3D Printing Technologies for Modeling and Prototyping

3D Printing Prototypes and Concept Models

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is a relatively new manufacturing technology that has significantly shifted the product design paradigm. In today’s world, technology and innovation are driving product development forward at breakneck speed, and entrepreneurs have to keep up!.

While this relentless innovation leaves the doors wide open for creative inventors and entrepreneurs, it also puts a lot of pressure on the product design process. The cutting edge is always moving two steps ahead, which means that inventors and entrepreneurs need to be able to bring their new ideas to market as quickly as possible to compete in a dynamic and innovative marketplace.

Efficient prototyping can be the key to achieving market success in a field where value is defined by innovation. Prototyping helps you identify mistakes early, work out the details of your invention in full three dimensions, revise, iterate, and ultimately bring superior quality products to the market.

With additive manufacturing and 3D printing, rapid prototyping is now more accessible and affordable than it has ever been before. Highly functional consumer-grade parts and assemblies can now be manufactured in low volumes on demand that match or approximate the material properties of the final product.

Functional Prototypes

Late in the production process you want to ensure that you are testing with parts that are identical to or at least maximally similar to the material characteristics of the final production parts, while in the early stages such approximation is less important. This means that you may wish to alter your prototype manufacturing methods throughout the product development cycle.

Modern 3D printing technologies like Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) allow for rapid, low-volume production of highly-functional products made from durable production-grade thermoplastics or metals. This can be a great value for prototyping parts and products with rigorous mechanical requirements, as it allows for on-demand, low-volume production of high-caliber parts that are suitable for engineering evaluations and functional testing.

Technologies for Functional Prototyping

The technology that one chooses will depend upon the application of the part they are producing and the stage of the development cycle.

Fused Deposition Modeling allows for the easy production fo complex geometries in high-grade thermoplastics that closely match the properties of conventionally produced ABS or PC parts. Because it uses real thermoplastic resins, it can be used for functional prototyping, though it is not as strong as injection-molded parts.

Selective Laser Sintering also has value for functional prototyping. A C02 laser fuses layers of powders, usually containing nylon polymers, resulting in parts that are stronger than what could be produced through stereolithography, but less strong than injection molding or CNC machining.

Stereolithography is of limited value for functional prototyping. It has the advantage of being low-cost and quick to produce, but the tradeoff is lower-strength parts. SLA produces extremely high-quality surface finishing, and for prototyping is most valuable for performing form and fit tests and for producing casting patterns.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering is a valuable technology for functional prototyping as the parts it produces are identical in their physical properties to those created through injection molding or machining. However, it is able to produce complex geometries that would be impossible with these conventional technologies, and it can do so without the need to produce molds or tooling. The drawback is that is more expensive than SLS and FDM, and the production process takes longer.

Concept Models

Functional prototypes are the work-horses for your product design. Sometimes, though, you need something a little bit more refined. This is where concept models come in. Concept models usually don’t have the strength and durability of functional prototypes, but they don’t need it. Their purpose is not for testing the mechanical properties of your design, but instead to show off the design’s aesthetic.

Concept models are particularly useful as tools for investor presentations and as marketing tools or for trade shows. They can be useful when seeking to license a product, and they are valuable tools for generating a dialogue with consumers during market research and focus groups.

Concept models are non-functional, concept models are low-cost and quick to produce. They can easily be made in several iterations to get a sense of different design possibilities and for communicating project ideas to stakeholders.

Uses for 3D Printed Concept Models:

  • Ergonomic testing
  • Manufacturability analysis
  • Design testing
  • Market research/Focus testing
  • Investor/stakeholder presentations
  • Trade shows/presentation models

Because of their low cost, concept models are often valuable before the functional prototyping stage. Producing relatively simple concept models allows for design testing, analyzing manufacturability, and identifying potential design flaws early in the process.

By being able to replicate the form of the invention in high definition, concept modeling also allows inventors to assess the real-world ergonomics of their product early in the development cycle. 3D printing technologies offer a wide range of materials for performing these kinds of tests.

Stereolithography (SLA) is well-suited to creating concept models. SLA produces some of the highest-quality surface finishes of any 3D printing technology for a modest cost. A wide variety of materials are available, which can mimic the properties of ABS, polycarbonate, and polypropelene. A high degree of accuracy and resolution can be achieved.

PolyJet is also a suitable technology for concept modeling. Extremely high resolutions are possible with this additive manufacturing method, which is capable of producing multiple colors and materials simultaneously. This allows for highly sophisticated, beautiful models to be produced very easily and quickly. PolyJet is the most accurate 3D printing technology, though it lacks the strength of other methods. PolyJet tends to be a bit more costly than SLA.

As you progress from the early to the late stages of product design, different 3D printing technologies may become more or less relevant. Having access to a range of different techniques can help an inventor bring their product to market in the timely manner demanded by the fast pace of the modern innovative market.

The low-volume rapid prototyping potential of additive manufacturing is powerful tool. Cad Crowd can help you connect with the 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and manufacturing services you need to bring your product to market. See our manufacturing and prototyping pages for more information, and get a free quote today.