Rapid Prototyping is a means whereby a computer model can be turned into a full or scale “real” versino of a design quickly and accurately. Using a 3D computer generated model such devices as 3D printers (see the associated page on these elsewhere on this weblog) can make an accurate prototype of a product to assist in the creation of a final product. This 3D prototype can be examined and/or tested to ensure that it is within specification and fit-for-purpose before manufacturing “for real” commences.
Fast prototyping is therefore a fast and cost-effective way of critically examining a3D design from its original conception and allows users to use complex software to assist in the design process. There is no need to manufacture complex mock-ups before production.
Examples of use of rapid protyping are artists’ sculptures, aerodynamic parts (which can be fully tested before being fitted in their eventual destinations) and casings for electronic devices. The latter can be tried, adapted and finally produced using quick, cheap models before mass production (where the product must be correct) is commenced.
Advantages of rapid prototyping are speed, cost-effectiveness, reduction of time from conception to final production, ease by which concerned parties can collaborate over evolving designs and the facility to allow software to create accurate models.
Once a model has been perfected, it is also possible to use it to create a mould for the actual production run, saving the need for complex tooling.
A rapid prototyped component
To form a rapid prototype, models created from 3D packages such as Autodesk Inventor, Autodesk 3D Studiomax and Dassault Systèmes’ SolidWorks are exported as 3D construction files, generally in .stl (STereoLithography) format. Stereolithography is the original 3D forming process, based on building up 2D layers into a 3D end result, dating to the mid 1980s. These are then loaded into the output device for actual 3D construction.