The prototyping process for developing new products, while necessary, is still a long, expensive and often laborious process. When you think about how often a product needs to be redesigned after early prototypes failed to work or look as intended it’s almost shocking that new products are created at all. It isn’t uncommon for even the smallest of products to run through dozens of prototypes with twice as many design revisions being made. Even with timelines sped up with the use of 3D printing and rapid prototyping, the strain on companies and designers can be both financially and mentally draining.
Beyond any associated cost or design challenges there is still a chance that the designers are missing a major flaw that could cost a company millions of dollars if their product is sent to market. Even with multiple prototypes there is no guarantee, it is entirely possible that the people working on a design are missing something obvious that could prevent their product from working as intended. The risk associated with launching new products is the primary reason why many of the objects that we use every day aren’t always as functional or reliable as they could be.
When it comes to digital products like software or video games, the industry has a pretty good system in place to prevent poorly designed products from hitting the market. Beta releases are not uncommon, and they cast a wide net to pull in dedicated users to test early or revised versions and help find flaws or glitches that the design team may have missed. As a former Google employee who helped develop Google Chrome, Google Plus and Google Wallet, Bhold founder Susan Taing is quite familiar with the process and came up with the idea of using 3D printing to apply the beta testing model to the development of the physical products that she sells.
Bhold Labs gathers a dedicated group of product testers from all over the world and distributes 3D printable files for many of Bhold’s products, allowing them to print them out and test how they work in real world conditions. Products like iPhone holders, travel hooks and cord management devices are all evaluated for flaws by their network of volunteer testers, who provide their feedback with an easy to define and organize reviewing system. They are simply asked a series of questions about how the product worked, how they used it and the quality of the design using number rankings.
When Taing first started using her 3D printer to design and build small products she initially just asked friends to try them out. While they often provided her with invaluable feedback, she was aware of the fact that it was an unreliable and unsustainable testing model so she decided to broaden her testing group. She announced the Bhold Labs open-access beta testing initiative in 2014 at Maker Faire and invited anyone with a 3D printer to download and test her line of Bhold products. She quickly grew her circle of beta testers from a handful to hundreds, each with a different perspective and experience using her product. With this beta process her products can often go through almost a hundred different iterations before she settles on the final product design to be mass produced and sent to market.
While most of her products are made using traditional manufacturing technologies, she does sell 3D printed versions of many of her designs through Shapeways. Taing hopeful that eventually 3D printing will allow her to simply sell digital versions of many of her products, but she doesn’t think that the quality is consistent enough, nor are there enough materials available. But 3D printing still remains a major part of her product development cycle, and she recently partnered with Dutch 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker to allow anyone with one of their printers to access her product prototypes.