What’s a 3D Rapid Prototype?

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3D rapid prototyping technology uses computer-aided drawing (CAD) objects to create objects by generating one layer of material at a time. This allows for the creation of complex shapes and objects, reducing material and labor costs, and time. Rapid prototyping can be used for product review, refinement, and mass production. The technology can revolutionize manufacturing, but its long-term implications on economies of scale are unknown. 3D printing is a smaller scale version of rapid prototyping, lacking dimensional accuracy and material versatility.

Sculpting Michelangelo’s David the size of a chess piece is a simple matter for a computer using three-dimensional or 3D rapid prototyping (RP) technology. In the same way that an inkjet printer produces a two-dimensional image from a scanned file, 3D rapid prototyping technology can do the same with real objects for manipulation in real space. Relying on numerous techniques, equipment, and materials, 3D rapid prototyping processes generally work from computer-aided drawing (CAD) objects to design or manufacturing; they build them by generating one layer of material at a time until they form a perfect replica. This construction aids in the creation of an almost unlimited number of complex shapes and objects, revolutionizing design and manufacturing efficiency.

Prototyping generally consists of three aspects: building models for production, product review, and refinement. Users transform computer schematics directly into prototypes. Designs are evaluated before costly manufacturing processes begin, and product surfaces and finishes can be tested.

Manufacturers can customize almost countless product shapes for mass production or customer customization. Prototype iterations, or variations, can be refined to fit after review by production teams or customers. This allows for greater flexibility and lower costs in product development, compared to traditional manual or manual prototyping, which is time consuming.

In essence, the RP process refers to the automated and additive construction of an object; that is, objects are created by adding one sheet, powder, or liquid layer at a time to form an object. 3D rapid prototyping refers to the high-end production of precision engineered products to engineering specifications. Numerous techniques allow for the construction of parts, models and fixtures; these can include stereolithography, fused deposition modeling, ultrasonic consolidation, and selective laser sintering, among others. These additive construction methods layer cross sections with techniques such as laser melting, liquid curing, beading or welding to fit specific materials such as resins or foils. Using RP can dramatically reduce material and labor costs, as well as time; models can be built in hours or days.

On a smaller scale, 3D printing is a common technique that is sometimes called rapid 3D prototyping. This operation, however, uses a smaller desktop machine for design, but lacks the schematic dimensional accuracy or material versatility of 3D rapid prototyping methods used in manufacturing. The 3D printer process is typically used to create disposable models for hands-on demonstrations, while more complex RP machines possess tooling models to aid the manufacturing process itself. Additionally, 3D printers may offer only a few material options, while RP can service dozens of materials, such as resins and photopolymers, to duplicate production materials such as thermoplastics.

Rapid prototyping could have long-term implications for industry in the same way that the assembly line has revolutionized manufacturing. Traditionally, manufacturing costs decrease over time over the life of the product line. With rapid prototyping, the cost to produce just a few units is no different than the cost to produce thousands. While this may help facilitate smaller product counts for custom orders, the potential effects of this condition on how economies of scale are understood are unknown. Manufacturing with 3D rapid prototyping technology can continue to blend the design and manufacturing stages into more efficient processes.

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