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Life-Like Prototypes

Black & Decker’s prototype specialists employ 3D printers to create models for industrial designers to evaluate, speeding time-to-market.

The drills, hammers, and other tools photographed for Stanley Black & Decker (SBD) catalogs probably don’t function as specified in the fine print.

Sure, the drill that is purchased at the store will work just fine, but more often than not the models photographed for promotions, advertising, and packaging are prototypes printed by John Reed, master prototype specialist, and the four-person team in Stanley Black & Decker’s industrial design shop.

The shop employs two different brands of 3D printers to create life-like prototypes for industrial designers to evaluate the design and ergonomics of their tools, speeding time-to-market and improving the overall design process.

“The ability to make these models so fast leads to faster design, better design, and better ergonomics,” says Reed, who has been with SBD for over 40 years. “Because of the multiple iterations that can be done so quickly, the designers are able to try more things to get the design correct.”

Building a Prototype Shop

SBD began doing in-house 3D printing around 2004 with the purchase of a Z Corp 310 3D printer. Since then, the shop has upgraded to four 3D printers, two from Z Corp and two from Objet, to use depending on the type of model that needs to be printed. The shop’s printers include:

  • Z Corp 510.
  • Z Corp 650.
  • Objet Eden 333.
  • Objet Eden 350 (V).

Reed says they generally use Z Corp models early in the design processes when there are likely to be a lot of changes as the design is being worked out.

“The material is cheaper than the other method we have here,” explains Reed. “We don’t generally use the Eden machines until later in the design process when there’s a need for a more accurate and more finished model.”

The Eden machine produces a more plastic-like part, which Reed says is more realistic looking and can be highly finished to a smooth surface. “They can be hand-sanded and then painted to a photo-quality model,” he says.

Each of the types of printers has pros and cons, but together Reed says the two styles cover most of the shop’s needs. If there is a part on a model that may come under some stress, the shop turns to an on-site rapid prototyping service that engineers functional parts using an SLS process, although because the equipment and materials are expensive, this option is used less often.

“Parts that the Eden machine builds are not particularly robust,” says Reed. “They’re a little on the fragile side, even though it’s a hard-type plastic. They wouldn’t be suitable for, say, a working prototype. They’re kind of brittle.”

“But for the bulk of industrial design work, [SLS] is really not needed,” explains Reed.

From Computer to Model

The prototype process starts when one of the designers sends a CAD model of a new design down to the shop. Reed and his team will sometimes modify the design, adjusting the way parts are put together so the prototype can be constructed using the available printing technology.

“Then we’ll send that model, that data, to the Z Corp machine, usually in the late afternoon so it builds overnight,” says Reed. “The next morning it’ll be finished in the machine.”

After the model is removed, the team de-powders it and infiltrates the model with a super glue type material to harden and strengthen the models, since models that come off the Z Corp printer are somewhat fragile, says Reed.

One way the Z Corp printers help speed up the prototyping process is through the use of color.

“Especially with the Black & Decker brand and consumer brands of our products, the color is important -- how the product looks on the shelf,” explains Reed. “Having that colored model is a huge help to the designers and it saves us in the shop from having to mask it and paint it to the correct color scheme. That’s a time-consuming process.”

Speeding Up an Industrial Design Review

One challenging application the shop recently faced was a new tool case. Forty-eight hours before an international design review, designers sent in a CAD file of the stackable tool case to the shop to prepare a prototype for a meeting.

Typically, Reed and the team would have produced the product on a CNC machine, but within the timeframe it was impossible due to multiple setups and the size of the toolbox. However, the team had also never produced anything this large on the Z Corp machines.

“We were a little apprehensive about attempting it on the Z Corp machine because it basically had to be broken into three parts, and each of the parts just about filled up the build chamber of the machine,” says Reed.

Reed split the model into three sections, thickened up the walls to make a stronger part, and built the three sections in the printer. After a black paint job, the model was completed in time for the meeting.

"It probably took us 20 percent of the time it would have taken to machine it,” says Reed. “That’s a huge time savings.”

The Future

Although Reed says he doesn’t have plans to add more equipment to the shop at the moment, the next big purchase will likely be a machine capable of printing digital materials like Objet’s Connex family.

“You can customize the material to your specific need with technology of mixing multiple materials together and printing it out,” he says. “And you can also print different materials in the same part.” For pieces like drill and hammers, being able to print a prototype that has soft rubber on the handle and hard plastic for the casing would be a benefit.

Another improvement, in future 3D printer iterations is stronger materials. “Objet has come out with some new materials that can only be run in the Connex machine that wouldn’t be able to be used in the equipment we have. They’re stronger, less brittle, more heat resistant, and more durable.”