In the simplest of terms, rapid prototyping is the speedy creation of models that are visually and/or functionally evaluated during the product development process. Rapid prototyping may be repeated numerous times as a design is perfected.
Although the terms “3D printing” and “rapid prototyping” are occasionally used interchangeably, the former is the process and the latter the end result.
A variety of different additive manufacturing (AM) techniques are used in rapid prototyping.
In the mid-1980s, stereolithography (SLA) became one of the very first 3D-printing technologies used for rapid prototyping. Other AM prototyping processes have followed, including fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS), laminated object manufacturing (LOM), inkjet printing and solid ground curing (SGC).
All of these techniques utilize the three-dimensional visualization of an object via computer-aided design (CAD) data. To adapt this data for use in 3D printing, the digital object is “sliced” into thin cross-sections. The resulting information guides a 3D printer to create a physical object one ultrathin layer at a time. The first layer is deposited directly onto a print bed, and each additional layer is deposited onto the previous one. When the printing is complete, any support structures are removed. The scale model is then cleaned and finished in post-processing.
In many ways, additive manufacturing is the perfect process for rapid prototyping. It facilitates the quick and efficient distillation of user experiences into a mockup, making it possible to quickly produce and evaluate a 3D-printed prototype. Ideas garnered from repeated feedback cycles yield added refinements that are quickly incorporated into subsequent iterations.
The rapid prototyping process may be repeated many times until the component meets a variety of demands, including cost-effectiveness, compliance requirements and user needs. With 3D printing, prototyping cycles that were once measured in weeks are now frequently measured in days or even hours.
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