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In mid-2014, Hughes invested in a 3D printer with the primary goal to enhance the Engineering and Operations New Product Introduction (NPI) process. “Operations and Engineering have a very close working relationship,” said John McEwan, senior vice president of Operations for Hughes. “This significant new capability helps shorten the development lifecycle and improve product validation, strengthening the synergy between the two organizations and delivering tangible benefits to Hughes.”
3D printers allow the use of a wider range of materials, have faster throughput times, and support much larger sizes of final prototypes and models. They also create prototypes that can be fully functional. This helps during product definition and design because it provides an opportunity to build models with different variations before going to market. Having the ability to produce multiple iterations of new designs helps improve the end customer experience and final product quality. It also reduces the time to market.
The Hughes 3D printer is an Objet Connex 3 Model. This 3D printer is highly flexible and enables Hughes to print a variety of prototypes ranging from simple items to extremely complex designs, in either plastic or rubber, and in a variety of colors.
The actual printing process is similar to an inkjet printing process. The job begins with a Hughes engineer transmitting a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) file electronically. The file is downloaded to the 3D printer’s own built-in computer system and software, which in turn 3D Printer Enhances New Product Engineering Development converts the file into print commands. Once the operator selects the appropriate material, the system software determines the best way to layout the part for build speed and material consumption.
The prototype is printed to meet the design specifications, down to color and the placement of the Hughes logo. The Objet Connex 3 produces a range of rigid and flexible color materials by mixing three base resins. The printer uses eight print heads, consisting of 93 nozzles which apply the material in 16-micron layers. With each pass the printer uses UV light to cure the material layer by layer. In areas where there are moving parts or nothing is being printed, the printer applies support material. Once the printing is completed, the last step in the process is to remove all of the support material using pressurized water.