The Ultimate Guide to Rapid Prototyping

Mar 26, 2020 10:50 PM ET

Creating a prototype for a new design or significant change used to be a costly proposal that involved a tremendous amount of time and expertise to accomplish. This changed dramatically with the introduction of automation and CAD programs they draw from that display a digital model allowing virtual manipulation of the project prior to production. This enabled the development of new rapid prototyping services that further utilize the innovative technology available in the modern day. Almost overnight, new software and hardware were coming onto the market offering a variety of potential enhancements and advantages over existing techniques.


Rapid prototyping is the process of using additive or subtractive technology to quickly produce a physical object using predetermined dimensions duplicated from a design blueprint. Additive methods form a piece by using raw materials that it fuses together by melting or sintering to create a finished 3D product. Subtractive technology begins with a block of material that is then carved away using cutting tools, special lathes, and other equipment until the part satisfies the requirements of the design. The speed and accuracy varies from one method to the next, and certain restrictions apply in some cases that should be examined prior to production runs.

An example of additive technology is SLA rapid prototyping, which uses stereolithography to cure layers of photosensitive material stacked under a UV light. One advantage of this kind of method is that it needs very little finish work or none at all, which can be a huge savings for production.

CNC rapid prototyping is a subtractive technique that utilizes Computer Numerically Controlled Machining, CNC milling, to create functioning end-user components that possess strength and finishes typically superior to additive technology. The lathe follows the guidelines fed to it by a computer based upon a CAD software model. The parts it creates do not have any seam, which is excellent for biocompatibility, tolerance to heat and chemicals, tensile strength, and impact resistance. This technology offers the widest range of potential materials because the final piece is what remains of the source after machining.


There is a substantial list of reasons why rapid prototyping is the best choice for manufacturing small parts out of plastic and metal from affordability and speed to convenience and ease of design correction. This industry is also referred to as 3D modeling, and it is the way business is done by every other industry on the planet from automotive and aerospace to consumer goods and healthcare. While not all materials are suitable to work with every type of prototyping, some of the techniques used for creating a prototype have the versatility of being possible with nearly all metals and plastics. The right combination of product and method can also provide quality equivalent to the production goods that needs no further tooling.


Every sector of the market relies upon rapid prototyping to create the objects people use every day in fulfillment of their daily duties and routines. Any small part found throughout the world that is made of plastic or metal has likely been produced using this kind of technology. It is the backbone of modern manufacturing, and the world would not be able to function as it currently does if it were suddenly without this innovation to assist in the production of goods. The applications are therefore limitless due to the constantly growing number of products crucial to the modern way of life that are being created daily for every industry.


Having access to a functioning prototype is a significant advantage when trying to determine the best actions for certain scenarios involving the product in the hands of consumers. Rapid prototyping can make this possible with relative ease depending on the complexity of the part, which allows designers to perform physical examinations for trouble areas that need attention. Possessing an actual working product also enables a simplified route to proof-of-concept, presentation, and approval for production. Demonstrations can be done in real time with the tactile dimension incorporated into the plan for much greater impact than just charts, graphs, and words.

Whichever process works best for an individual project will be decided by the tolerances of the design and limitations of the budget. Fortunately, this allows for a lot of options since rapid prototyping is so cost-effective and adaptable.

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