Sophisticated printing technologies and interfaces are helping makers overcome the challenges of taking a new concept from the prototype to manufacturing stage.
Amongst the startup set of Silicon Valley, the mantra “fail fast, fail often” echoes from one bean bag-strewn chamber to another. In fact, there’s a whole conference devoted to it. Embrace failure and let the learning lead you forward.
Given that less than 20 percent of VC investments pay off and nearly 90 percent of new businesses collapse shortly after founding, most entrepreneurs will eventually learn to love failure. Of course, it’s easier to accept immolation when you know the rise of the phoenix is imminent.
Prototyping is a tried-and-true approach to failing in a safe environment, and implicit in it is the understanding that every breakdown is simply the first step toward a new, improved version.
This concept that ideas should be tested early prior to investing huge sums of money or time makes sense, but for many makers who do their inventing outside of a large-scale manufacturing environment, it can present a bit of a conundrum. How do you produce something quickly and cheaply that’s still good enough to permit real testing and feedback?
The answer to this question is increasingly coming in the form of a trend we’re calling “multi-approach prototyping”. Put simply, new tools and techniques are coming online to permit streamlined production of test-ready mock-ups. Of course, every destination demands a different shortcut, and this week we’re looking at three different technologies that are making it faster and easier to fail your way to a great design.
Despite its revolutionary impact on small-scale manufacturing, 3D printing can be a frustratingly slow road to iteration for some makers. When designing complex objects, the process burns large amounts of material and time for every tiny tweak in the concept.
faBrickator aims to speed things up by allowing makers to distinguish between large, unchanging chunks of a design and those components that require precise, repeated tinkering. Users of the software program get step-by-step directions to “Legofy” parts of their design, assembling large sections out of standard Lego bricks. Areas that require greater precision can be isolated and produced on a 3D printer for insertion into the Lego construction.
Making a modification? Keep most of the previous prototype intact and swap out one printed component for another. faBrickator knows what has changed and can direct users on how to minimize unnecessary reproduction. Then, when the iterative process is complete, faBrickator drops out the Legos and converts the entire design for 3D printing.
Creators of the software claim that it makes fabrication nearly 2.5 times faster than with traditional 3D-printed prototypes.
Makers of electronic devices have a different challenge. Breadboards, the traditional approach to prototyping circuits, can accommodate lots of tiny, precise modifications, but they get messy and crowded on complex projects.
Tokyo-based AgIC has introduced technology to allow designers to print working circuits on paper using conductive inks in standard inkjet printers. Changes to the design can be made on a computer and reprinted in seconds without requiring disassembly of a crowded breadboard, and conductive glues or tapes can be used to add components like LEDs and coin batteries to test functionality.
AgIC has even put its ink into a pen so that circuits can be hand-drawn. These printable circuits also avoid the costly and time-consuming mistakes associated with ordering flawed PCBs. Once testing is complete, developers can spec out PCBs that reproduce the precise diagram prototyped with AgIC’s inks and trust that their circuits are ready for prime time.
A different kind of shortcut in the prototyping process has been made available thanks to AIO Robotics, the creators of Zeus — the first all-in-one 3D printer. Until now, scanning an object for conversion into a 3D file and the printing of that file were housed in two different machines, each with their own idiosyncratic setup and sets of procedures.
Zeus does both, allowing users to drop in virtually anything that matches its 8x6x6 build area, scan, tweak and start printing. This seamless process means that makers can jumpstart the creative process by modeling the objects that inspire them and then produce their own modified versions without having to buy and set up multiple costly devices. The printer even allows for faxing of designs to other Zeus machines, so you could galvanize your own army of prototypers.
The Apollo 13 space mission is often credited with originating the phrase “Failure is not an option.” Today’s makers apply the opposite philosophy to their iterative process — “Failure is the only option.” With a host of new tools to test, tweak and “fail” their way to innovative success, they’re building fast, affordable prototypes and learning at every step of the way.