AM Investment Strategies
AMS Spring 2023

How Rapid Prototyping Has Revolutionized Product Development


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From demonstrating proof of concept to testing the viability of a new part, prototypes are an essential part of the design process. Advancements in rapid prototyping technology, including processes like CNC machining and SLS rapid prototyping, have completely revolutionized the way that engineers review, test, and display their final designs.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping refers to a variety of computer-aided manufacturing processes that are capable of replicating parts from digital models. These processes are highly accurate and take far less time than traditional manufacturing methods.

Many engineers automatically associate rapid prototyping with additive manufacturing processes like 3D printing. Parts made with additive manufacturing are created by layering plastic, resin, or other materials in the shape of the final product. Some post-processing may be required to remove support structures and achieve the desired finish.

Rapid prototyping can also be accomplished with subtractive manufacturing. Subtractive processes like CNC machining create parts by removing layers from a block of metal, wood, or resin. Sheet metal prototyping can also be used to bend or cut metal into the desired shape based on computer-provided specifications.

In general, additive processes like SLA or SLS rapid prototyping are used to create complicated designs and low-cost visual models. Subtractive processes like CNC rapid prototyping are used for durable end-use parts or detailed models with high manufacturing tolerances.

Why traditional manufacturing isn’t enough

Prototyping is an essential part of the design process, but it hasn’t always been economically viable for most design teams. Creating a prototype with traditional manufacturing methods is often incredibly expensive and takes too long for an efficient design cycle.

The main problem is that most traditional manufacturing processes like injection molding require custom molds, tools, and other starting equipment. These non-recurring costs are negligible for large print runs, but they become prohibitively expensive for single prototypes.

As a result, many engineers were reduced to creating custom prototypes by hand or paying high up-front costs to a manufacturing specialist. Design teams were faced with the choice of either paying for an expensive prototype or sending a design to production without proper testing.

Luckily, rapid prototyping has none of the problems that come with traditional manufacturing. Processes like CNC machining and SLS rapid prototyping have no start-up costs, can be completed in short time frames, and allow engineers to create an exact replica of their original design.

Efficient and affordable production

When the first rapid manufacturing methods were developed, engineers immediately saw the potential for prototyping and design. Thanks to computer-aided technology, even a standard CNC turning service could now be used to create perfect replicas without the costs typically associated with traditional manufacturing.

All rapid prototyping services share the same feature of low start-up costs and a standardized price per unit. Because no custom molds or equipment are required, the per-unit price remains nearly identical for all levels of production. This makes it viable to order one, five, fifty, or a hundred parts on an as-needed basis.

Rapid prototyping lets engineers order scale models of their designs with incredibly short lead times. Depending on the rapid prototyping service, finished parts could be delivered within less than one week. Online manufacturing platforms streamline the process even further by introducing instant quote generation and an accessible online portal where engineers can track and manage existing orders.

With low costs and short lead times, it’s no surprise that many engineers have added rapid prototyping as a standard part of their design process. Design teams can compare visual models, test different materials, and create a perfect version of their product for final manufacturing.

Common applications for rapid prototyping

Services like 3D printing and CNC rapid prototyping are widely used by both individual and corporate design teams. Rapid prototypes are often used throughout the entire design process to help engineers create accurate parts and avoid costly changes during actual production.

  • Conceptual models: One of the most popular uses of rapid prototyping is to create proof-of-concept models during the early stages of the design process. These models are used to communicate ideas and demonstrate project viability to interested parties. Thanks to the speed and efficiency of processes like SLS rapid prototyping, engineers can rely on these models to be available early in the design cycle.
  • Functional prototypes: The parts made with SLS and CNC rapid prototyping are as durable and functional as parts made with traditional manufacturing. Depending on the process, the part will often look and feel exactly the same as the consumer-ready product. This means that engineers can make changes to the prototype and trust that they will reflect accurately on the final design.
  • Pre-production design: Some prototypes show that a design is ready, while others highlight obvious flaws and areas that need additional work. The main benefit of rapid prototyping is that it allows engineers to go through an iterative design process. As soon as a change is made, the design team can order a new prototype and expect to receive it within a viable timeframe.

From 3D printing to sheet metal prototyping, rapid manufacturing can be used to create highly accurate models of nearly any design. Test the possibilities and compare material options by uploading a design to the 3D Hubs manufacturing platform today.

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