Rapid prototyping is essential in the process of product development. But what is a rapid prototype? And what is rapid prototyping? Understanding them and their importance in product design and development will enhance the market success of a new product. 

What Is a Rapid Prototype?

A rapid prototype is a sample or model created based on the design of a product's appearance or structure. It is used to inspect and evaluate the rationality of the product's appearance and mechanism, as well as to provide samples to customers. Once the customer is satisfied or modifications are made to meet their requirements, the mold is produced in mass production. While rapid prototypes were previously made to show the boss, nowadays they are primarily made to show customers.

While there are physical and virtual products, there are also physical and virtual prototypes. They are in different forms but embrace the same purposes of testing and verifying new products. In some cases, both types of prototypes are involved. Nonetheless, this article only explores physical prototypes and prototyping technologies.


What Is Rapid Prototyping?

The techniques based on computer-aided design (CAD) software used to produce rapid prototypes are called rapid prototyping. However, it is not a common sense. When it comes to rapid prototyping, people prefer to consider it as 3D printing. But, 3D printing is not equal to rapid prototyping. The truth is that it is only one of the rapid prototyping techniques. There are many other widely used techniques. We will discuss them in the following sections.

History of Rapid Prototyping

Since the 1980s, rapid prototyping has come a long way from the early days of manual sculpting and cutting. Today, advanced technologies such as CNC machining, 3D printing, and vacuum casting have revolutionized the process of creating rapid prototypes. With the introduction of advanced CNC machining technology, SLA 3D printing, and efficient small-batch vacuum casting, the traditional manual prototype modeling process has been transformed. These advancements have not only improved the speed and accuracy of the process but have also expanded the possibilities of what can be achieved through rapid prototyping. As a result, businesses can now create high-quality prototypes faster and more cost-effectively than ever before.

Types of Rapid Prototyping

As mentioned above, there are many techniques used in rapid prototyping. The most commonly applied two types are additive manufacturing and subtractive manufacturing. There are also other ones enjoying growing popularity in rapid prototyping.

1. Additive Manufacturing

The well-known 3D printing is actually additive manufacturing. It is a process of creating three-dimensional objects by adding layers of material on top of each other. This method allows for the production of highly complex and intricate geometries that are often impossible to manufacture using traditional methods. Furthermore, additive manufacturing can reduce material waste and manufacturing time, making it a more sustainable and cost-effective option for certain applications. The common processes are as follows:

  • Stereolithography (SLA): a process that uses a laser to solidify layers of liquid resin to create a 3D model.
  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): a process that involves melting and extruding plastic filaments to create a 3D model.
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): fuses powdered materials to create 3D objects using a laser.
  • Digital Light Processing (DLP): a process that uses a projector to cure liquid resin to create a 3D model.
  • Binder Jetting: a process that involves selectively depositing a binding agent onto layers of powder to create a 3D model.


2. Subtractive manufacturing

Subtractive manufacturing is a process that involves removing material from a larger block to create parts with the desired dimensions. Unlike additive manufacturing, which adds material layer by layer, subtractive manufacturing uses various techniques to remove material. 

One popular example of subtractive manufacturing is CNC machining, which stands for Computer Numerical Control. This process involves digitally controlled machine tools, such as drilling, turning, milling, or boring, to remove material. CNC machining can work with various materials, from plastics to metals. CNC machining offers a high level of precision, consistency, and efficiency, making it a popular choice for manufacturing complex parts and components.


3. Other Types of Rapid Prototypes

Vacuum Casting

Vacuum casting is a manufacturing process that produces high-quality rigid, flexible, and rubber components suitable for rapid prototyping or end-use applications. The process involves creating a silicone mold from a 3D-printed or CNC-machined master model to produce high-quality short-run parts, making it a cost-effective and efficient alternative to low-volume injection molding.

While vacuum casting and injection molding share similarities in requiring a tool with a cavity that matches the final part shape, vacuum casting utilizes a soft mold made of silicone, while injection molding uses a hard metal mold that has been CNC machined. As a result, the disadvantage of vacuum casting is that the mold wears out more quickly. However, vacuum casting is more economical and efficient for small-batch prototype plastic parts that require production-grade quality and surface finish.


Sheet Metal Fabrication

Sheet metal fabrication is a versatile manufacturing process that shapes sheet materials through controlled stretching and compression. This process includes various techniques such as bending, embossing, rolling, grinding, and hammering. When combined with arc welding, these techniques can create virtually any desired shape from metal sheets.

Sheet metal fabrication plays a significant role in prototyping, pre-production, and small-batch production in industries such as automotive, aerospace, and furniture. It is particularly useful for producing chassis and bodywork in the automotive industry. With its versatility and range of techniques, sheet metal fabrication has become an essential part of modern manufacturing, offering high precision and quality while being cost-effective.


Applications of Rapid Prototyping

In addition to its use in the production of rapid prototyping models, rapid prototyping is also employed for small-batch processing and the rapid production of molds. This approach helps companies keep up with the trend of faster product updates and smaller batch sizes。

Rapid prototyping technology has a wide range of applications across industries. Some of the main applications include:

  • Automotive and motorcycle: Design, modification, and assembly testing of exterior and interior parts, as well as trial production of engines and cylinder heads.
  • Home appliances: Design of the exterior and structure of various home appliances, assembly testing, functional verification, market promotion, and mold manufacturing.
  • Communication products: Design of product exterior and structure, assembly testing, functional verification, and mold manufacturing.
  • Aerospace and aviation: Direct manufacturing of special parts, trial production of impellers, turbines, and blades, trial production and assembly testing of engines.

Why Rapid Prototyping Is Important for Product Development?

Rapid prototyping is an essential tool for companies looking to develop high-quality products efficiently and cost-effectively. It enables companies to bring products to market faster, reduce the risk of product failure, and create unique products tailored to specific customer needs.

1. Faster time-to-market

Rapid prototyping enables companies to quickly produce physical product models, reducing product development cycles and accelerating product launches.

2. Improved design efficiency

Prototyping technology allows for engineering design using CAD software, enabling computer-aided design and manufacturing, reducing human errors, and improving design efficiency. It makes product development more efficient for companies.

3. Functional testing

The production of prototype models allows for functional testing of the product, which can simulate the final shape, function, and surface of the product. By using materials with a certain level of strength, it is possible to create functional prototype models with internal structures to check the rationality of the product's structure, whether the wall thickness meets requirements, and whether moving parts operate smoothly.

4. Reliable results

Samples produced using prototyping technology can accurately reflect the appearance, size, structure, and functional characteristics, with minimal deviation and precise structure. It can effectively improve the quality and effectiveness of product design, ultimately leading to a successful product launch.

Designing for Rapid Prototyping

There are several considerations to be taken into account while designing for rapid prototyping to maximize its benefits.

1. Design optimization

When designing for rapid prototyping, it's important to optimize the design to take full advantage of the technology's capabilities. That means simplifying the geometry as much as possible, minimizing overhangs, and reducing the need for support structures. By doing so, you can enhance the efficiency and accuracy of the prototyping process.

2. Material selection

Selecting the right material is critical for successful rapid prototyping. Consider the intended application of the part and choose a material that can meet the desired functional and aesthetic requirements. Strength, flexibility, and surface finish need to be considered to ensure that the prototype accurately represents the final product.

3. Iterative testing

One of the key benefits of rapid prototyping is its ability to facilitate iterative testing and refinement. Design parts that are easy to test and evaluate, allowing for quick iterations and improvements based on feedback. This approach can help you develop high-quality products more efficiently and effectively.

4. Design for assembly

During the prototyping phase, it's vital to consider the ease of assembly. Design parts that fit together seamlessly, reducing the need for additional post-processing or modifications. It can help you save time and reduce costs during the production phase.

5. Tolerance and accuracy

Understand the capabilities and limitations of the chosen rapid prototyping technology about tolerance and accuracy. Ensure that parts fit and function properly by designing them with appropriate tolerances. It will help you avoid costly errors and ensure the final product meets your specifications.

Rapid Prototyping Services

X Rapid Technologies offers a full range of rapid prototyping services. We can assist you during the whole product development cycle. Feel free to contact us today!