Rapid Prototyping with 3D Printers
With the advent of 3D printers anyone can create parts or products from the comfort of their home. In my latest electronics project, WOOF IOT, I used Fusion 360 and my Ender 3 Pro printer to design a case for my Internet of Things Device.
What is Rapid Prototyping?
Rapid prototyping is the practice of quickly designing a part or prototype in a computer program and then iterating on a design. The process generally involves producing prototypes with 3D printing and other methods.
From Idea to Reality
On a Thursday afternoon, I sat down at my computer. I decided to upgrade my WOOF IOT device by designing and building a custom enclosure for it. At around 3pm, calipers in hand, I started taking measurements of my IOT device. By 5pm I had an initial design of my case completed in Autodesk’s Fusion 360 CAD software. After a late lunch, I loaded my Ender 3 (3D printer) with PLA filament and began printing my prototype. By 8pm I was holding my newly printed case in my hands. The first design turned out well. My NodeMCU micro-controller fit nicely into the case, with room to spare.
Trial and Error
It’s 2019 and consumer grade 3D printers are more accesible than ever. As is CAD software. I began 3D modeling back in middle school with Sketchup (owned by Google at the time). In high school I continued working with Sketchup, creating various 3D models. I had never printed any of them at that point.
When it came time to create a few designs for 3D printing I reached for the familiar Sketchup (now owned by Trimble). It was a familiar experience, I had a primitive 3D model of my case done within an hour. Things were going smoothly until I imported the STL file into Cura (my slicer software, which converts 3D STL files into gcode that a 3D printer can understand). I soon found that my model was not suitable for 3D printing, I had not added hollow structures for all my components. The model did not slice properly and couldn’t be printed. Frustrated, I tried to rework my model in Sketchup. The results, although better, were still not suitable for printing.
I gave up with Sketchup and decided to redo my model from scratch. Only this time, I would be using Fusion 360. Although I say model, I should probably specify that it was three models. It took me three failed attempts and several hours over the course of a week, but I finally felt comfortable using Fusion 360. The results were great. After understanding some of the intracacies of Fusion 360, it becomes evident that it was designed from the ground up for creating precise component designs. It is as much of an engineering toolkit as it is CAD software. Once you get a grasp of the interface, the difference between Sketchup and Fusion is night and day. While Sketchup is easy to learn for beginners, Fusion is precise and extremely powerful when it comes to specifying dimensions, creating interlocking parts and much more.
With the advent of inexpensive 3D printers, ideas can quickly become reality. Trial and error is just part of the natural process. A minimum viable product is created, printed, then modified and once again printed as the cycle repeats itself. The result is that innovation can occur at a rapid pace. Special machinery and expensive tooling is no longer a requirement. I am fascinated by the possibilities 3D printing offers. While it is generally unsuitable for mass production it serves as an excellent tool for prototyping.
In the end, I came up with a prototype case that fit well. I was surprised to have gotten the tolerances for the interlocking parts right on the first print. Fusion 360 allowed me to precisely align my parts to ensure a proper fit. Seeing the case in person and test fitting my project inside it made me realize I can modify my design to be even more compact. A few small changes in Fusion and a few hours of printing later, I have my final design. Take a look at the piece in action in my WOOF IOT device.
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