By Olivia Cahoon
Three-dimensional (3D) printing helps fast track product development and manufacturing by keeping the production of prototypes in house. Prototypes that are built, tested, and modified without any outsourcing speed up the design process. The 3D process supports creativity and maintains design confidentiality because mostly all decisions are made in house.
As digital print technology advances, manufacturers find new ways to take advantage. A designer and manufacturer of protective solutions for handheld manufacturers, wireless carriers, and distributors, Otter Products, LLC’s OtterBox division relies on 3D printers for prototyping waterproof cases for smartphone and tablet devices.
A Premium Case
Established in 1998, OtterBox is a well-known provider of premium protective cases. It serves business, education, healthcare, and government customers through a network of distributors worldwide, including online. Committed to innovation, the company aims to “inspire people to do all that they do with a dash of daring.” With over 1,000 employees globally, it is one of the top smartphone case sellers in the U.S.
Headquartered in Fort Collins, CO—with global offices in Hong Kong, China and Cork, Ireland—the CO location features a lab dedicated to innovation by prototyping and testing protective cases. This is where OtterBox reviews designs and materials to guarantee each case adheres to its Certified Drop+ Protection standards including defense against drops, bumps, scratches, and dings. According to the company, each design endures over 238 hours of analysis across over 24 different experiments that include testing against UV, thermal shock, sweat, abrasion, and humidity.
Part of OtterBox’s product development involves creating rigid, flexible, multi-color, and multi-texture prototypes of its smartphone cases. In 2008, the company purchased its first 3D printer, a Z Corp—now owned by 3D Systems—Spectrum Z510, to bring prototyping in house, which was previously outsourced. This first 3D printer allowed the retailer to only send out work it didn’t have the bandwidth to handle on site.
The company immediately realized the benefits of in-house print capabilities. Prototype designs are honed in before tooling, which results in fewer tooling changes at the manufacturer. “3D printing creates more accurate prototypes, reduces the time to market, and saves on costs,” shares Brycen Smith, technician supervisor, OtterBox.
In 2010, the company brought all prototyping in house and unless it’s a very rare exception, avoids outsourcing. “It made the most sense to do everything in house for cost, time, and security,” says Smith.
Earlier this year, Otterbox purchased its newest 3D printer, the Stratasys J750 from Stratasys Ltd. The 3D printer loads six materials at once without swapping canisters and can be assigned any combination of opaque, transparent, rigid, or flexible materials. It creates fine details with layer thickness as thin as 0.014 millimeters.
The device is powered by PolyJet Studio 3D printing software, which is designed to streamline workflow. This new software offers an intuitive interface that makes it easy to choose materials, optimize the build, and manage print queues. It also improves shell-based color assignment for StereoLithography and shell-based Virtual Reality Modeling Language files, an intuitive user interface, and the ability to add color textures and gradients.
“Stratasys provides the best realistic materials for our application, along with the print tolerances, quality, and print speed we require,” explains Smith.
OtterBox considers color mapping to be an essential feature for its colorful designs and trending smartphone cases. Therefore, the Stratasys J750’s automatic color mapping is an important feature. “The ability to print a wide array of colors on the Stratasys J750 is what made us want to try it out,” admits Smith. The machine features over 360,000 colors that are automatically mapped for realistic models.
Before the Stratasys J750, Smith shares it was using custom color match spray paints to paint printed parts for approvals. The process delayed prototype production. “Now we can print colors in the parts and save days on the post processing needed for painting parts. It removes days from the process and allows us to free up technicians for other work,” adds Smith.
Using the Stratasys J750, the company compressed product development and manufacturing intervals. OtterBox cut down three days of post-processing work to 30 minutes of printing and compressed 26 weeks of product development to an eight week cycle. Rather than manually making the prototype or outsourcing, OtterBox creates the design and prints in house. If there are any design changes, the prototype is reprinted just as quickly as the first iteration.
With time saved, OtterBox produces more prototypes and focuses closely on design elements. Ideas and theories are acted upon in house, paving the way for creativity and new inventions. The company intends to keep an open mind about the possibilities of purchasing more 3D printers in the future. “We are always investigating 3D print technologies that fit our business model that will help get our product to market as fast as possible,” suggests Smith.
OtterBox doesn’t intend to stop at printing prototypes in 3D either. Smith shares that if 3D printer technology continues to evolve, the company will eventually make a move toward printing production-level molds and production-quality cases.
OtterBox’s success with the Stratasys J750 3D printer showcases the benefits of adapting the latest digital technology to improve business operations. 3D printing has shortened the length of OtterBox’s prototype period while ensuring design security, controlling the brand, and sparing outsourcing costs. Thanks to this technology, realistic prototypes and high-quality product displays can be designed, edited, and created in house for a small cost and in a short window of time, enabling more control and creativity. IPM
Nov2016, Industrial Print Magazine