April 16, 2021

Design for X: Developing Parts With Different Variables In Mind Can Help You Meet Your Product Life Cycle Goals

By David Giebenhain

Your design and product development decisions are driven by many variables: manufacturability, cost and affordability, product life cycle considerations, testing and quality issues, compliance requirements, and so on.

What is Design for X (DfX)?

Design for X, or DfX, is a design strategy for product development and improvement that can be applied to each phase of a product life cycle: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline.
The 'X' in DfX refers to the elements and design goals of product development such as manufacturing, quality and compliance, cost, assembly, etc. And, for digital manufacturers like us, it is a general term that could be applied to overall manufacturing processes that produce your products, such as 3D printing, CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and injection molding. It’s yet another way to think about applying digital manufacturing services to your product development needs.

Product development and design
For designers, engineers, and product developers, the term DfX, Design for X—with X being any number of design goals and considerations—can be applied in a broad sense to product development.

Of course DfX isn’t new. The approach has been used for years in the traditional design context that relies on the human designer, and more recently it has even been automated via generative design and topology optimization software capabilities in CAD packages like Autodesk’s Fusion 360, and PTC’s Creo 7.0. There are also standalone software packages like ParaMatters and nTopology that are focused exclusively on automated design optimization that can be used alongside traditional 3D design software.

Without getting too far into the weeds, there are two general categories of these tools, as mentioned: topology optimization and generative design. They’re often used interchangeably.

Topology optimization takes an existing human-designed part and adds or removes—usually removes—material based on items such as set input loads (forces acting on it), the boundary conditions (maximum stress where material can or cannot be placed and so on), and a target for optimization, such as lightweighting of a part for aerospace purposes.

Generative design takes a similar approach, but with less front-end definition. The software effectively takes the boundary conditions and optimization target and designs the part from scratch (or from a very rough base representation of the part). It’s basically taking the inputs, running mechanical simulations, adjusting the design based on the output, and iterating on that process until an optimal result is achieved.

Design for manufacturability
Designing for manufacturability, as seen on our digital quoting platform, can help designers set primary manufacturing requirements.

In fact, Fusion 360’s generative design capabilities actually output multiple (10s, maybe nearly 100) designs for the user to review. The reason Fusion 360 does this is to enable engineers to evaluate tradeoffs between things like manufacturability, cost, and performance—they can select whatever is the right fit for their use case. You can even select it to run the optimization in multiple materials you’re considering to add another factor. Of course that notion of taking your custom parts or products from concept to multiple design iterations and digital prototypes—and, in many cases, also taking them on to the end-use part or product—happens to be central to what is provided by digital manufacturers. For example, at Protolabs, we take your designs from the early quoting and design iterations in our online digital platform, through the prototyping process, and finally to manufactured end-use parts and delivery.

Here’s a short list of examples to improve product development by designing parts through different X variables.

Design for Manufacturability

Using Protolabs as an example, once you receive a quote from us, you can set primary manufacturing requirements. Those include items such as desired material, surface finish, and initial production quantity. Our manufacturability analysis will include, depending on the design and manufacturing process and material, a variety of elements such as recommendations on how and where to modify part geometry or when to adjust wall thicknesses.

Design for Cost and Affordability

Cost and affordability issues are key considerations. Accordingly, designing with these goals in mind makes sense. Our digital quoting platform can make recommendations on improving cost and production. With injection molding, for example, we can make recommendations on tool (mold) life. Our quoting platform also provides a Price Curve tool. This tool compares prototyping vs. on-demand manufacturing options so you have full visibility regarding total cost of ownership for your molded parts. But, whether it’s us or another digital manufacturer, you will be able to adjust items such as materials, quantity, turn time, and other cost variables to see the pricing implications. The user can instantly change the quote configuration to evaluate costs of different materials. They can also get quotes for multiple processes to compare. Users can also upload multiple versions of the same design to determine which one is the most cost effective.

Price Curve Tool
Our Price Curve tool in our quoting platform helps you compare prototyping vs. on-demand manufacturing options.

Design for Product Life Cycle

Nimble digital manufacturers can help you optimize manufacturing services throughout the life of your product. These days, product life cycles continue to shrink, driven by electronics, customization, customer taste, constant model upgrades, competition, and more. Accordingly, digital manufacturing’s quick-turn and low-volume capabilities are responsive at all stages: the multiple iterations during prototyping, the eventual launch of the product, then the growth and maturity of that product, all the way to the product’s decline and eventual obsolescence. This flexibility can also significantly mitigate your product’s demand volatility throughout all of these “life” stages.

As mentioned, these stages can change rapidly these days. Case in point: Breathe99’s B2 mask. What started as a fairly basic face mask used for general daily breathing protection in various settings, quickly transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic into a new design that featured a tighter seal and a filtration system that removed about 99.6 % of particles. Suddenly in high demand, the mask ended up being named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions for 2020.

Design for Testing, Quality, and Compliance

Finally, testing and quality assurances, and industry-compliance requirements are mandatory in most industries. When designing for this variable, engineers and product developers will find digital manufacturing testing and inspection options are varied. Examples abound: tensile testing and CT scanning in 3D printing, First Article Inspection for all of our services, Process Capability Reports in injection molding, and so on. Quality management certifications are also relevant, especially in industries such as medical and aerospace: ISO 9001, AS9100D, ISO 13485, and so on.

In addition, industries themselves often have stringent compliance requirements for designers and engineers to further navigate. For example, Corindus, a Siemens Healthineers Company, used digital manufacturing to get needed prototype and production-ready tooling and parts fast to meet demanding testing, customer evaluations, FDA clearance, and production startup deadlines for its CorPath GRX Robotic System. CorPath is used for certain interventional vascular and other medical procedures.

Ultimately, as several sources point out, DfX’s systematic approach to achieve certain targeted objectives can truly help to optimize your product design and development efforts.

Speaking of those efforts, if you have questions, feel free to contact us at 877-479-3680 or [email protected]. And, to get your next design project started with us, simply upload a 3D CAD model for an interactive quote within hours.

David Giebenhain is the global product director for 3D printing services for Protolabs.