Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing for Better Engineering

Rapid prototyping changes the way you develop a product. That process, though, is subject to a variety of bottlenecks at various points throughout. Forestalling one major bottleneck that happens on the way to a final product design can make your entire process better - and faster. Rapid prototyping can ease your entire engineering process in a big way with large-format 3D printing.

What is Rapid Prototyping?

Prototypes are physical parts or assemblies that come closer to final with each iteration. Starting with conceptual mockups and building toward a functional prototype, each successive prototype is a step toward a fully engineered final design. That’s prototyping - rapid prototyping refers to the cycle of quickly iterating to reach a final design.

We say “cycle” because that’s just what it is; a few steps are required to go from idea to delivery. At its simplest, it’s a three-step process that looks like this:

What is Rapid Prototyping

The review stage of each successive prototype gets the cycle one step closer to completion, with refinement in iteration required to move toward that acceptable conclusion.

Rapid prototyping employs a few technologies, from CAD design software to manufacturing process(es), to create a series of prototypes.

Traditionally, each physical prototype would require a new design to be outsourced to a manufacturer to be made with subtractive (e.g., milling, cutting) or molding/casting processes. That may require lengthy waits and costs, as tooling and logistics come into play every time. Speeding up the process, technologies like 3D printing remove the need for tooling and can take your idea straight from design file to the physical. This shortens wait times, as feedback can translate immediately to an updated design file that can in turn be 3D printed as quickly as just a few hours. When this is done in-house, several cycles of prototyping can even be accomplished in the same day - a far cry from the traditional weeks or even months between iterations.

Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing

Are 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping the Same?

When the technology was first developed, 3D printing was so synonymous with rapid prototyping that the two terms were interchangeable. Whether referencing “3D printing,” “rapid prototyping,” or “RP,” the conversation generally all referred to the same thing. Today, 3D printing has developed into end-use production capabilities as well and is more commonly synonymous with “additive manufacturing.”

Still, rapid prototyping was the first and remains the largest application for 3D printing. Iterations from proof-of-concept through to functional prototype can all be 3D printed. Whether outsourced or in-house, using 3D printers speeds up the rapid prototyping significantly through removing traditional bottlenecks in tooling and/or shipping. Rapid prototyping can also increasingly be done using the same 3D printing technology as will be used for the final product.

Benefits of Rapid Prototyping

At its broadest, rapid prototyping carries the significant benefits of speeding time-to-market, offers better opportunity to test and improve each iteration, is a cost-competitive process, and improves the effectiveness of communication throughout the design cycle.

Decrease Time to Market

The time it takes an idea to move from concept to deliverable should be as short as possible. Replacing months or years of traditional wait times in the iterative prototyping process with days or weeks is an easily apparent benefit of rapid prototyping. A 3D printer can precisely create your next iteration from a slightly tweaked design file much faster than could any traditional tooling-based prototyping process. Speeding the design cycle inherently improves time-to-market for a new product.

Test and Improve

Each 3D printed prototype will be one step better than the version before it, ideally. Getting hands-on with a life-sized functional prototype can allow you fuller understanding of that particular design’s pros and cons, enabling fast approval or disapproval as it can be put through its paces in testing. Your engineering team can test performance and get a feel for the look and feel of each prototype, understanding, evaluating, and improving any manufacturability issues or usability risks while still in the pre-production stages.

Create Competitive and Cost-Efficient Models

Hand-in-hand with speeding time-to-market is the reduction of costs associated with lengthy design cycles. Getting a product to market faster will inherently reduce the hefty price of longer, more tooling-intensive traditional workflows. Competitive positioning requires that development and introduction be quick, especially in the consumer market. Large-format 3D printing also allows for several different prototypes to be made at the same time, allowing for faster decision making when the choice is between a few looks or feels.

Improve Effective Communication

The fast turnaround of rapid prototyping eases communication gaps by opening up the conversation. It’s much easier if every engineer on your team has the same understanding of a process, and quickly getting a next physical prototype in hand offers a clear point of reference. As each prototype becomes closer to the feel and performance of the final design, small tweaks and large adjustments both become easier to understand for your entire team.

Rapid Prototyping - Ford MegaBox

How to Use Rapid Prototyping in Your Engineering Process

Rapid prototyping sounds great, but where can it be used in the engineering process? The answer may not be wholly surprising at this point: from initial proof-of-concept to final-look-and-feel prototype, rapid prototyping can come into play across the entire process.

Concept Prototypes

The earliest prototypes are often conceptual. Proof-of-concept prototypes serve as physical validation of the ideas that may have emerged as a sketch on a napkin. Taking an idea into the three-dimensional real world is the best way to prove viability. Getting hands-on with a concept model can help your engineering team understand their next steps at the same time as it may encourage management to simply move forward with a project. These early prototypes are often the roughest, as they are the lowest-risk representations made in the rapid prototyping cycle. These prototypes are made quickly and generally in different materials and colors than later-stage prototypes, much less final designs.

Rapid Prototyping - LOCI PodCar

Aesthetic or Industrial Design Prototypes

Once a design is validated in its roughest form, it moves next into an aesthetic or industrial design step. These next prototypes begin to hone in on how the design should look and feel, with the thought process beginning to turn toward usability and functionality – without necessarily being fully functional quite yet. To ensure a new part will fit into a greater whole, or a new product will fit with your brand’s existing aesthetic or functional line, these prototypes more accurately look like something that is moving toward a final design. These prototypes also enable engineers to consider how exactly to best manufacture the eventual final design.

Especially when working with life-sized, larger designs like furniture, having life-sized prototypes to fit to spaces and users becomes ever more important as designs move through the prototyping cycle. Large-scale 3D printing can bring these large-scale designs to life, allowing for a full iteration to be made and tested in less than the time it would take for a traditional tool to be made. Furniture maker Steelcase experienced this benefit first-hand as they use their large-format BigRep 3D printer to create new furniture designs:

Steelcase 3D Printing Furniture Prototypes

Functional Prototypes

A functional prototype does just that: it functions. These later-stage prototypes are often made of materials similar to what will be used in a final product, to validate that everything will work as intended. Engineers at this stage pay attention to performance: does it fit, does it function, do load-bearing parts bear loads? Attention must be paid to detail, to how the final part will be manufactured (especially if this will be done in a different process than the prototype; for example, 3D printing a prototype for a part that will ultimately be injection molded) as well as how the final part will be post-processed/finished.

Test Serial Production

Many products bound for the mass market are bound for mass production, and this may mean in a different manufacturing process. While 3D printing may be the right technology for both rapid prototyping and serial production of the final part – consider, for example, cases of mass customization – this will not always be the case. Prototyping must take into account the eventual manufacturing process to be used, and later-stage prototypes should use the same materials and fit into the appropriate manufacturing parameters as the final parts will be. Consideration for traditional production processes comes more into play here, for example for tooling, jigs and fixtures, or any other necessary implements. Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) may move toward traditional design for manufacturing (DFM) thinking.

Demonstration or Presentation Model Prototypes

The final look is the final stage in prototyping, the last step before full production begins. At this stage, a prototype should not only feel and operate like the final product, but needs to look like it, too. This prototype can be used for marketing materials while production ramps up, for convincing investors of final viability and feasibility, for final field testing, or for any other demonstration or presentation needs. The goal of rapid prototyping is to reach this stage faster than ever before using conventional prototyping workflows.

Rapid Prototyping - Rexroth AGV Automated Guided Vehicle

How Can I Get Started with Rapid Prototyping?

To get started with rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing you basically just need one thing: Access to a 3D printer. But there is more than one way to get there. You can buy a 3D printer in many sizes, from desktop to large-format 3D printers. Your easiest entry to prototyping in big sizes is the BigRep ONE.

If you are not there to buy a 3D printer yet, you can just order your part from a 3D printing service. With BigRep PARTLAB you can get your part in 3 easy steps: You upload you CAD file, we will send you a quote, and after your order, our 3D printing experts will do the rest.

Conclusion

Rapid prototyping and 3D printing work together hand-in-hand for better and faster engineering. By speeding up you workflows and removing bottlenecks and other pain points of traditionally drawn-out prototyping cycles, 3D printing enables a new solution for a faster time to market. Better-tested, cost-efficient rapid prototyping is a win for your engineering team.

Learn more about Additive Manufacturing

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“Why does size matter and what value does it provide?” Join this free webinar to learn how the power of large-scale 3D printing can help you enhance design and reduce costs, all while accelerating time-to-market.

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