Digital Development Is the Way Forward for Design Innovation

DN Staff

October 7, 2015

6 Min Read
Digital Development Is the Way Forward for Design Innovation

We are at a point where the digital design tools and capabilities of 3D printing can rapidly change how we design and test products.

The ability to conceptualize, develop, quickly pilot test, and commercialize new products is one of defining characteristics of a successful company. Rapid innovation of new products that engage customers and open new market segments remains the holy grail for many companies, and arguably represents a greater competitive advantage than ever.

3D printing, sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing (AM), has received great attention lately in large part due to the introduction of low cost printers for the consumer market. Gartner predicts that by 2018, over 2.3 million 3D printers will be shipped, and most of them will be consumer desktop 3D printers. However, AM is not new-many companies have been using 3D printing for rapid prototyping for at least 10-20 years. By implementing AM, industries including automotive, consumer electronics, medical devices, aerospace, and others have seen a significant improvement in the speed of the overall product-development process and the value of the products that are created.


For example, GE's LEAP engine contains 19 fuel injection nozzles that must withstand approximately 3,000℉. Twenty separate components were once machined together to construct each nozzle. Using the capabilities of the selective laser melting AM process, GE has been able to design a single piece nozzle that is 25% lighter and five times stronger than the previous multi-part design. Also for several years, Align Technologies has used stereolithography to create millions of customized dental replicas per year, which are in turn used as molds for thermoforming of transparent aligners for orthodontic treatment. Over the last 17 years Align Technologies has manufactured more than 2.6 million Invisalign cases, each comprised of hundreds of thousands of unique tooth measurements, captured digitally. To date the company has produced 149 million unique aligners using AM.

While some companies have used AM to invent and commercialize new products that were not possible with conventional production techniques, the vast majority of companies have only used the technology for basic models and non-functional prototyping. Many have yet to leverage AM in their product innovation and commercialization cycle.


A Faster Design Cycle

By harnessing digital design tools and engineering new products with AM in mind, it is possible to compress the design cycle significantly and enable evaluation of more robust design options. Design for AM can enable more complex product geometries and reduce the number of components. It also allows features that would not otherwise be possible with conventional manufacturing. Moreover, 3D printing can reduce the time between design and prototyping. The elimination of custom tooling, coordination with suppliers, and complex assemblies makes for significant time and cost savings. But more importantly, the ability to iterate more rapidly, compress the learning cycle time, and test more design variations simultaneously, is very valuable for the overall innovation effort.

Marketing Benefits

While market research remains important to form an initial view of what customers want and need, in-market testing or soft launching a product remains one of the most important tools available to marketers. The growing capabilities of AM enable production of small volumes and custom runs for deployment in different test markets. This enables marketers to get information on product adoption and receive feedback on what customers really think about the product, its performance, functionality, price, and their overall satisfaction. This information allows companies to de-risk major programs, and approach bold new ideas with greater early-stage risk-tolerance and late-stage confidence.


Although there are many benefits to adopting digital tools and AM along the product innovation and commercialization cycle, the new tools and processes introduce significant challenges. Fully utilizing AM principles across the value chain - including understanding the complex AM processes, tools, materials, and the supporting ecosystem-requires an advanced level of knowledge.

The increasing demand for AM expertise is driven in part by the expanding number of printers, materials, and service bureaus. Navigating this space is complex and deciding which tools and processes to deploy, including whether to outsource part of the work to service bureaus, can be the difference between success or failure when designing and commercializing new products.

There's a recognized need for readily-available training programs, ranging from the business implications of AM to the technical details needed to implement AM technology in pilot-scale and even large-scale production operations.

Designing products for digital development and production opens many opportunities for companies to optimize performance, rapid test multiple design options, perform in-market piloting for customer feedback, accelerate commercialization, and de-risk the overall innovation process. But to remain on the cutting edge, companies need to build the skill set to know which tools to use, when to use them, and which suppliers to involve in their product innovation value chain.

Editor's Note: John Jaddou will be part of the conference program at Design & Manufacturing Texas, a Design News event at the NRG Center in Houston, Oct. 13-14. His session, on Oct. 14, is Getting Rapid ROI from Not-So-Rapid Prototyping.


A. John Hart (pictured at top) is Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mitsui Career Development Chair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has Ph.D. and S.M. degrees from MIT, and a B.S.E. degree from Michigan, all in Mechanical Engineering. At MIT, John leads the Mechanosynthesis Group, which creates new machines, materials, and design principles for advanced manufacturing. Hart teaches courses in manufacturing processes, nanomaterials, and research methods, including a week-long professional program on additive manufacturing at MIT. Hart is also co-founder of Addeation, a consultancy focused on design strategy and additive manufacturing for accelerated product development.

John Jaddou is a Managing Director at Veraxia and works with companies on business development, innovation management, technology commercialization, and product strategy. John is also the co-founder of Addeation, a consultancy focused on design strategy and additive manufacturing for accelerated product development. More recently he was a Director at Cabot Corporation where he built the global innovation program, established the 3D printing/additive manufacturing business, and led the introduction of a new product blueprinting methodology to boost the front end of the innovation pipeline. John has been working with fortune 500 companies and helping business leaders harness the value of 3D printing/additive manufacturing and integrate digital design, development, and commercialization tools into their business model for a sustainable competitive advantage. John holds an MSc in Engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Michigan Ross School of Business.

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