The futurist and writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
It's a sentiment shared by The Netherlands-based designer Robert Bronwasser when discussing "appearance models," the realistic prototypes produced with a combination of 3D printing, traditional manufacturing processes, and expert hand finishing.
"Every time you present a realistic model to a client for the first time, the response is always great," he says. "Clients are amazed about the quality of the model because they don't understand how it was made so quickly and realistically. It's some kind of magic for them."
In Bronwasser's case, the magic comes from the 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing facility in The Netherlands.
Appearance models of clock radios created by 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing for Robert Bronwasser Design.
Nearly endless options
Appearance models turn CAD representations into highly realistic physical parts and assemblies for aesthetic review, internal evaluation, trade shows and sales presentations. They are part of the comprehensive array of services from 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing, which has facilities around the globe. Other services include rapid prototyping, functional prototyping, and low-volume manufacturing that encompasses additive manufacturing, cast urethane, CNC machining, injection molding, metal die casting, and sheet metal fabrication.
"We have more than 30 years of experience creating appearance models," says Marc Kemkens, general manager of the Benelux division of 3D Systems Dutch bureau. "We work together with the customer to find the best solution to create a model with the exact look and feel of the finished product."
In the hands of engineers and artists at 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing, the options for appearance models are practically endless. Models can vary in size from a tiny hearing aid to a full-size prototype of an MRI scanner. Materials and processes span the widest range in the 3D printing industry, and can be augmented by more traditional production processes and in-house artistic skills. Any type of finish can be created and any type of Pantone color specified by the client can be matched.
"The secret to producing the best appearance models is not to put limits on the choice of technologies and processes," says Marco Maio, the company's GM in Italy.
"Working side by side with designers," says Maio, "we can make a model that perfectly mimics quality and aesthetics of the real product in every single detail: radius, soft edges, flashes and gaps, graphics, component assembly matching, and surface treatments such as painting, chroming and foiling. We can do it all."
The benefits of collaboration
The scope of applications for appearance models produced is staggering, with customers that include Philips Design (consumer and medical products), Whirlpool (appliances), Grohe (bath), Sonova (hearing aids), Sea Tools (underwater oil industry machinery), and many of the major automotive manufacturers.
"The big advantage of working with On Demand Manufacturing is the combination of high-end printing from 3D Systems and traditional hand-made model-making and finishing," says Bronwasser. "Their years of experience in model-making makes them the perfect partner to create the right model at the right price level. They take over a lot of work that I would have to do otherwise, like determining the kind of techniques required to produce the model and technical issues like construction and assembly."
A major benefit for Dirk Vananderoye, creative director at Philips Design, is collaboration.
"The key is direct communication -- what I call co-creation," he says. "There's great value in having direct contact with a model-maker that understands designers and has creative engineers on the team. Together, we build the best solution. Beyond the creative part, actual production of the model by On Demand Manufacturing saves time and money."
Freedom of choice
Philips Design uses 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing for nearly every phase of design, according to Vananderoye, beginning at the concept stage and progressing through evaluation of different concepts, marketing and R&D studies, production prototyping, and pre-production, where a complete product shell is produced with all the electrical parts for clinical trials and customer interaction.
The appearance models come into play in the later stages of product development, when typically the design needs to be assessed by corporate stakeholders and potential customers.
In the case of a clock radio produced for Bronwasser, On Demand Manufacturing dipped into its full arsenal of tools and skills, including 3D SLA printing using 3D Systems' Accura Xtreme materials, cast urethane from a silicone rubber mold, CNC milling, hand-molded cloth, and in-house spray painting to match the designer's Pantone color specifications.
An electric shaver prototype for Philips includes 3D SLA printing using Accura Xtreme material, hand-milled aluminum, chrome parts from milled brass, and working LEDs. It is the exact weight, size and feel of the manufactured product.
"The presentation of the appearance model is one of the coolest moments of the design process," says Bronwasser. "The product has gone from a concept to something you can touch and hold. It's an emotional moment when you first see it and it looks better than anyone thought it would. In the end, it's not my baby anymore; it's going to be the client's baby now."
Kitchen tools designed by Robert Bronwasser and modeled by 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing.
Breaking new ground
Vananderoye feels that Philips Design is breaking new ground in conjunction with 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing, but there is much more fertile soil to be tilled.
"Building a final model of an MRI machine at a 1:1 scale to do user testing is a challenge that nobody else I know is doing...so 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing is the best."
The next step, according to Vananderoye, is underway at Philips: Using the range of technologies, processes and skills at On Demand Manufacturing to deliver final production parts. That's when the magic will extend into new means of production that promise benefits such as greater customization, faster time to market, lighter-weight parts, greater durability, and levels of performance efficiency not possible through traditional manufacturing alone.