What’s a rapid prototype model?

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Rapid prototype models are created from computer drawings and allow customers to review products under development. 3D software and printers have revolutionized the process, allowing for virtual testing and the creation of physical samples using plastic, metal, or powder. Some products are designed entirely in CAD software, eliminating the need for physical prototypes. Test software can simulate real-world conditions, and some products, such as commercial aircraft, have been built entirely in a computer.

A rapid prototype model is typically a plastic or metal part created from a computer drawing, which allows a customer to review a product under development. Beginning in the late 20th century, computer software was developed that allowed designers to create three-dimensional (3D) designs. The parallel development of equipment capable of creating physical structures from these designs led to the rapid modeling business.

Designing a part using 3D software begins with a conceptual drawing of the desired part. A designer can take this drawing and create a software-based 3D model, which allows a part to be viewed from different angles or orientations. This software can also virtually disassemble the part to show a customer how assembly can take place in an industrial plant. Software design often includes the ability to “test” the part under different stress or impact conditions to estimate design failures or defects.

Rapid development of the prototype model has become a reality with the introduction of 3D printers. Several technologies evolved in the late 20th century, but all were related to computer aided design (CAD) programs that created software models. All 3D printers use a technique of building successive layers of plastic or metals in sequence to create a physical sample of the part.

One type of printer used a fine powder inside a printer cabinet. Computer software has transformed the drawing into thousands of extremely thin layers, like cutting the image extremely thin. The printer sprayed a chemical binder on the powder in the form of the lowest layer. The powder was then mixed onto this layer and the flat tray lowered a small amount. The next layer of binder and powder was added, and so on, until a 3D part was created. Depending on the complexity of the part, the printer may need to run for days to complete a sample.

Another type of rapid prototyping model printer used a flux plastic. A nozzle placed small dots of the molten material on the printer tray in successive layers to create a part. These parts were often usable directly from the machine, because the layers of plastic formed a solid plastic prototype. This was an improvement over some powder printers, which created parts that could be handled, but might not be strong enough for testing or actual use.

A process called metal sintering could also create a rapid prototype model. A metal like aluminum or copper with a relatively low melting point could be used in a 3D printer in a similar way to a molten plastic. The finished metal part often required no further machining and could be used directly from the machine for testing or further development.

Many products in the 21st century have been designed entirely in CAD software, making the virtual image a rapid prototype model, without the need to make a physical sample. This has become common for large industrial machinery, aircraft and large vehicles such as ships. Many parts were too large to create separate prototypes or would have delayed development of the final product.

Engineers have developed test software that can simulate real-world test conditions, eliminating the need for prototype testing. The first commercial aircraft was designed this way in the late 20th century. A commercial jet aircraft was built entirely in a computer, going from a design directly to a flightable aircraft with no intermediate prototypes.

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