Product designers from four Boston-area startups recently met up at Fab@CIC to talk about the role prototyping plays in their process. Up front on the panel were Mariya Sitnova from Emulate (organs on chips), Josh Forman from Confer Health (at-home diagnostic kits), Nick Lancaster from Ecovent (room by room temperature control), and Jason Ray of Paperless Parts (“Kayak for manufacturers”).

The panelists represented startups with sophisticated technologies, all of which are pushing our expectations of what’s possible in our physical world, and thus have a case to build each time they put their product in front of a new audience. Emulate and Confer Health build vessels for cells and chemicals to be handled and analyzed by regular consumers. Ecovent produces add-ons for your house’s intimidating HVAC system that actually look good in your living room. Paperless Parts is building a platform that would allow each of these companies, and any other product designer, to quickly and transparently determine options and pricing for manufacturing. For companies like these, getting from novel idea to compelling product while using time and money efficiently greatly increases the odds of success.

Compared to software’s instantaneous updates and fixes, hardware’s longer product cycles can make or break a company. Where a physical product is involved, size, fit, and feel can matter as much for its success as its function. When do you decide to step away from continuous reiteration based on tester feedback and pull the trigger on a first production run? The panelists agreed that it’s essential to figure out the manufacturing options early on and design for those realities. Still, Ecovent and Emulate had started their prototyping on cardboard. It turns out that prototyping even at this basic level mitigates some of the risks of product development down the line.

So, what do the panelists think about when they think about prototyping? 3D printing is often top-of-mind for at least some part of the prototyping process. Fab@CIC staff can confirm this – we’ve seen members 3D print to check the size and fit of components, or printing an entire customer-facing prototype. 3D printing is really useful for making the digital-to-physical leap for your design. However, it can take several hours to print even a small piece, and false starts due to temperature and leveling details are common (making a successful print all the more satisfying ;). If you need to make more than a few identical items, it’s probably not the best method. For that, 3D printed molds could be the way to go – yes, let 3D printing kill your 3D prints!

At this point in the technology’s development arc, Jason, of Paperless Parts, thinks 3D printing delivers the most value when it allows for component integration, meaning that a product can be built with fewer pieces that have to connect perfectly. 3D printing is also becoming powerful solution for product maintenance and replacing broken components – imagine trying to find a replacement for the cracked dial on your vintage radio that isn’t sold anymore. Consumer product companies are already developing digital inventories so that customers can print out the file for a replacement piece instead of manufacturing and storing parts ahead of timed.

While 3D printing is currently inefficient for producing many units of the same item, it has high potential for things that need customization, such as perfectly fitted sunglasses or a prosthetic arm. The space industry is an example of where these strengths are at a premium. As the technology matures, we may soon arrive at a time when 3D printing will be the fastest way to build large things on Earth, too, such as houses, with the extrusion of concrete happening more precisely, quickly, and safely from a print head.

In the future, could every office or home have a 3D printer, allowing people to print customized versions of what they need instead of going to the store or ordering from Amazon? This kind of hype reached a peak a few years ago, but the panelists recognize that we’re a few structural pieces away from a 3D printing economy. Even though plastic and resin 3D printers are getting cheaper by the day and the variety of materials is increasing (think concrete, metal, ceramics, and cells!), the quality of 3D printed items doesn’t yet match what we, as consumers, are used to. And yet, the biggest barrier to “3D printing for all” might be familiarity with design software. Even the the relatively simple and free programs, such as Fusion360 from Autodesk, take some investment in time to learn. As our distinguished panel noted, complexity is neither free nor easy. This is a challenge to our education system, and one that Fab@CIC’s partner, Fab Foundation, is rising to meet by setting up fablabs around the world.

The Revitalizing Making panel provided a glimpse into the future of how things will be made. 3D printing is currently just one method for prototyping, but the advances underway for this technology, and the changing societal structures that would permit its widespread use, could bring forth a revolution of things. The very first question this panel answered was “Why do you make?” The answers included “it’s what humans do” and “to become more comfortable and expend less energy” and “the surprises in discovering are addicting”. Imagine what we as a species could make if more of us had more input at various points of a product’s development, from conceptualization, to testing, production, maintenance, and recycling.

Fab@CIC will host more riveting conversations like this one. Stay tuned!

From CIC Innovation Boston