Faster and cheaper:

How we reduced costs by 90 per cent using a 3D printer

Faster and cheaper: How we reduced costs by 90 per cent using a 3D printer
31/01/2017 Jiří Kovanda
In energomonitor, News

As we already announced earlier via social networks, we have a 3D printer and we are not afraid to use it. In this article we would like to introduce its use in practice because smart and effective solutions are always the right way for us. We used to buy one specific part of our monitoring sets for about €28 per piece. Through the integration of 3D printing, we are now able to produce the piece with the same functionality for €2. How is this possible?

At the end of the day, the development process is all about the money. Many things are possible with a huge amount of money. Which we don’t have. So we decided to make an investment in a 3D printer. It cost nearly 1000 dollars, but it gave us the following advantages for hardware development:

  • We can make physical prototypes very quickly, in about 10-15 minutes per piece. We can give it a shot and see immediately if changing some details was a good idea.
  • We can make prototypes very cheaply, about €0.3 per piece. Not a big deal, even for a start-up.
  • There is a very short turnaround between iterations. We can make as many different prototypes (with minor changes) as we want and we don’t have to wait for weeks or days to receive a prototype.
  • We can produce a small number of products for field testing. When you order products made by a traditional mass injection moulding method you can end up waiting 21 days for them to be delivered and there’s usually a minimum order requirement of at least one thousand products.

Are you curious? Let’s go into the details…

A 3D printer is an investment, not a toy. Or is it both?

In our case, a 3D printer is not just some kind of geeky indulgence, but a perfectly reasonable choice of working tool. For a long time we had issues with probes for our gas monitoring sensors which we call Relaysense Gas. Part of the Relaysense Gas set is a reed relay sensor, which gets consumption data from the impulse output of typical gas meters.

Until now there were not many options for us at Energomonitor when it came to choosing where to get these types of gas probes. We had to buy them from gas meter manufacturers and then resell them to our customers. These producers are in a semi-monopoly position and the reason is quite obvious. They are the only ones on the market. The whole situation meant that costs were too high so we came up with a solution: let’s make these probes on our own!

Long way from idea to physical product started with buying a 3D printer. We chose Rostock Max V3 with a little bit of an unusual design, with three arms. This model is sold as the DIY kit with the expectation of self-assembly, but we accepted this drawback in exchange for the lower price. In fact, René, one of our hardware guys, considered the construction of the printer more as fun than extra work. Ok, so now we had a 999-dollar 3D printer. What next?

From visualization to functional prototypes

Gas probes consist of plastic covering and very simple electronics inside. For now let’s put electronics and circuit boards aside. They’re needed anyway, with a 3D printer or not. Let’s focus on the plastic shell.

We had quite an accurate idea of how the probe should look, because we know how current probes look and what their main characteristics are. So René started to make CAD designs. It is really important to have the possibility of seeing the future product in photo form. As you see in the pictures below, we are thus able to evaluate the final product and its visual aspects long before having it in our hands. It is also one of the opportunities to consider how to adapt these products to our customers needs.

CAD visualization of our probes

If the visualization is the first step towards the new hardware piece, making the physical prototype is the really crucial step. By holding the product in our hands and trying to use it we can discover some practical problems or opportunities for improvements.

After we had discussed all the visual aspects, the 3D printer could show its full potential. As already stated, according to our needs we chose Rostock MAX v3. This model met our requirements on price and performance. It is a delta type printer and on photos below you can see the difference between the probes we had to buy and those we made on our own:

Our (yellow) and purchased probes in comparison

Ninety per cent cost reduction

We obviously cannot compare the process of mass moulding production to the production of small volumes. Integration of 3D printing into the manufacturing process allowed us to reduce our costs significantly. Also, we are now able to minimize the time we need for hardware development. For comparison, please see the table below:

Moulding production 3D printing
Basic investment + − € 3700 < €1000
Part costs €28 (purchase price) €2
Time requirements 21 days 10 minutes per piece

 

These abilities allowed us so many iterations that we got the idea of developing a universal probe i.e to separate the product into the universal inside electronics (covered by a tiny case) and interchangeable plastic attachments that the user can choose according to the exact type of gas meter which he/she owns. To design an idea like this with a traditional production tool by outsourcing the moulding production would be mission impossible for us.

The possibility of trial and error with very low costs allowed us to develop at last a much better final product in small amount of pieces in a very short time and in great quality. However, we are aware of the fact that we would not be able to do mass production this way. But now when moving to mass production, we have almost no risk of bad design.

Considering economic and time factors, the integration of 3D printing can be a very useful step. We are now able to reduce the prices per piece even when it comes to small-volume production. Therefore, there is the possibility of supplying our customers with all three types of probes in one set. It is thus more convenient for them because there is no need to decide which type they need in advance. In two days we are also able to come up with completely new type of adapter based on a sample which is not on the market yet.


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