Loowatt’s Head of Design, Chris Holden, has been shortlisted for the British Engineering Excellence Awards Design Engineer of the Year. In recognition of this, Chris will be writing a series of blog entries reflecting on design and engineering at Loowatt.
When you think about designing and making a toilet how would you do it? What materials would you use? How about 3D printing it?
For some, 3D printing is the panacea of future manufacturing, allowing bespoke products for all on demand. For others it is a passing fad that, whilst useful for prototyping, can never compete with other manufacturing techniques. This is not a debate that I intend to get into right now, if you are interested in finding out more I have included some interesting links below. There is no doubt that 3D printing (to use the industry term additive manufacturing) an entire toilet is far from economical at this stage, however this doesn’t mean that at a component level it should be discounted. We have a team of skilled designers and engineers adept at generating parts capable of being 3d printed and we are lucky enough to be supported by the Autodesk Impact Program2 , providing us with excellent design and analysis software.
While it is cool that we have the ability to create production components, why would a designer choose 3D printing rather than other more traditional techniques?
There are some huge advantages to Additive Manufacturing; it is possible to make objects that would be impossible to make in any other way—parts with unique internal structures offering performance and weight reductions for industries such as aerospace3. It is also possible to make entirely bespoke components from engineering materials as utilised in medical fields to provide a perfect fit for a unique human body4. Whilst these are fascinating case studies, you would be forgiven for asking what relevance this could possibly have to toilets? The beauty of 3D printing is that it allows these same principles to be applied at any level of design—for example, including internal voids inaccessible from the outer surface to changes in material properties throughout the part, and being able to iterate components over time rather than invest in expensive tooling that forces designs to be finalised and frozen.
Our toilet users won’t be aware of the 3D printed parts–they are hidden under the lid performing key functions in our sealing mechanism. For our UK toilets we like to use components built with Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)1, this is a mature technique that can produce durable mechanical parts. At Loowatt we have a skilled design team who understand how to design and optimise parts for SLS that stand up to scrutiny as production parts.
In terms of manufacturing scale we are operating at low volumes, and the flexibility of 3D printing adds huge value in this context. As production volumes increase, the arguments against 3D printing begin to resonate more loudly. It is time consuming, industrial machines are expensive and there is a limitation in materials available. For many industries, investment in expensive tooling remains the only practical manufacturing technique. Each of these limiting factors is changing—Additive Manufacturing is a field in it infancy and who knows what the future holds.
Additional information link in
1 SLS described
2 Autodesk Impact Program
3 Airbus Bionic partition – 3d printed cabin component for commercial airliners
4 3d Printed prosthetic leg designed by our friend Paul Sohi
Betatype – London based company creating material properties through 3d printing which would be impossible to manufacture in any other way