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Aalto University: Applying User Feedback to Refine FDM 3D Printing

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Researcher Huiyang Yu explores improved FDM desktop 3D printing in a Master’s thesis for Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in ‘Improving desktop FDM 3D printer by user-centered design.’ While FDM 3D printing continues to grow in popularity around the world due to its affordability and accessibility, Yu strives to demonstrate the validity of this technology amidst potential dismissals of such desktop printers as ‘professional toys’ responsible for negative feedback from many users.

Wisely, Yu takes a step back in realizing the value of exploring not only the possible drawbacks in software and hardware but in taking a look at the true root of the problem: user needs, along with the development of a solution in terms of hardware features. The study took place in Helsinki as Yu and a group of teammates worked for six months creating a series of ten prototypes after interviewing users to understand ‘core requirements in terms of both users and the market,’ as well as outlining needs for customer development and defining the target market overall.

The methodologies used in this project

In working with the user group, the researchers employed Lean Startup methodology (developed by Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shigo at Toyota, stressing the importance of radical lean thinking to cut out extra waste of sources), while the design process for a solution relied on user-centered design (UCD) as … “the development team was able to understand the user requirements and to find the pain point of using 3D printers, therefore, corresponding solutions could be generated which added the extra values to the product so that the product eventually could be able to improve the working efficiency of architects.”

Over the past few decades, input from users detailing their experience and requirements has become recognized as a critical component in refining technology or other systems—mainly as researchers become inspired by the conversation.

“However, there are factors that need to be taken into careful consideration when carrying out the interview. Undeniably, listening to a story told by the user can be inspiring, it can be helpful for designers and researchers to understand the pain point or the desire of the user. Nevertheless, it is necessary to highlight that answers provided by interviewees can sometimes be interruptive because what they said might not be the same as what they really do (Stiftung, n.d.),” explain the authors.

“Therefore, the semi-structured interview is developed and it has become one of the most used methods to collecting qualitative data as it enables the interviewees to share meaningful information in a relaxing atmosphere on one hand, on the other hand, interviewers can manage the interview process in order to guarantee the quality.”

The authors employed semi-structured interviews with many different users, while later ‘expert interview was applied.’  Around 40 customers from a variety of industries participated in the interviews so the research team could compile substantial data for project analysis.

Number and size of architecture firms in the EU

With architects chosen as the target market, more interviews were then performed with individuals in countries like Finland, Denmark, Northway, Sweden, Turkey and China. Categories were divided into those who had used 3D printers before, and others who had no exposure to the technology. The researchers noted that even architectural firms who had used 3D printers or had them in their firms still did not seem to ‘have a huge preference’ for them. Some ordered prototypes from third parties as well as required.

One of the team members was helping one of the architecture firms fix their in-house 3D printer which had been used for only a few times.

Architects who were interviewed about challenges with 3D printers expressed dissatisfaction with clogged nozzles, troubles getting the 3D printing process underway, too much maintenance time, and even too much time spent transferring 3D files. This phase of user research led to automatic file conversion, swappable nozzles, and auto bed leveling. Two other designers worked with the research team, and they also created the benchmark for the program.

Yu explains, however, that numerous mistakes—all to be learned from—were made during this project. The first was in defining architects as the user group—constricting their progress in both user research and marketing. Lack of flexibility overall was almost a major killer for the project, slowing progress of product development.

“From what have been discussed above, undeniable, having a main target user group is indeed important, it benefits the marketing. However, as startup companies, being open to all the user groups should always be kept in mind. It is crucial to balance the attention paid to the target users and other users. On the other hand, user research and customer development should be carried out at the same time instead of one is more important than the other. The relationship between business and product is like a chicken and egg situation,” concluded Yu.

Because FDM 3D printing is so popular, as well as offering success in a variety of different projects and applications today, researchers are making constant improvements from modifying biological properties to printing with materials like graphite, optimizing printheads, and more.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts! Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

Conducting interviews with architects

[Source / Images: ‘Improving desktop FDM 3D printer by user-centered design’]

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