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It’s all molto presto for Fender’s prototyping team

06 October 2010

Legendary musical instrument maker, Fender is using 3D printing to speed product development and improve the quality of its designs

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation designs and manufactures stringed instruments and amplifiers, such as solid-body electric guitars, including the Stratocaster and the Telecaster. The company also makes acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos, and violins, as well as guitar amplifiers, bass amplifiers, and public address equipment. Avril Lavigne, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend and Sting are among the artists known for using Fender equipment.

While engineers focus on how instruments should sound, a group of industrial designers at Fender work on how they will look. Design is an extremely important element of Fender’s business. The company maintains its own in-house design centre complete with a model shop to explore new concepts and create the prototypes, and ultimately test them. Fender’s senior industrial designer, Shawn Greene takes up the story.

“We’re dealing with artists, and often professional musicians, so all of our instruments and equipment need to look great as well as sound great. Our design group works closely with marketing to explore different colours, graphics and the types of metal and plastic parts used. Before we spend anything on a product we do a lot of concept work and research to make sure it’s the right fit and product.”

3D rapid prototyping has been a part of Fender’s design process for years, and until recently the company contracted service bureaux to conduct this work. However, Mr Greene and the design team were becoming frustrated by the delays and high costs inherent in this approach. It often took one to two weeks to get a ‘rapid’ prototype back, a time lapse that really slowed down projects. By late 2007, Fender’s volume had grown to such a level that Mr Greene recommended they bring rapid prototyping technology in-house, as he explains:

“I calculated the cost of outsourcing prototypes for one year, and then the cost of bringing it in house. Even after factoring in the cost of the equipment and materials as well as staff time, I still concluded that we could significantly reduce our costs by doing it ourselves.” His manager agreed and Mr Greene was tasked with evaluating 3D printing system vendors. “Detail was the most important criteria for us. The nature of our work requires very tight detail. We also needed to make sure the system could handle a variety of part sizes and materials, because our parts range from the size of a dime up to a full guitar body.

“We were familiar with the equipment our service bureaux were using, and had learned to distinguish parts made on certain printers. There was one brand of printer that produced what we called ‘fuzzy parts’ because the finish was so raw, so we dismissed that vendor right off the bat. On the other hand, we’d always been happiest with parts from Objet printers.” The final choice came down to Objet’s Eden350V 3D printing system, which builds prototypes in horizontal layers of just 16 microns to provide exceptionally fine detail and thin (0.1-0.3mm) wall thickness. Fender can now prototype a part within hours rather than the weeks it used to take, and so they are doing a lot more of it.

Fender now uses its 3D printer to create parts, mockups and prototypes for almost every product. One recent example is its G-DEC (Guitar Digital Entertainment Center) amplifier, named “Best New Instrument Amplifier” by Music & Sound Retailer magazine.

“We were able to prototype a lot of parts and knobs on the amp long before we spent any money on tooling, and had finished a mockup of the first G-DEC within one month,” Mr Greene recalls. “Then we worked with marketing to do some focus groups with musicians and retailers to make sure the product was on target. After some tweaking, we were able to go right to tooling. The whole process took about six months.

“Prior to the Eden350V, the mockup alone would have taken six to twelve months. Then the changes we got from marketing would have added even more time to the project, as we waited for new prototypes. The bottom line is that having the Objet 3D printer in house helped Fender get the G-DEC amplifier to market six to twelve months faster.”

The Eden350V has also helped Fender avoid rework and retooling. One notable example was a light-up front panel for an amplifier. A prototype of the front panel was printed using Objet’s FullCure 720 transparent material, but when it was located on the front of an existing amplifier and tested with different types of lights, Mr Greene discovered that the light did not deflect in the way his team had expected.

As a result, he went back and adjusted the design significantly. “In the past, we would not have done a prototype for that kind of part because it would have taken too long and cost too much money,” says Mr Greene. “So by the time we noticed that problem we would have already paid for tooling, and then we would have had to pay for amendments to the tool. The ability to rapid prototype in-house saved us a fortune just on that one project.”

Shawn Greene says the greatest benefit to having the Objet printer in-house is that it has given the design team the ability to explore new ideas really quickly, providing a lot of freedom and creative latitude. “If I have an idea for something new and edgy, I can design it and have a prototype in just a few hours. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve only used an afternoon instead of a week.”

Fender’s marketing staff are also appreciative of how quickly the design team is able to go from concept to reality. “You can show something on paper all day long,” says Mr Greene,” but when you give them something real they can touch, people really get excited.”

The 3D printer has helped Fender provide better products to its customers. The company now prototypes so much more and the general feeling is that it has had an impact on the quality of the company’s designs, because rapid prototypes enable little tweaks to be made throughout the design process to improve the look, feel and functionality of a part.

Even with the significant increase in rapid prototyping, the costs are half what they were when the company used service bureaux. And despite its frequent use, the performance of Fender’s Eden350V has been “rock solid” and in 18 months it has not gone down even once.

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