The Lesson of Coraline

Coraline, the animated fantasy movie directed by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and others), has brought in almost $40 million since it opened last week – not bad for an animated feature. With a toddler at home, I don’t get to the theater very often, but this week I did get to see the innovative technology behind the movie: Objet Geometries’ Connex500. And if the Connex doesn’t count as a disruptive technology yet, it will soon.

The Connex500 is a 3-D printer. It can take an object designed in any CAD software or, in the case of Coraline, an animation program, and “print” a physical copy. Very simply, the software slices the design into microns-thick layers, and gives the printer a footprint for each, so that it can build a model one layer at a time. Because the Connex has multiple printer heads, it can build an object out of any of Objet’s eight basic plastic materials (shown, left) – which range from rigid to flexible, and include clear, white, and black options – or combine them to create an infinite number of composites. Those material options, along with the micron-measured detail, is helping change how companies think about 3-D printing.

For years, 3-D printing has been considered a rapid prototyping technology, one of several used in corporate R&D labs to produce simple models in-house quickly, and relatively inexpensively. Objet – which was founded in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1998 – was actually a later entrant, but the Connex shows how far 3-D printing technologies have come – and how they’re breaking out of the lab.

Coraline is a stop-motion animation film, an incredibly time-consuming and model-driven process. (It’s like a cartoon strip except that every frame is a photograph of a physical set or model rather than a drawing.) When Selick directed Nightmare Before Christmas, also a stop-motion film, he used hand-made models to give the main character 800 potential expressions. Thanks to 3-D printing, Selick was able to give Coraline 208,000 potential expressions by using 320 interchangeable molds of different eyebrow and forehead expressions and 650 different mouth molds. Other props – from silverware to doorknobs to a VW Beetle – were also produced by the 3-D printer.

Entertainment is a growing but relatively new sector for Objet, according to president Frank Marangell, who describes its clients as Fortune 500 companies in consumer products, medical devices, footwear, toys, consumer electronics, automotive, and other industries. “The best companies use 3-D printing as an innovation tool,” says Marangell, who along with senior applications engineer Neil Ranney, gave me a tour of Objet and its machines.

Burton Snowboards is a great case study of the innovations enabled by 3-D printing and its disruptive effect. According to Ryan Larson, the Burton’s senior prototyping specialist, rapid prototyping has enabled the company to cut its development cycle to 12 months from 24 months. Here are a few ways:

1)Concept Development and Communication His team can quickly and cost-effectively produce functional prototypes during the concept development stage. In other words, in the early stages of the development of a new snowboard, Larson’s team can produce a usable, physical prototype that Burton engineers, designers, product managers, professional riders, and key decision makers can feel, touch, and, yes, actually ride. This facilitates communication between the various stakeholders and allows the idea to be refined.

2)Innovation Burton works with a team of professional snowboarders. A few years ago, one of its riders visited the company and described an idea he described as a “wing.” Working with the rider, the design team quickly sketched the idea and Larson was able to print a prototype that the rider tested the next day.

3)Innovation II Thanks to early-stage functional prototypes, the R&D team is spending less time trying to solve problems that would otherwise come up later in the development cycle, when they are almost always more difficult to solve. The result: more time left over for innovation projects.

4)Marketing Here’s another way in which Burton has shaved time off of its development cycle. It used to be that product development and marketing were linear: develop a product and then use it to build the marketing and advertising campaigns. Now, not only is Burton able to get functional products into the hands of testers before they’ve spent a dime tooling a production line, but it’s able to start working on marketing and advertising far earlier. Larson described printing models of new bindings for a catalog shoot, when there was no finished product ready. That echoes something that baby-products maker Graco told Mangella. “You will never see a photo of an actual product on a Graco box,” he says. “It’s always a prototype.”

As I was driving home from Objet along Boston’s Route 128, the road BusinessWeek dubbed “the Magic Semicircle” in 1955, I thought about its earlier residents. Companies like Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General, and Polaroid made Rte. 128 the tech hotspot in the 1960s through the 1980s. Since the rise of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to think that innovation has moved west, leaving Rte 128 a dead zone of office parks. But clearly, innovative companies can still be found along the storied corridor.

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