Rapid prototyping is one of the biggest trends in the manufacturing and prototyping industry today. It is a process that allows manufacturing businesses to present new concepts to clients or investors, and at the same time, test and rework products in the early stage of their development. Rapid prototyping (RP) is making the research and development process within a company more productive, increasing the overall business’s productivity. That being said, it is easy to see why so many manufacturing companies, from aerospace to electronics, have included rapid prototyping as a fundamental part of their design processes.
If you want to learn more about what this process is and how it can benefit your business, make sure you read on.
What is Rapid Prototyping?
Rapid prototyping is a set of methods that quickly and continuously create a scale model of a product assembly using computer-aided technology (CAD) data. Though originated in the late 1980s, nowadays, the process has experienced massive popularity in a range of industry sectors, thanks to the improvements in materials and technology. Rapid prototyping can include various manufacturing technologies. While additive manufacturing (3D printing) is the most common rapid prototyping process, they can also be created with subtractive (milling, grinding, or turning) and compressive (casting, compressive sintering or molding) methods.
Selecting a Rapid Prototyping Process
Many rapid prototyping processes are available to product design teams. As RP continues to evolve, product designers are continually trying to determine which method or technology is best for their unique application. To help businesses find a process best suited for their projects, we will make a simplistic comparison between 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection molding technologies.
In 3D printing, an additive technology, the prototypes are built up one layer at a time. They follow 3-dimensional design commands from CAD systems and create a product replica by adding layers of liquid plastic, rubber, or other synthetic materials. 3D printing is considered to be an excellent option for cost-effectively creating lookalike prototypes.
CNC machining, on the other hand, is a subtractive process whereby a block of material is carved to produce the desired shape by using milling, grinding, or turning. Through the CNC milling process, for example, prototypes can be made from a vast range of materials – plastics, metals, wood, foam, and fiberglass. That is one of the most crucial advantages of CNC machining over 3D printing. Furthermore, CNC machining quickly removes large amounts of material with high accuracy and makes prototypes with superior strength and surface finish. Nevertheless, maybe the most vital advantage of CNC milling over 3D printing is CNC’s ability to produce complex parts with extremely high tolerances. All this makes CNC machining an excellent choice for functional prototyping (that requires strength and mechanical stability, not afforded by additive processes) and low volume production.
Rapid injection molding is a compressive method for prototyping, which operates by injecting thermoplastic resins into a mold. Nearly all engineering-grade plastic or liquid silicone rubber can be used, so the molded parts are considered to be durable and with excellent finishes. The advantage of this method is that the prototypes have an exceptional surface finish and are an excellent predictor of manufacturability during the production phase.
Benefits of Rapid Prototyping
The prototyping methods available today can generate an accurate model of a product, allowing designers, engineers, and manufacturers to examine many aspects of an object before undertaking full-scale production. That, in turn, leads to increasing the company’s productivity and boosting the overall business. Let us see the specific benefits that come with rapid prototyping.
#1 Thorough testing before production
Rapid prototyping allows us to test a product in the early stages of its development. Through RP, companies can detect design flaws and make refined adjustments quickly, preventing huge costs that might occur later on if deficiencies are identified during final production.
#2 Shortening the design cycle
Rapid prototyping has shortened the amount of time it takes to go from product concept to production. A precise prototype can be created in a few days for a minimal cost. Designers can work on a product step-by-step by creating the initial prototype and add the changes until satisfied with the results. The product design progression can also be shared with different interested parties, which is much better than sharing an imaginative concept. Rapid prototyping lets us explore new possibilities to improve a product before transferring it into the production line. Once the prototype is approved, the design phase is completed. That means that prototyping allows for the reduction of manufacturing lead times and generating cost savings.
#3 Benefits for investors and customers
Investors or customers can benefit from seeing and holding an exact model of the product they want to have. They can feel more confident about investing in a product once they’ve had the chance to evaluate a prototype and offer changes and suggestions.
#4 Ability to create custom designs without interrupting production processes
Rapid prototyping also allows for customized designs to be created quickly and with minimal disruption. That means that companies can meet requests for unique designs without hindering the usual production process.
By using rapid prototyping, companies can identify design problems, estimate production costs, time, and materials, determine machinery for the production, and test the product itself. Furthermore, this visualization enables businesses to receive feedback from clients and end-users, and work on product improvements, as well as to obtain funding and investors. However, to bring a decision when it comes to selecting the most suitable rapid prototyping strategy for your business, companies must understand their prototyping needs. When doing that, they need to consider factors such as product form and dimension, details, surface finish, revise the time required for the prototype and production approach. Ultimately, the possibility to consider functionality and manufacturability of a product, as early as the conceptual design phase, is imperative for increasing business productivity. Precisely these two aspects can often be enhanced with an accurate prototype in the appropriate material.