When my business partner and I launched the O’Sol project, we did in a conservative Mechanical Engineering way.

We were working on a piece of hardware – a mobile, automated, deployable solar generator – through a classical approach. We had a set of requirements, a set of constraints, and an initial idea for the deployment system. We worked a lot with paper sketches to assess initial concepts, the once we settled on one, we moved to Computer Aided Design (CAD).

We were a start-up company. This meant that we did not have the funds to afford to make mistakes. Prototyping is generally an expensive endeavour, especially for complex and non-standard hardware such as ours. This is because a number of mechanical parts need to be manufactured, and since they are non-standard and produced in small quantities, the cheaper mass-production techniques are unsuitable.

This meant that we had to get our design just right the first time. Our progress was slow, as we were wary of making any false steps along the way.

This changed when one of our close friends convinced us to invest in a 3D printer. His background lay in software engineering and robotics, and to him Engineering revolved around iteration and rapid incremental improvements.

3D printer and 3D illustration

 

To him, it was unthinkable not to prototype using a 3D printer. So we conceded and followed his advice. We invested in a reasonably-priced printer, later adding a second one.

 

This had a profound effect on how we worked, and brought with it several key advantages.

1. It became OK to make mistakes

Our mentality gradually changed to accept that we may not get the design right the first time, and that this was fine. It meant we were allowed to imagine different concepts, try different solutions, and innovate where we could. It made us welcome the lessons learnt from those mistakes, took some of the pressure out from our work and helped us move and progress much faster.

2. We began to develop by prototyping rather than by designing

With the ability to allow ourselves to make mistakes, we were able to try different concepts in the physical world in addition to our CAD models. This meant we could try competing concepts, selecting the one which worked best in practice rather than in theory. It also meant that we could rapidly test new designs, often finding out constraints or issues which we hadn’t spotted before.

3. It allowed us to work with more complex parts

In our initial design-first-and-build-later approach, we were forced to make parts as simple as possible. This was due to the high cost of manufacturing complex parts through traditional processes. 3D printing changed this, as we were able to design, prototype and test more complex parts in an inexpensive way, with the assumption that once their design was optimised, they would be built through cheaper mass-production manufacturing techniques.

 

This didn’t mean that 3D printing was without its drawbacks, of course. It presented some limitations, as we discovered.

  • The size of the printer determines the size of the part

Our printer could only handle parts under 240 mm in any dimension. This limited the parts that we could design, prototype and test through 3D printing.

3D printing piece

Considering that we are developing a generator which will stand at least 1.6 m tall, this meant that some of the critical elements could not be developed in this way. However, building scaled models helped mitigate this limitation.

 

  • The strength of the printed elements is limited

Our printing material was PLA, and the nature of 3D printing limits the strength of parts under certain constraints. This means that the range of tests that can be undertaken with 3D printed parts is limited: it works wonders for validating concepts, less so for operational testing. This in itself is not an issue – we just had to make sure that we understood these limitations.

 

We are still learning, as a start-up company, how to maximise the benefits of our 3D printing capabilities. This means that we are still growing and adapting our ways of working. However, what is certain is that it has allowed us to greatly speed up our work and save a lot of design time and costs.