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How to Survive the R&D Process

(October/November 2017) posted on Tue Nov 14, 2017

Great ideas for innovative industrial printing projects often don’t make it to production, a sad and often expensive outcome that can be avoided.

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By Ray Greenwood

In the world of printed functional products (including appliances, consumer electronics, transportation equipment/controls, medical devices, sensors, and printed electronics of all types), only a small fraction of new product designs ever make it to production. All too often, game-changing – even life-changing – product designs are shelved, never to be seen for reasons that range from poor production feasibility to excessive time to market.

The reality is, most new products never make it out of R&D, and it’s not because the design or product type is not in demand or feasible to produce. More often, jobs are greenlighted too soon, by people who don’t ask the questions that would enable a different outcome.

Here is a typical scenario common to many of these canceled designs, especially with consumer and medical electronics: A manufacturer wants to upgrade or introduce a variant of an existing product with a new function, shape, appearance, materials, or packaging. Because the project only involves updating an existing product, it’s assumed at the quote stage that everything should proceed smoothly. When it doesn’t, everyone begins making assumptions (usually incorrect ones) as to what went wrong.

The question that should always be (but too seldom is) asked at the quote stage: “Has the product design advanced far enough to begin R&D printing?” Early in the design of a product, such printing should come after an initial trial-and-error process of establishing the “proof of concept” (PoC). In PoC, virtually any tool or method, including hand printing, can be used to find the best device configuration for the materials to be used. This step is oriented to the functionality of the design. In the next stage, R&D printing, the research should verify that the PoC design is robust, and the development process of printing sample batches is designed to check whether the equipment and printing process fit the requirements of the job.

At least, that’s how it should be. Unfortunately, modern design cycles are compressed, high-pressure affairs. In order to save time, the early design research testing phase is often combined with development and sample printing. Once preproduction parts are on hand, they may be pushed into clinical trials, focus groups, and test programs too soon. Data gathered during these sample trials can change the design before it’s actually a finished concept.


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