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Z Corporation: 3D Printing and the Engineering Office

Product Development is a completely digital world. Everyone uses digital means to engineer and validate product designs. We’ve completely turned away from the physical world until we release to manufacturing and start producing products. Right? Right? Well. Not really. Despite all the talk of using digital tools in all parts of the design phase of product development, there is still a very strong need to touch, feel, test, break and measure physical parts and products with our hands. Many years ago, rapid prototyping was introduced as a means to replace some of the old school prototyping in the concept and early design states, but there were problems. But today, a few companies have worked on improving on the original concept of rapid prototyping to address its shortcomings. I talked with Joe Titlow, VP of Product Management at Z Corporation, to get his perspective. Below is my take on the progress their products have made in recent years.

Background

Z Corporation (corporate site) was founded in 1994 in Burlington MA and initially gained an exclusive license for 3DP technology from MIT for the rapid prototyping market. Z Corporation joined Contex Holding A/S group of companies in 2005. The company has progressed from its first generation of 3D printers, sold in the 1990s, to their second generation, between 2003 and 2009, to their third generation.

Capabilities Provided

The advent of 3D printing has been pretty well covered in various articles. But for those of you that may not be as familiar with it, here’s a few quick facts about it.

  • Materials: From a materials perspective, Z Corp’s 3D printers are self-contained, clean and safe. The powders and binders are non-hazardous meaning you could safely put your hands in them. Not that you actually could do that. The entire machine is pretty much a closed system. Leftover powder from the building process is blown off and auto-recycled. Waste from the process is collected into a cartridge that is replaced once a year.
  • From CAD to 3D Printer: This is actually the easy part. You can export your model from your CAD application of choice in half a dozen different formats. You can then open that file in Z Corp’s software called ZPrint, which is free, uncontrolled and unlicensed. You drop that model into a virtual representation of a build box where you can position it, combine it with other models, scale it or just let the software automatically position it.
  • Ease of Use: From there, you just hit the 3D print button. The software pings the machine (a wired connection is needed) to ensure there is enough powder, binder and runs some other auto-checks. Once you get the green light it goes to work on its own. You really don’t have to interact with the 3D printer itself at all. Well, other than getting your part out.
  • Speed and Cost: Another focus area for Z Corp’s 3D printer has been both the speed at which these parts are created and their costs. Typical designed can be printed in a couple hours for $10.

Analysis and Commentary

Now that we have an idea of the functionality and capability of Z Corp’s 3D printers, so what? What’s the value? Here’s my take.

Moving from the Basement to the Office

From my perspective, Z Corp’s 3D printers are a far cry from the images I have in my mind for rapid prototyping. Those machines with their nasty materials, odorous fumes and specialized personnel belonged in the basement. Far away in the basement. You’d head downstairs hours after sending off a job to pick up your design, partly worried that it hadn’t cured enough and would stick to your hand. It was a nasty business.

Z Corp’s 3D printers are a different story. They seem to have addressed the biggest issues barring their use in the engineering office. Gone are the hazardous powders and noxious fumes. You no longer need a special role to maintain the machine. Essentially it can sit right in the middle of the cubes, a short walk away. In short, they are clean, quiet and office friendly.

What’s It Mean for Engineers?

There’s the money question, right? Digital prototyping methods have come a long way. You can use CAD models to check form and fit. You can use CAE models for functional verification and validation. That’s all good. But as I have written before, developing a product is more to do with gaining knowledge about the design to make the right decisions as opposed to creating documentation deliverables like drawings or specifications. Ultimately, gaining confidence that you are making the right design decision is the ‘long pole in the tent’. And digital methods will only take you so far. Sometimes you need to evaluate the design against criteria like ergonomics or aesthetics in your own hands. And that’s where Z Corp’s 3D printers can add value. Being a couple horus away from holding a design in your hand without leaving the engineering office is powerful.

Improvement Areas

There is an area where Z Corp could in fact improve. Currently, their Z Print application requires a hardwired connection to their 3D printer. Today’s engineering office is not only increasingly wireless but also mobile. Mobile devices like the iPad are a perfect fit engineers that are rushing between customer meetings, supplier calls, conference rooms, the shop floor and the test lab. The ability to print directly from an app on the iPad would make it even more powerful.

Conclusions and Questions

Z Corp offers 3D printers that are clean, safe and easy to use that make it a good fit for the engineering office. This type of tool is a great fit for engineers to gain confidence in making engineering decisions and exploring design alternatives. The only improvement I could suggest is to take it mobile, enabling it to work wirelessly with mobile devices like the iPad.

So that’s my take. What’s yours? Are 3D printers ready for broad based adoption? Is it a good compliment to digital prototyping methods? Sound off and let me know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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