What is the Best Prototyping Method for Your Next Project?

Posted on

Innovation is the fuel that propels a business forward but bringing new ideas to life can cost a lot of money. In the manufacturing industry, developing prototypes for new products is a necessary step for presentation to investors, for an exhibit to potential customers, or reliability testing. Prototyping used to be slow and expensive, but rapid prototyping techniques now provide fast and cheap solutions.

Do you have an idea that you’d like to turn into a proof of concept? Maybe we can help you pick from a list of tried and tested rapid prototyping methods. We’ll even hook you up with a company that can provide these services for you.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping refers to a set of techniques, methods, and technologies that allow for the fabrication of three-dimensional objects based on highly customizable designs. The basis of most rapid prototyping project is a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) model. As its name implies, the goal of rapid prototyping is the quick assembly of these prototype without the need for custom-made equipment or a large number of raw materials.

Additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing have been most commonly used in rapid prototyping in the last couple of years. However, the evolution of the field has yielded far more versatile methods. The choice of which rapid prototyping technique to use for your project has to do with the type of material you want your model to be in, and whether you prioritize visual appeal, durability, or longevity.

Benefits of rapid prototyping

1. Low volume

Since prototypes are just models of a proposed product, you probably won’t need a lot of them. Before the dawn of rapid prototyping, the idea of low-volume production would have been a nightmare for manufacturing firms. After all, most manufacturing equipment have to be custom-made to produce a particular part or product. With such a high capital investment, it’s much more practical and economical to start manufacturing only if you can run continuously and at a high volume.

Rapid prototyping technologies are designed not to be affected by economies of scale. In most cases, the price of a single model remains more or less the same, regardless if you’re making just one prototype or ten. This is very beneficial for the product development process, where new ideas have to be taken back to the drawing board to correct flaws or to revise designs.

2. Customizable

With so many rapid prototyping technologies available nowadays, innovators and creators can create practically any type of product from a wide range of materials. Aside from the freedom of design that rapid prototyping affords, it also makes it easier to implement repeat designs and minor improvements. Today’s prototyping techniques are more accurate than ever, so product developers can be confident that their designs will be faithfully reproduced as fully-realized 3D objects.

3. Quick

Without the need to use custom-made equipment for each product, rapid prototyping allows for quick manufacturing of models. Since these methods are fully automated, scale models can be finished in a couple of hours instead of the several days it would take for more old-fashioned alternatives.

The efficiency of rapid prototyping, in terms of both time and cost, has greatly aided the product development process. As any product designed would know, the process of developing a product is often iterative – from an idea, a prototype is produced and critiques to come up with a better idea, which again needs to be turned into a prototype. With rapid prototyping, concepts can be more quickly realized as three-dimensional objects. Prototypes that are accurate in terms of both design and material also provide opportunities for thorough product testing.

Which rapid prototyping method should you use?

If you have a project in mind, then there’s probably a rapid prototyping method that is perfect for bringing your idea to life. While all these methods are equally reliable, the choice of which one to use depends on your use case.

Does your part need to be functional, or is it enough that it looks great? What material do you want for your prototype? How complicated is your design? These are just some of the things you need to consider when picking a rapid prototyping method.

3D Printing

Formlabs-Form-2-SLA-3D-Printer-Complete-Package

The most common additive manufacturing technique, 3D printing encompasses several technologies such as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Selective Laser Melting (SLM). While the method of implementation for each technique is different, they are all based on the concept of a design being built by creating layers or “slices” on top of one another.

3D printing is a very versatile technique that can be used to create 3D objects from even the most complicated designs. The accuracy of the reproduction of designs thru 3D printing is quite impeccable, with the designer able to control the level of resolution they want for the finished model.

The raw materials for 3D printing are typically plastic filaments or resin in powder or liquid form, both of which produce prototypes made of plastic. SLM is quite unique in this regard since it can produce metal prototypes from metal powder.

Since prototypes made with 3D printing are built one layer at a time, it can take a lot of time to complete a model. If you have a large design, you’ll probably end up printing separate components at a time and gluing them together. The layer-by-layer building scheme also creates anisotropy in terms of durability, since the boundaries between layers create natural points of weakness.

Vacuum Casting

Vacuum casting starts with a silicone mold which typically has to be custom-made for each design. To create a silicone mold, a master mold has to be made from steel or aluminum, usually by CNC machining.

Elastomer material is then drawn into the silicon mold using a vacuum, faithfully reproducing the design upon hardening. This is a very fast prototyping method, especially once the silicon mold has been prepared. Vacuum casting of large parts is also possible since silicone molds can be made as huge as desired.

Silicone molds are more affordable compared to the steel or aluminum molds used in injection molding. However, they lack longevity and typically have to be replaced after 20 to 30 uses. This makes vacuum casting practical for low-volume parts manufacturing.

CNC Machining

SeeMeCNC-Rostock-MAX-v3.2

In terms of quality of finish and durability, few manufacturing methods can rival CNC machining. This is a subtractive manufacturing method that uses computer-controlled milling machines and lathes to create cut holes, curves, and channels on blocks of metal and plastic. Since the raw material is not melted or otherwise broken down, its integrity stays intact. This makes the final prototype much more durable.

CNC machining can work with an impressively wide range of materials from plastics (ABS, PP, PS PC, HDPE, PEEK) and metals (Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Bronze, Brass, Copper).

Although machining is an old manufacturing method, modern multi-axis milling machines are more versatile and accurate than ever. Since the process is fully automatic, and the milling parameters can be saved, the machining process is repeatable and completely reliable. It’s also pretty fast, able to finish small parts in a matter of several minutes to a few hours.

Injection Molding

Injection molding is a lot like vacuum casting, except for a few important differences. First, the molten material is injected into the mold using a reciprocating screw. Second, injection molding typically uses a mold made of steel or aluminum.

To start creating parts using injection molding, the mold has to be created first through prototype tooling. There are various ways to create this mold – hand tooling, rapid tooling, or 3D printing. The mold used for injection molding takes a lot more work and is much more expensive. This means that injection molding only becomes a practical option when making a large volume of parts.

Injection molding offers a bit more freedom when it comes to the complexity of the design. The process is also a bit more seamless compared to vacuum casting. However, the screw-injected mechanism is a bit too slow to reliably reproduce large designs.

Pressure Die Casting

When it comes to prototyping of metal parts, pressure die casting provides a faster and cheaper alternative to machining. Pressure die casting is a lot like injection molding, except that it uses molten metal instead of elastomers. It’s an incredibly flexible process that can work with common metals such as aluminum, steel, magnesium, and zinc.

The technology is effective whether you’re creating medium-sized or large parts and is considered economical even when with a low-volume yield. The process results in excellent surface finish and good dimensional accuracy. If there are slight imperfections in the final product, the finished parts can still be post-processed using CNC machining.

Sheet Metal Prototyping

For parts made from sheet metal, equipment specially designed for bending, cutting and punching through sheet metal offer a more reliably prototyping method. By simply altering the form of sheet metal, its structural integrity is retained, making finished parts more durable. The process is not affected by scalability, works across different types of metals, and can create parts out of a variety of gauges.

Sheet metal prototyping has been used to create parts for appliances, automotive, and office and kitchen equipment. It’s a customizable, highly dependable, and very fast process.

Aluminum and Plastic Extrusion

Extrusion is a process in which softened material is shaped by forcing it to flow through a shaped opening in a die. A metal die is commonly used in these applications, which is expensive and requires CNC machining. This makes extrusion more practical for large volumes in most cases, although a few companies still accommodate low-volume production.

Thermoplastics such as PP, PS, and Nylon can be readily extruded with some application of heat. Aluminum alloys, due to their malleable nature, also lend themselves very well to manufacturing by extrusion.

Surface Finishing

Although not a manufacturing process by itself, surface finishing is a service that most rapid prototyping companies offer to give the products a distinct look or feel. There are different finishing techniques available for a variety of materials.

From simple painting to more complex options such as powder coating and anodizing, a good finishing method can vastly improve the overall quality of a prototype. Proper selection of a finishing method will influence not just the product’s appearance, but also its conductivity, hardness, resistance to corrosion, and other industrial properties.

Rapid prototyping services from 3ERP

3ERP, considered one of the best rapid prototyping companies in China, was founded on the philosophy of 3 E’s: Excellent, Efficient, and Economic. With a team of experts, state-of-the-art equipment, and a well-oiled manufacturing facility, 3ERP commits to producing high-quality prototypes that can be finished in a matter of hours.

The best thing about 3ERP is that they offer ALL of the services we have listed above. No matter how complex your design is or what material you want your prototype to be made off, 3ERP has the technical expertise and the technology to turn your idea into reality. The company is ISO9001-2015 certified, ensuring that their process and output quality are measured against a stringent standard.

If you’ve got an upcoming project and think that any of the technologies we have mentioned above is the perfect choice to create your first prototype, then you can easily request a quote from 3ERP.

Final thoughts

Nowadays, product development has become a race in which whoever gets their new product in the market first gets a huge advantage. To succeed in this race, you or your company needs to have a systematic product development process.

Rapid prototyping technology is an extremely useful technology that can have your new ideas realized into fully functional products in a matter of hours. It also makes it possible to manufacture products at a low volume without having to spend a fortune on machining tools. There are several methods for rapid prototyping, the most appropriate of which depends on the complexity of the design, the material for the product, and the target production volume.