the community is developing a product which sits on the head like headphones. They recently used 3D printing to make models of real ears to use for ergonomic purposes, after downloading the codes for 3D scans of actual ears. There are lots of open source sites for 3D models online now and you can have an .stl file on the printer, ready to go, in minutes. It’s now perfectly possible to design and print a prototype in a few hours – effectively tech start-ups have the ability to ‘plug and play’.”

As Simon says, how things develop will depend on what manufacturers are making. He explains, “Sometimes 3D printing is better for the prototyping stage because of the structural properties and aesthetics of the printed object. It can reduce the need for lots of iterations of a part in the prototype phase, and accelerate how the geometry of a part develops. That can mean shorter development times and significantly reduced lead times which can make all the difference to a start-up.”.

Materials, mechanics and the next big thing

Naturally, when it comes to finished products, aesthetics and mechanical properties are key and the different materials and printing processes are significant factors. The most commonly used printing method is Fused Deposition Modelling. It uses plastics or suspended metal powders which are extruded through the print heads and built up layer-by-layer. More unusual materials, including chocolate and cheese, have been tried using the same process (although the jury’s still out on whether any of it was edible…).

The wood-grain effect associated with 3D printing is fine for a prototype, where the purpose is to show what something might look like, or how it might fit together, but consumers will expect something more polished and aesthetically pleasing when it comes to an end product.

At a basic level, the plastics used don’t have great material properties, so printing a range of mugs might not be the best use idea. At the other extreme, high-performance industries, like aerospace and motor racing, are already using high-end plastics, and carbon-fibre composites, with comparatively high temperature resistance and tensile strength, to print parts for aircraft and cars. Simon thinks the next big thing in 3D printing will be creating mechanical assemblies. He says, “We’re very close to being able to create metal parts like the gears, but those parts are limited in terms of their mechanical properties at the moment.” He adds, “If we wanted to make a new can opener we could probably do that now, because that’s relatively simple in terms of the mechanics and moving parts, but something more complex like a gearbox or a car is less likely… for now…”

3D printing is an incredible tool for those with the right technical knowledge, a workshop and an understanding of the mechanics and materials. How it develops will depend very much on what we want to do with it. In the meantime, Simon will make sure that the CRL maker community has the best equipment, materials and knowledge, it needs to keep pushing the boundaries and do what they do best – innovate.