Rapid prototyping has been around since the late 1980s. In the case of rapid prototyping, a scale-model is created to give engineers, designers and manufacturers a three-dimensional, hands-on look at their proposed design. Companies rely on this method to create concept models that help develop and refine product ideas, or create functional prototypes to gauge performance before committing to full production.
As the need to quickly prototype parts has grown and matured, some companies are using the method to create production-ready parts rather than just prototypes. There are three main applications of rapid prototyping: concept modeling, validation and functionality.
When designers require an early look at their creations, they turn to concept modeling. In this instance, rapid prototyping is used to produce a 3D model of the design.
Viewing the object in tangible form allows designers to see potential flaws, drawbacks and weak points that may require redesign for final production. They can then rapidly iterate and get the part or product into customers' hands much quicker than previously possible.
For this type of printing, companies use printers that run the gamut in terms of cost savings and production quality. The Stratasys F123 series, for example, can be used for every stage of prototyping including concept, validation and functional performance. These printers allow rapid prototyping within the office or lab setting, meaning large manufacturers aren't the only players taking advantage of this technology.
Today, preliminary designs can be printed using more than one material and in varying colors to create parts with the precision, look and feel of real production parts.
After the part has been through the initial concept stage, designers and engineers print a prototype showing whether the piece works as intended.
The prototypes allow performance testing during development more quickly and affordably than traditional manufacturing methods. In the past, companies often had to send part designs off-site to have a prototype created. The time spent creating the part, sending it back, testing, redesigning, and then re-sending prototyping could add months to the product life cycle.
When used to validate designs, 3D printing also helps designers prove that parts can function effectively before manufacturers commit to production tooling required for mass manufacturing. "Every time we avoid cutting a tool, we save eight to 12 weeks," explained Randy Larson of Polaris Industries.
Functional prototyping simulates the mechanical function of end-use products by 3D printing precisely using the same material as the final product. It can mimic the function of actual products using hinges, hooks and other small pieces. It can later incorporate them into a prototype that acts like the end product. These prototypes allow companies to test designs for qualities such as durability, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures and the flow of fluid or heat over parts.
When using in-house 3D printers to print part designs, companies can also keep intellectual property in-house. By engineering prototypes on-site, they ensure early-stage designs aren't shared with outside parties.
3D printers are great for building complex parts that must meet numerous manufacturing requirements, allowing real-world testing to ensure materials and designs stand up to longer-term use and wear.
Using rapid prototyping to evaluate concepts, validate designs or test functionality avoids the typical hurdles of traditional prototype manufacturing. Time and costs are saved while ensuring the utmost quality of each product.