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During a product’s design/development lifecycle the time will inevitably come for prototype generation. Traditionally this process is both time-consuming and expensive.

Prototype machined parts – even if created on a CNC machine tool – have a low benefit-to-effort ratio due to the fact that all of the programming is done for potentially just a few parts (hence the time factor). The parts also cannot be produced with any of the economies of scale that are typically realized by production operations (the cost factor).

In the case of parts that are intended to be molded (e.g., a cell phone case), there is also the time and expense involved with prototype molds that more than likely would not be robust enough to maintain production over the entire product lifecycle.

With the evolution of CAD technologies (in particular, 3D model generation), a set of processes has been developed for the purpose of substantially reducing the time and costs associated with traditional prototyping. These processes are generally categorized under an umbrella term of “rapid prototyping.”

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping processes are essentially process variations of 3D printing, each one with a unique purpose and function. One thing that they do have in common is that they all are based on the use of 3D models that are generated via CAD programs (such as Catia, SolidWorks, and Siemens NX).

A central component of rapid prototyping is 3D printing, which can be simply defined as: “…any of various processes in which material is joined or solidified under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, with the material being added together (such as liquid molecules or powder grains being fused together).” 

The essential process elements of 3D printing involve post-processing of a 3D CAD model to break it down into a collection of layers or “slices.” These layers are then produced through the technology inherent to the particular process and deposited on top of each other. The resulting 3D object has all of the physical form, fit, and function intended for the original 3D model; it is a quick process to take intangible numeric data and translate it into an actual physical means.

Since all of these processes “start with nothing” and progressively build the physical model, they are referred to as additive (in contrast to subtractive processes such as traditional machining).

Different rapid prototyping processes for different desired results

While it is true that the essence of rapid prototyping processes is the same, they differ greatly as to the specific technologies and materials that are used. As such, each method has best applications. There are numerous technologies on the market, but we will discuss those that are the most prevalent and widely used.

Stereolithography (SLA)

By utilizing a technology that includes using a laser guided by two mirrors (X and Y coordinates) through a bath of photopolymer resin, SLA allows the individual layers to be stacked on top of each other where they adhere to each other.  

The typical layer thickness averages 0.004” but can go as low as 0.002” to allow finer precision (note: this level of precision is common with almost all 3D printing processes, with some even more accurate). The high level of accuracy enables the production of meticulously detailed models and complex part designs with a smooth surface finish. Cost is manageable as it is a widely used solution.

While the parts created by SLA are normally perfect for determining form, fit, and function, they may not be the most durable due to the types of materials that can be used. They can be sensitive to UV and humidity as well. Stereolithography 3D printing services are available for you at Cad Crowd.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS uses a pulsed laser across a layer of powder containing nylon. The laser draws the pattern of the 3D model layer across the surface and fuses the material together; a new layer of powder is then deposited (typically by a roller), and the process repeats.

By using nylon and engineering grade thermoplastics, the parts generated from SLS tend to be more robust and durable than those generated by SLA. Surface finish can be an issue though, as the process lends itself to producing a somewhat “sandy” or “grainy” finish that could potentially lead to issues with repeated functional testing.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

The process used by DMLS is extremely similar to that of SLS, in that a laser is used across a powder bed to create the individual layers. The biggest difference is that DMLS uses metal-based powders instead of nylon or other plastics.  

The laser actually melts the powder as each layer is created so, from a structural standpoint, the parts can almost be considered as tough as a metal part created by CNC machining. It can also be used to take advantage of the nature of 3D printing technology, in that internal details can be created that subtractive processes cannot be used to generate.

As with SLS, the surface finish can be a bit on the rougher side, so post-machining may have to be done depending on the intent of the part. It also isn’t necessarily a fast process, which can lead to higher costs if numerous parts are to be printed.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

With FDM a thermoplastic resin is mostly melted and deposited in small “strings” of material coming from an extrusion nozzle that traverses in X and Y directions. The strings are deposited adjacent to each other to create the 3D model layer.

Pricing is competitive, and a relatively high level of detail can be obtained, but the parts may not be as strong as those generated by other technologies. They also have a relatively poor finish due to the nature of the strings, and it tends to be a slower process.

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)

Borrowing the idea behind a standard inkjet printer, MJF uses an inkjet-style head to deposit fusing catalysts on a layer of nylon powder. Once the base part is complete, a secondary process involving a vacuum is used to remove any un-fused powder residue. The prototype can then be sandblasted and dyed to achieve a realistic color representation of the finished product.

MJF is a fast process that allows good surface finish and high detail levels, but is currently limited to only using nylon.

It’s noteworthy that these are only a few of the technologies that are commercially available for rapid prototyping purposes. Several others exist, each with their own set of pros and cons. They include:

  • Ballistic Particle Manufacturing (BPM)
  • Directed Light Fabrication (DLF)
  • Direct-shell Production Casting (DSPC)
  • Laminated Resin Printing (LRP)

Benefits of rapid prototyping engineering for product design companies

As noted previously, from a macro viewpoint cost and time savings are notably the biggest benefits of migrating to a rapid prototyping strategy. There are many factors that lead to these savings benefits.

Verification of design intent

It’s certainly easy to look at a complete design on a computer monitor, but most designers will tell you that sometimes things just don’t “turn out right” when prototype parts are actually built. The overall product may completely miss the miss the original intent. With rapid prototyping, these types of product decisions can be recognized much earlier in the design process.

Increased efficiency in design revisions

Coupled with design intent verification, what about those times when design anomalies are identified? Traditional prototyping processes can lead to expensive and time-intensive revisions. With rapid prototyping, the changes can be essentially implemented immediately and then just sent to the 3D printer.

Reduced tooling costs

This is particularly true with parts that will eventually be created using a molding process or generated by a die (such as small sheet metal stampings). The costs and time involved in creating a new tool (or modifying an existing one) can greatly add to the overall design time frame. The ability to truly realize a part or product without having to develop those types of expensive tooling cannot be overlooked.  

Identification of design issues

If the right rapid prototyping processes are used for a given set of parts, it is not at all unrealistic to conceptualize printing all of the parts and to assemble them into a complete and functional prototype.  

With products that have no moving parts (such as with many electrical-based items) the opportunity to verify assembly accuracy (e.g., mount hole extrusions for a PC board inside a molded case) is a huge benefit.  

Full assemblies with moving parts can also be “physically simulated” to identify any flaws with the intended operation of the product, and changes can be easily implemented.

Can be used for limited production

In all reality, parts produced by rapid prototyping technologies can actually be used as finished products. This is an excellent option for small and limited production runs, and the various techniques could also allow for a level of mass customization that traditionally could not be offered with any measurable efficiency.

Are you new to rapid prototyping? Do you need help and guidance with the process steps? Could you use consultation as to which process would be the best for your particular functional application, and also identify which one would maximize time savings along with being the best for your overall budget? Cad Crowd can be your ultimate rapid prototyping source by utilizing the top quality and pre-vetted resources that make up the Cad Crowd team. Contact us today for a free quote.

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