The design limits of 3D printing

16th January 2013

The design limits of 3D printing

The design limits of 3D printing mean that designing for production is quite different from the use of the technology to make one-off parts or prototypes.

There are a number of companies that appear to offer manufactured parts using 3D printing but most deliver one-off parts made to order, rather than a product that the customer can modify on-line and then ‘print’. One company that really is offering mass customisation is Makielabs, that is working on a very exciting and ambitious plan to develop – amongst other things – a range of customisable dolls.

With an excellent customising interface, cool doll designs, over £1 million in funding and Martha Lane Fox as their chair, Makielabs is not your average start-up. Founded in early 2011 by Alice Taylor and three co-founders: Sulka Haro (Habbo), Luke Petre (Little Big Planet) and Jo Roach (Channel 4), the company which is already selling its dolls, will soon be adding an associated playspace and a mobile app to its range.

Crucible Design was approached by Makielabs in December 2012 because they were experiencing some issues with the joints on the dolls, which are made using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). As a product design consultancy we worked to remove the dependence on the tolerances possible with SLS parts, to create joints that will work well in the long term. The key to this project, like most 3D printing projects, was an understanding of the limitations and characteristics of the process. SLS, for example, is excellent in terms of durability, but not ideal in terms of reproducing very fine details. There is also some doubt about its ability to hold close tolerances across a number of identical parts. This is not to say that SLS is not a good process – it is. All production processes have their limitations and the trick is to work with and around them, and not to believe the 3D printing hype that suggests that you can make ‘anything you can imagine’. 

We were very pleased to be able to help such an exciting and interesting company, and the new joint designs are now entering production. As one of the co-founders, Jo Roach puts it:

“Crucible’s innovation was in removing the small but critical variable tolerances on the weight-bearing joints and thus improving their stamina with sustained use. We’re very happy with the results of the work Crucible undertook”.