Rapid prototyping is a group of technologies used to quickly produce physical parts or assemblies based on 3D designs. Using rapid prototyping technologies, engineers and designers can make multiple iterations between digital designs and physical prototypes to create better end products in a fast, cost-effective workflow.

Rapid prototyping vs traditional prototyping

Prototyping is a critical step in the product development process, but has traditionally been a bottleneck.

Product designers and engineers use simple tooling to create temporary proof-of-concept models, but producing functional prototypes and production-quality parts often requires the same processes as finished products. Traditional manufacturing processes, such as injection moulding, require expensive tooling and set-up, making small batches of custom prototypes cost prohibitive.

Rapid prototyping, on the other hand, can help companies quickly turn ideas into real-world proof-of-concepts, develop those concepts into high-fidelity prototypes that look and work like the final product, and take the product through a series of validation stages to eventually reach mass production.

Rapid prototyping technology enables designers and engineers to create prototypes faster than ever, directly from digital models created in CAD software, and to make quick and frequent changes to designs based on real-world testing and feedback.

Advantages of Rapid Prototyping

Easily implement and explore concepts

Rapid prototyping turns initial ideas into low-risk concept explorations that look like real products in a short time. It allows designers to go beyond virtual visualisation and more easily understand the look and feel of a design and make side-by-side comparisons of concepts.

Communicate ideas effectively

Physical models allow designers to share their concepts with colleagues, clients and collaborators, communicating ideas in a way that visualising designs on a screen cannot. Rapid prototyping facilitates clear, actionable user feedback, which is critical for designers to understand user needs and refine and improve designs.

Save Cost and Time

3D printing technology eliminates the need for expensive tooling and setup, allowing the same equipment to produce different geometries. In-house rapid prototyping eliminates the high costs and lead times associated with outsourcing.

Iterative design to incorporate changes immediately

Design is always an iterative process, requiring multiple rounds of testing, evaluation and improvement to arrive at the final product. Rapid prototyping with 3D printing technology allows greater flexibility, faster creation of more realistic prototypes and immediate implementation of changes, thereby enhancing this critical trial and error process.

A good model is a 24-hour design cycle: design at work, 3D print prototype parts overnight, clean and test the next day, tweak the design and repeat.

Thorough testing to minimise design flaws

Finding and fixing design flaws early in the product design and manufacturing process can help companies avoid costly design revisions and tooling changes.

Rapid prototyping technology allows engineers to thoroughly test prototypes that look and perform like the final product, reducing the risk of usability and manufacturability issues before going into production.

Types of Rapid Prototyping

With a wide range of techniques and materials available, rapid prototyping supports designers and engineers throughout the product development process, from initial concept models to engineering design, validation testing and production.

Proof of Concept (PoC) prototypes and concept models

Concept models, or proof-of-concept (POC) prototypes, help product designers validate ideas and assumptions and test the feasibility of a product. Physical concept models can demonstrate an idea to stakeholders, stimulate discussion and encourage acceptance or rejection through low-risk concept exploration.

POC prototypes are developed at the earliest stages of the product development process, and these prototypes contain the minimum functionality required to validate assumptions before the product enters subsequent development stages.

The key to success in conceptual modeling is speed; designers need to generate a large number of ideas before building and evaluating physical models. During this phase, usability and quality are not as important, and teams rely on off-the-shelf parts whenever possible.

Looks-Like Prototypes

A prototype represents the final product at an abstract level, but may lack many functional aspects. Its purpose is to give people a better idea of ​​what the final product will look like and how the end user will interact with it. Before spending a lot of design and engineering time to fully build out the product’s features, a prototype can be used to verify ergonomics, user interface, and overall user experience.

Prototype development typically starts with sketches, foam or clay models, and then moves into CAD modeling. As the design cycle iterates, prototypes move back and forth between digital renderings and physical models. As the design is finalized, the industrial design team aims to produce a prototype that accurately resembles the final product by using the actual colors, materials, and finishes (CMF) they specify for the final product.

Works-Like Prototypes

In parallel with the industrial design process, the engineering team also builds another set of prototypes to test, iterate, and refine the mechanical, electrical, and thermal systems that make up the product. These works-like prototypes may not look the same as the final product, but they contain the core technologies and functions that need to be developed and tested.

Typically, these critical core functions are developed and tested in different sub-units before being integrated into a single product prototype. This sub-system approach isolates the various variables, making it easier for the team to divide responsibilities and ensure reliability at a more granular level before folding all the elements together.

Engineering Prototypes

An engineering prototype is the union of design and engineering to create a minimum viable manufacturing (DFM) version of the final commercial product. Use these prototypes for user testing in the lab with a select group of lead users, to communicate production intent to tooling experts at a later stage, and as demonstrators at initial sales meetings.

At this stage, detail becomes increasingly important. 3D printing technology enables engineers to create high-fidelity prototypes that accurately represent the finished product. This makes it easier to validate design, fit, function and manufacturability before investing in expensive tooling and going into production, where changes become increasingly time consuming and costly.

Validation Testing and Manufacturing

Through rapid prototyping, engineers can create low-volume production, one-off custom solutions and sub-assemblies for engineering, design and product validation (EVT, DVT, PVT) builds to test manufacturability.

3D printing makes it easier to test tolerances in the actual manufacturing process and conduct comprehensive internal and field testing before entering mass production.

Combine 3D printing rapid tooling with traditional manufacturing processes such as injection molding, thermoforming, or silicone molding to improve production processes by increasing flexibility, agility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness. The technology also provides an efficient solution for creating custom test fixtures. This simplifies functional testing and certification by collecting consistent data.

Rapid Prototyping Tools and Methods

3D Printers For Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping has essentially become synonymous with additive manufacturing and 3D printing. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing have essentially redefined rapid prototyping. Several 3D printing processes are available, with fused deposition modelling (FDM), stereolithography (SLA), and selective laser sintering (SLS) being the most commonly used for rapid prototyping.

CNC Tools For Rapid Prototyping

4 Axis CNC Milling

Unlike FDM, SLA or SLS, computer numerically controlled (CNC) tooling is a subtractive manufacturing process. They shape solid blocks, bars, or rods of plastic, metal, or other materials by removing material through cutting, boring, drilling, and grinding.

CNC tools include CNC machining, which removes material using either a rotating tool and a fixed part (milling) or a rotating part with a fixed tool (turning). Laser cutters use a laser to engrave or cut through a wide range of materials with high precision. Waterjet cutters use water mixed with abrasive and high pressure to cut through virtually any material. CNC milling machines and lathes can have multiple axes, allowing them to handle more complex designs. Laser and waterjet cutters are more suitable for flat parts.

CNC tools can shape parts from plastics, soft metals, hard metals (industrial machinery), wood, acrylic, stone, glass, composites. Compared to additive manufacturing tools, CNC tools are more complicated to set up and operate. Some materials and designs may require special tooling, handling, positioning and processing, making them more expensive than additive for one-off parts.

In rapid prototyping, they’re ideal for simple designs, structural parts, metal components and other parts that are not feasible or cost-effective to produce with additive tools.

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