By Pamela J. Waterman
There’s an off-price department store in several regions of the US whose slogan for years has been, “Where an educated consumer is our best customer.” That mantra echoes throughout service bureaus that focus some or all of their business resources on rapid prototyping and on direct digital manufacturing techniques (RP&M).
“An informed client is our best client,” they unequivocally state. So what makes an informed client? Is a little knowledge a dangerous thing? And what role do service bureaus play in grooming their clients for success?
So Many Choices
For Patrick Hunter, vice president of sales for online custom-parts provider Quickparts, a service bureau is both an end point and a starting point. Quickparts works hard to help the market get all the information it needs up front. Some customers have extensively searched out the best RP technology and material for their tasks, know how they want the job done, and order a part or parts that will serve a very specific end use. Others may or may not realize they can use an RP part as a step in a design and manufacturing process, where a part may serve as a master for a mold or final tooling in a completely different, more cost-effective material.
Top Ten “Dos and Don’ts”
Looking to learn from others’ mistakes in the RP world? Quickparts has launched an in-depth Learning Center at its website that includes tips on generating STL files, making your CAD design RP-machine-ready, and offers a list of their top-ten best tricks. Among them:
>Thicken any thinning or knife-edge features, such as on thread designs.
>Double-check that the correct units are used for saving the STL file.
>When necessary, add holes to internal voids in the CAD model to allow removal of support materials.
“What makes a good customer is their understanding of 3D models — having STL files or having fully formed 3D MCAD models up front that are prepared to go to an RP machine,” says Hunter. “For models that are not completely finished, it’s hard to keep the clock going (for a customer’s job).”
To help customers educate themselves, Quickparts has developed a series of Learning Center web pages. Here users find tips on preparing the best models, creating STL files, and evaluating critical design factors; they can also step through an interactive material guide menu (see “Top Ten Dos and Don’ts”).
Material choice is clearly a critical factor for successful part production and customer satisfaction. Scott Turner, president of Scicon Technologies, an 18-year-old service bureau, has seen a number of changes in this aspect of the client-provider relationship in just the past five years. “There’s a broader market now,” he points out. “We have the opportunity to produce parts much more accurately, and in many more materials, so there are multiple applications. ]But] we’re also seeing a real misunderstanding of the materials and technology available.”
With a hint of tongue-in-cheek, Turner explains, “When there were two materials — brittle and more brittle — it didn’t require a lot of time to stay abreast of the choices. Now, you have physical properties that range from rubber-like materials all the way through nano-filled composites.” He sees people who are willing and interested in using RP technology, but not quite with the breadth or depth to get the most bang for their bucks. Scicon Technologies steps in with an extensive needs assessment that examines the environment in which the part will operate.
The Protomold Company offers a rapid injection molding process that uses proprietary software and high-speed computer numeric-controlled (CNC) machining to produce injection-molded parts from 3D CAD models in as little as three days. The company can produce prototypes made of specific resins and other materials so clients can quickly turn around certification tests or use it for other purposes.
Users can go to Protomold’s website and submit 3D CAD design files and get an interactive design analysis and quote within 24 hours. ProtoQuote, Protomold’s web-based analysis and quotation system, points out potential design improvements and provides price quotes based on the user’s choice of resins, lead time, finish, and quantity of parts to be produced.
At Mydea Technologies, President Mike Siemer has seen all types of customers, so he believes the most important aspect of a business completing a project successfully is understanding, managing, and exceeding expectations. He states, “All the time is worth it, if the investment of educating customers and setting up manageable expectations results in a successful project (and possibly repeat projects).”
“This is the reason we created IQ,” Siemer notes, “our instant quoting engine, at www.mydeaiq.com. We made this ‘no login’ nor ‘no upload’ required, ]with lots of help options] to help both customers who are educated and those not as well versed in RP.”
Met-l-flo is a full-service plastics prototyping service center that also works intently at educating not only its clients but the industry in general. According to Carl Dekker, president, “Either one-on-one, via conferences, or by presentations at educational facilities, we are constantly trying to help expand the understanding of current and future users of the state of the ]RP] technology.”
This effort makes good business sense for both parties. “A client that understands that all processes have limitations can also respect that our survival depends on how well we guide our clients to the best technology for their application,” adds Dekker. By looking at the full picture, Met-l-flo can foresee and resolve complications in the RP stage that could show up in a secondary processing step.
Matching the Part to the Process
Service bureaus are in a near-perfect position to stay up-to-date on materials, processes, and the general RP knowledge base. Even RP-industry veterans of 10 or 15 years may not know the latest offerings for material flexibility, high-temperature operation, color options, or finishing options. What they do know is the “what” (desired operating properties of their parts) and the “why” (the operating environment).
Educate Thyself on RP
The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME.org) not only hosts an annual RAPID Conference and Exposition (May of 2008 in Lake Buena Vista, FL) but also offers books, courses, and certification programs on the latest in RP technology.
Rapid Technologies and Additive Manufacturing Certificate Programs:
· Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME): October 16 – 18, 2007 at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY USA
· The National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers (ncatc.org) is a network of
Higher education resources that offers workforce development programs:
· Some members are keenly focused on RP; check out the programs at Saddleback College (saddleback.edu) in Mission Viejo (LA), California.
Todd Reese, president of service bureau Realize, responds to these needs: “The first thing we must do when speaking with any client is shut up and listen. By learning about the client and his unique application, we know what is important to him.”
Reese stresses conversation, beyond online communication, as the ideal medium for identifying optimal methods and materials. He admits that sometimes, “The best method may be a service we do not offer in-house; that kind of honesty is the first step in building a relationship. Rapid prototyping is very much an art, and a mathematical formula cannot service a client in an effective manner.”
Scicon’s Turner notes that it would be very difficult to interpret, say, a chart describing 100 materials, and states that his company typically saves a customer time or money by getting to the core of what’s needed. “We try to understand the application,” he says. “They may come into this fixated on one process, and we say, ‘That process is really good if you only need one, but you need twenty of these. How about a urethane casting instead?’ Typically they’re responding to an ad, but they’re not seeing the five other choices that are available.”
Some service bureaus offer a variety of RP, CNC and molding technologies, while others focus on the systems of one or two RP vendors. Tangible Express is among the latter; Ben Stier, the company’s director of marketing, notes that his company has the largest installed base of Viper Pro SLA machines, among other systems, which allows it to offer options the customer may not have considered.
Stier mentions that Tangible Express has put out a 30-page booklet to help with education, but says it’s really not the customer’s job to stay up-to-date on everything RP. He admits to loving it when he can tell a customer that Tangible Express can not only do their demanding job, but with even more details if desired.
At ARRK Product Development Group, Marketing and Sales Coordinator Sarah Woellert says that ARRK offers full-line product development solutions, from design all the way through to production. “Our project managers like to educate customers not only on the RP process and what they need for the prototype,” she says, “but on what’s going to make the prototype yield the most information to help in the tooling production steps of the product development.”
Woellert acknowledges that ARRK would love to see a project from beginning to end. “It’s not necessary,” she says, “but that way a project doesn’t spend time exchanging hands” for different assembly and processing steps.
Matching the part to the process is critical to Tom Budd, VP of sales and one of five co-owners at Prototype Solutions Group. “It’s usually about ‘how fast can it be done,’ but we find out what the customer wants to do with the prototype and suggest the best approach. There’re a lot of people out there selling a commodity, but we take it more personally.” He mentions the old saying, don’t be afraid to ask questions, pointing out that he makes sure his staff does the same.
It’s hard to overestimate the role and value of the Internet in today’s RP business environment. Users expect data and service at their convenience, and the web is often the first stop for information. However, follow-through, whether in person, by phone, or with frequent e-mailing, is critical for a well-done job.
UpFront Prep Leads to Optimum RP Solutions
Knowing the customer’s goals helps a service bureau customize a solution that meets the end needs. Ask yourself these questions, suggested by Ron Clemons, Director of Business Development at Harvest Technologies.
>What is the application—functional prototype, show model, pattern for casting, rapid
tooling or end-use production parts?
>What do the parts need to do? How do they need to function?
>What mechanical, thermal, chemical, and/or electrical stresses must be factored?
>What are the mating and assembly requirements?
>What level of finishing and aesthetics are expected?
>What special tolerancing is required?
>What secondary postprocessing is required?
>How long do the parts need to last?
Quickparts is a custom parts provider that thrives by offering online, instant quotes available 24/7. Beyond that, it also provides design analysis for the customer, and looks at the full project, not just the RP part. This approach allows it to support production manufacturing, as it is intimately involved in the project from the beginning.
RedEye On Demand, an online rapid prototyping service, recently introduced Overnight Build next-day shipment, the first in a series of new services the company plans to launch. “Product manufacturers are under constant pressure to bring better products to market faster,” says product manager Tim Thellin. “Overnight Build will deliver the working prototypes they need to quickly adjust and validate designs and meet product release dates.”
From RedEye’s website, users can obtain an instant price quote for parts that qualify for Overnight Build based on criteria such as size, quantity, run time, and geometry. Orders placed before 4 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday will qualify for next-day shipment. Initially, parts will be available in ABS white, with additional material options planned later in the year.
“Our goal is to raise the bar in rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing with continued innovation both in materials, technologies, and service,” says Thellin.
Fractional ownership is a new concept offered by Tangible Express. Under this program, customers buy a fraction of a very high-end SLA system, similar to the strategy of fractional ownership of corporate jets. Tangible Express’ Stier explains that there is no annual fee, and that this is truly a depreciating asset that includes all the tax benefits of ownership. At any time, owners can also swap their technology with that of a high-end SLS Sinterstation from 3D Systems at no extra cost.
Educated Customers Equal Satisfaction
The key is knowing what you need, and if you don’t know up front, service bureaus are there to help. In this business, customer service goes a long way. Prototype Solutions’ Budd says customers like having one person as their point of contact, getting immediate answers about the status of their project. “We’re all about repeat business, and mutual respect,” he says.
“The best way for us to educate a customer is to have them in and tour our facility,” says Realize’s Reese. “Seeing with your own eyes and touching with your own hands really brings things home. That’s kind of funny when you think about it, because that’s what our business actually is. We take our clients’ virtual models and turn them into a tangible object that tells the story.”
ARRK Product Development Group
Mydea Technologies Corp.
Prototype Solutions Group
RedEye On Demand
Contributing Editor Pamela J. Waterman is an electrical engineer and freelance technical writer based in Arizona. You can contact her about this article via e-mail sent to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.