Todd Grimm TCT Talk
Mundane, tedious, dull, ordinary, routine and commonplace… when it comes to 3D printing, we rarely hear tales of success where these adjectives are fitting. Exciting, amazing and inspiring stories have the impact that makes them news- and conversation-worthy. Printing cars, houses, aircraft engines, satellites and implants: those successes have the sizzle that draws attention.
I find them fun to read, interesting to discuss and thought provoking, which can be a catalyst for big dreams and long-term goals. Yet, for most of us, these are somewhat exotic, exceptional and beyond our reach. Further distancing the applications from our reality, these stories often have recognizable, big-corporate names behind them. These big-budget, big-risk, big-reward 3D printing inspirations may not be viable options for smaller organisations with immediate needs.
But you don’t need to feel compelled to tackle such grand projects through 3D printing. Equating these to a four-minute mile, it is perfectly suitable and just as rewarding to run a 10-second 100 metre sprint. Do the latter 15 times, and you’ve cover the same distance.
You can find tremendous success with 3D printing when tackling the ordinary and routine. While your successes won’t be front-page news, you can create significant rewards with minimal risk if walk before you run. Product development and manufacturing can be improved by doing the more of mundane work with 3D printing.
You can find mundane applications throughout the product lifecycle, from early concept models through series production and into end-of-life. You can find them in design departments, testing labs and production floors. The mundane are out there in the form of models, mockups, prototypes, shop tools, fixtures and hidden bits within a series-production product. The mundane also takes the form of small adjustments to work flows, procedures and daily practices that are enabled by 3D printing.
You will know mundane applications by their lack of visibility. Unless you call attention to them, they can be invisible to those in your organization. From that obscurity flows the low-risk component of the small-reward value proposition. Trying and failing has little impact because you can recover quickly and try something else. But when you try and succeed, the rewards will come, and they can accumulate to become quite substantial.
In product development, a mundane application may be the completion of three design iterations in the same time span of one conventionally made prototype. Each iteration adjusts the product a wee bit, but when combined they improve the design, performance or manufacturability. You may also have a big reward from these small-risk attempts if you reveal a hidden flaw that would otherwise have led to delays and cost overruns.
In manufacturing, my favorite mundane application is jigs, fixtures and related manufacturing aids, such as organisers, gauges and templates, for the production floor. Ask anyone in manufacturing if they could use more of these tools and the answer will be an emphatic “Yes.” 3D printing makes it easy and nearly effortless to make a fixture – some call it the path of least resistance – that will enable you to deploy many more of them. Within a day, and with little investment, you can be testing a new fixture. If it doesn’t work, you lost a small investment and a few hours of time. But if it does work, the benefit can be quite large, considering the impact on throughput and quality over tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of units. But even with a large impact, the fixture blends into the environment and becomes transparent to all that pass by it.
Boring and mundane? Absolutely. Beneficial? Without a doubt.
I am not saying to stop innovating and pushing the envelope. That’s important, too. I’m just recommending that you don’t let the big stories and grand visions distract you from having many small wins along the way. It’s a practical and pragmatic approach that lets you create your future one small step at a time rather than relying on one big leap.
Dream of manufacturing revolutions and plan for disruptions. But don’t overlook the things that you can do tomorrow that inch the needle forward. These mundane applications are something to get excited about.