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How 3-D printing makes product prototyping faster and cheaper

Jen A. Miller | May 22, 2014
Longtime robotics entrepreneur Henry Thorne admits nothing works in reality the same way it works in your head. Thorne's newest venture, 4moms, focuses on baby products, and 3-D printing helps the firm turn ideas into prototypes in just one day's time.

In comparison, there's Tug, a delivery system for hospitals developed by Thorne's previous startup, Atheon. Tug transports medication and other supplies around a hospital, allowing staff to focus more attention on patient care.

Thorne says 3-D printers make the development process for Tug, 4moms' car seats and other products both faster and cheaper. There's no more need to send a prototype out for production, and flaws can be found as soon as the printed prototype is finished.

"You have an idea. It can be as big an idea as a stroller or as small as a switch from a gear to a belt in a drive train," Thorne says. "At 4moms, ideas are happening all the time - and the people developing the products, including myself, are constantly bombarded with a new, better idea with how to make something. We live for that."

3-D Printing Can Quickly Put 'Brilliant Idea' Into Your Hands

Shaw warns that 3-D printing could represent the next tech bubble - not in its use but, rather, in the printers stock prices. Despite some proclamations that 3-D printing will change the manufacturing industry entirely, she says it's just not feasible. "If you want to make BIC pens, which are plastic injection molded, it's not cost-effective."

But for companies such as 4moms that thrive on rapid prototype development, 3-D printing is a perfect fit.

Before 3-D printers, Thorne says, an idea had to be conceived, designed and put right into production. If something was wrong with one part of the device, it ruined the entire batch - and that happened often.

"Never once in my development of hundreds of ideas have I had it work when you leave the honeymoon phase where it's just an idea in your mind," Thorne says. "Nothing that you create in your mind works the same way in reality as it did in your head or in your [computer-assisted design] system."

With 3-D printers, Thorne can come up with an idea in the morning, perfect the design throughout the day, hit the "Print" button at night and have a prototype in the morning. "I get to find out everything that's wrong with this brilliant idea, because I have a physical unit that I can assemble and operate and find out its flaws," he says.


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