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What Is Rapid Prototyping

Last Updated on June 6, 2024 by Unwana Akpan

The advent of new technologies, such as three-dimension computer-aided design, 3D printing and additive layer manufacturing techniques have made rapid prototyping possible.

Product designers can now develop and test prototypes prior to initiating the manufacturing phase thanks to rapid prototyping. We give an overview of rapid prototyping in this article, along with an explanation of its advantages and the various techniques that can be employed.

What is rapid prototyping?

The term “rapid prototyping” describes a set of methods for producing prototypes fast and affordably. Using three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) software, a part or product is first created as a 3D model. The part is then constructed using a variety of 3D printing, also known as additive layer manufacturing, techniques. Rapid prototyping was initially used by the automotive industry to make parts and scale models, but it has since spread to many other industries, including the aerospace and medical sectors.

Prototypes don’t always have to be exact copies of the intended product, even though they can be. The product designer’s goals for the prototype would determine the degree of accuracy. This means that prototypes can be high-fidelity models that have to resemble the intended final product in both appearance and functionality, or low-fidelity models that product designers create fast to test a more comprehensive idea.

What are the different types of rapid prototyping techniques?

Rapid prototyping makes use of several distinct additive manufacturing techniques, each with its own set of advantages. For example, some processes result in more complex prototypes that are ideal for use in industrial settings, while other processes yield less sophisticated but more affordable parts. New methods for additive manufacturing are constantly being introduced by developers. But these are the seven methods that modern product designers use to quickly prototype ideas:

  • Stereolithography (SLA): SLA was the first successful commercial 3D printing technique and is both fast and affordable. The rapid prototyping technique involves a bath of photosensitive liquid that solidifies one layer at a time as it makes contact with a computer-controlled UV light. This technique produces products that are strong and have smooth surface finishes.

  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): SLS is a technique that employs a high-power laser to sinter powdered material, normally nylon or polyamide. The laser aims at specific points in space, as defined by the 3D model, where it then binds the material to form a solid structure. The surface finishes of these kinds of parts are rough, which means they require a second process for completion. These products are also not as strong as SLA printed parts.

  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): FDM is an inexpensive technique that most non-industrial desktop 3D printers use to print parts. The process involves the extrusion of melted thermoplastic filaments from a printing nozzle tip onto a platform in layers. A computer deposition program instructs how the layering of the liquid plastic takes place so that these layers eventually form a 3D part based on the digital model. Although FDM used to produce weak products, it has improved rapidly and is now a reliable technology to use for fast and cheap printing of parts.

  • Selective Laser Melting (SLM): SLM, which is also known as laser powder bed fusion (LPBF), is a technique that uses a high-density laser to fuse metallic powders. During the fusion process, the laser melts the metal powder—typically titanium, aluminum, stainless steel or cobalt chrome alloys—layer upon layer to form the prototype. Aerospace, automotive and medical industries often employ SLM, as it produces complex and high-strength parts. It is, however, an expensive technique that requires the input of skilled engineers.

  • Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM): LOM is a rapid prototyping system that glues together thin layers of adhesive-coated paper, plastic or metal, and accurately cuts through these layers using a laser cutter or other cutting device to create the 3D model. It is a technology that produces less sophisticated and intricate parts than SLS or SMS, but it is cheaper and does not require specialized engineers or specially controlled environments.

  • Digital Light Processing (DLP): DLP is a rapid prototyping technique that creates parts by using a DLP projector that projects an image of a 3D model onto a vat of liquid polymer. This process also takes place in layers, with the build plate moving down as each exposed liquid polymer hardens and then exposes the next layer of liquid to the light. Although DLP is faster and cheaper than SLA, this technique may require support structures. A variation of this technique is called Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP), which does not use layering but, instead, creates the part in an uninterrupted, continuous process.

  • Binder jetting: This is a relatively new rapid prototyping technique that works well for high-volume mass production. The parts, however, are not as strong as those created using the SLS technique. Binder jetting involves nozzles spraying micro-fine droplets onto a horizontal powder bed. A roller compacts each layer, after which it receives a new coat of powder and then the process starts again with the nozzles spraying a new layer. Once this process is complete the part is only semi-finished and needs to go into an oven so that the metal powder fuses together.

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Why use rapid prototyping?

Because rapid prototyping uses automated procedures that don’t require a lot of labor or equipment to run, it enables product designers to produce prototypes quickly and affordably. Rapid prototyping is a precise process that minimizes material waste and enables product designers to visualize and test parts by using computer-aided design (CAD) to create 3D models of the parts. Gaining a better understanding of a product’s appearance and functionality makes it possible to make adjustments early in the design and manufacturing process, resolving any problems before mass production starts.

In addition to addressing possible design problems, fast prototyping aids in the presentation of products to board members, giving them a clearer understanding of what they are approving. Furthermore, rapid prototyping enables product designers to get client feedback and input, which can be helpful in making decisions about design enhancements and modifications. This implies that since rapid prototyping makes it easy and affordable to implement multiple design changes, clients can be involved in the design process.

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