3D printing is enormously exciting in its own right, and many different companies are unlocking its potential in many different ways.

One area that we’re especially interested in, when it comes to 3D printing, is its applications in research and development. Many inventive companies, such as Sports Labs, have explicitly bought 3D printers for the purposes of rapid prototyping.

In contemporary research and development, then, 3D printing is already an important tool. The rapid prototyping capabilities of a 3D printer are something to behold, and in the hands of a skilled engineer the transition from concept to prototype to minimum viable product can look a lot like magic.

What about the future though? The very cutting edge of research and development?

We’ll take a look at 3D printing’s current R&D capabilities, its limitations, its capabilities beyond R&D, and how we expect 3D printing to fit in with the future of research and development.

Amazing 3D Printing Companies

There are already some incredible companies out there making inspiring things. Here are some of the 3D printing companies making the biggest splashes in the mainstream press.

Prosthetic limb, bionic arm research and development

Limbitless Solutions

This company got Hollywood A-lister Robert Downey Junior on board, delivering a 3D-printed bionic arm to 7-year-old Alex. The story is heartwarming, and demonstrates the life-changing potential of technology that can easily adapt to different people.

Bionic arms already exist, of course – but the cost is prohibitive, especially when you consider the need to create different arms as a customer grows up. 3D printing has the potential to drastically bring down the price, and make bionic limbs accessible to entire audiences that otherwise just couldn’t justify the expense.

Makies Doll Factory

If you still remember being a kid, you probably remember wishing you could just make your own toys at some point. That’s a powerful thing to tap into, and it looks like Makies have a good run at capturing kid’s imaginations with their customisable dolls!

Left Field Labs

Literally making music, Left Field Labs used 3D printing in the creation of their music box – and they allow users of their website to create their own custom music box cylinders, effectively printing music from plastic.

If you want, you can see how they made the Music Drop and even make your own using designs from Thingiverse.

plastic 3d printer

3D Systems

We’ve talked about research and development in the food industry before – the ChefJet printer could still dramatically aid these efforts.

Ideal for printing complex chocolate-y confections, it’s a cool way to experiment quickly and easily with different structures, ingredients and flavour combinations.

Reaching The Limits Of 3D Printing Alone

The outer commercial limits of 3D printing are already well-colonised by early adopters and quick thinkers. One area where commercial 3D printing ventures are particularly strong is medical technology, where the high adaptability and flexibility of 3D printed devices perfectly fits the demand for very individual solutions. It is this theme of cheap, large-scale but bespoke product design that has dominated early commercial 3D printing, and forms the backbone of the 3D printing surge.

3d printing medical prototypes

This allows for a lot of rapid research by dedicated 3D printing companies during the process of making even an individual product, and they have accomplished a vast amount already. Now that these big, sweeping changes are occurring, though, where does 3D printing fit in with a less specialised, less 3D-printing-focussed research and development process?

Making It Real

The process of turning something into reality in industries that aren’t explicitly focussed on 3D printing still benefits from 3D printing capabilities.

The ability to make and interact with 3D models quickly and easily in the real world affords 3D printing a special place in any existing manufacturing process as a research and prototyping tool, but equally it has an important role in research and development alongside new and developing technologies.

The idealised ‘futuristic’ prototyping workflow might look something like:

  • Create a 3D model of the final product using traditional Computer Aided Design
  • Examine the 3D model with the use of augmented and virtual reality devices to find and fix obvious flaws
  • Create a rough, incomplete prototype using 3D printing to find potential engineering issues that are harder to detect using a computer-generated model
  • Create rough prototypes of smaller working parts of the complete final product, and of modular modifications – giving a rough picture of how the final product might be put together, and what challenges a chosen route might present
  • Engage in traditional R&D and engineering work to create a finished minimum viable product

Of course, in reality stages will occur out-of-order, and tools and concepts from different stages will intrude on each other’s space, and may even be left out completely. However, this gives a rough idea of how 3D printing could fit in with an established manufacturing business’ research and development process.

Already Using 3D Printing? Or A Different Prototyping Technique?

If you’re prototyping products in any way, that’s a good indicator that you’re carrying out work that counts as research and development according to HMRC.

electrical prototype board

If you’re carrying out work that includes qualifying research and development expenditure, then there’s a very good chance that you can claim R&D tax relief, and cut down on your taxes or even receive a cash payment.

We can help! We maximise the value businesses can receive from their R&D tax relief, and since we’re R&D tax relief specialists we’re extremely good at it. Get in touch for a free chat and we’ll see if we’re a good fit.


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