3D printed prototype

If practice makes perfect, then prototyping should lead to the perfect final product. But how does your business select the best-fit technology to prototype?

Dozens of options are available to choose among when making a prototype. We’re going to explore why businesses are choosing 3D printing for their prototypes.

Prototyping From Concept To Creation

Prototyping typically involves a number of stages, each requiring a physical product made to meet the needs of a go-to-market step of a new design and subject to an array of testing procedures.

These, broadly, include:

  • Concept
  • Assembly / Fit
  • Functional
  • Life Test
  • Regulatory

From a rough conceptual creation that prioritizes speed and appearance, a prototype is necessary to bring a design from idea to the physical. The earliest stages of prototyping often require the fastest turnaround in fabrication, as getting an actual object in hand is the only way to gauge viability for product development.

As each stage of prototyping progresses, though, needs change. The prototypes must become less rough around the edges as those edges will be subject to testing for fit, functionality, mechanical properties, and other physical needs.

A final prototype may often be visually if not tactilely indistinguishable from an end-use product, which can help in showing potential investors or creating marketing materials for a new product even before mass production ramps up.

Speeding Time-To-Market With Rapid Prototyping

3D printing is a young technology suite, and one with many names. While it is increasingly referred to as additive manufacturing today, with end-use part production possible, most notably for low-volume or spare parts manufacture, the technology’s first nomenclature in the 1980s was synonymous with its initial primary use: rapid prototyping.

When you speak to someone who’s been in this industry since its early days, they may still naturally refer to “rapid prototyping” or “RP” more often than “3D printing” or “additive manufacturing” through many years of ingrained habit.

Decades later, rapid prototyping remains the primary application for 3D printing technologies across the world.

What is it about 3D printing that adds the “rapid” to “prototyping”? Digitization.

Taking a 3D model directly to a 3D printer for fabrication speeds the process of prototyping. Digital models can be made quite quickly using a variety of 3D printing technologies, removing the needs for many steps in other, more traditional fabrication technologies. No tooling is needed, for example, nor is there a waiting period while molds are made and filled. It’s also much faster and more precise than hand-fabricating.

Additive manufacturing adds material, rather than removing it from blocks as is done in subtractive methods like CNC, saving on costs of materials that even for prototypes can run up total project costs.

3D Printing Process & Materials For Prototyping

The selection of 3D printing process and material can be adjusted for specific needs at every stage of product design.

During initial prototyping stages, a low-cost material can be used with low infill and thicker layers, lowering material costs and speeding print time to create a rough-and-ready first look at a new design.

Whether plastic or metal, 3D printing can quickly fabricate a product that will come to look and feel just like the desired end result.

By starting with a low-cost plastic material and moving after a few iterations to metal, for example, a product that will eventually be conventionally fabricated using metal can come to market much more quickly than would be the case by machining each iteration — a traditional pathway that ultimately costs much more in terms of time, money, and labor.

Following early proof-of-concept stages, subsequent versions can be made similarly quickly to get to just the right look and fit before moving into more finessed prototypes. Tweaking a digital file to adjust for better look, fit, appropriate scale, or other needs can be done quickly, with a next iteration 3D printed potentially same-day.

Some 3D printing options, like HP and Carbon, also enable the capability of prototyping and producing on the same system or family, as different materials and parameters can move ever closer to a market-ready product. By iterating on the same system that will be used for the final product, quality control can be kept in-hand every step of the way, meaning there are no surprises when the first end-use production begins.

3D Printing For Prototyping

When working with a service bureau like Shapeways, additional expertise and access to different technology suites comes into play for a high-quality experience every step of the way.

Shapeways’ rapid prototyping services offer:

Fast Turnaround

Our quick print turnaround times ensure that you’ll get your prototypes back faster than you would with traditional manufacturing processes.

Variety of Materials

Our wide selection of materials allows you to test your products in everything from plastic to metals.

Reliable Quality

Our high quality enables you to assess factors such as ergonomics, usability, manufacturability, and material testing.

When it’s time to move to the next phases of prototyping, a different 3D printing process and/or material may be in order to start getting into the right look and feel for a final product. Working with an experienced service partner offers helpful guidance in making these selections and moving on rapidly to the next iteration, ensuring the right choice is made at every step and keeping your project on track, on time, and looking just as you designed it.

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