Rapid prototyping is an agile strategy used by designers and engineers to improve the efficiency of the product development process. It helps to create realistic three-dimensional (3D) prototypes that are close to the final product so that analysis and modifications or improvements can be implemented quickly to ensure the fastest go-to-market timeline.
As the word 'rapid' suggests, speed is the critical element in this approach. Rapid prototyping leverages additive manufacturing techniques or 3D printing to create parts and assemble them into high-fidelity prototypes at low cost. The expedited prototyping speed significantly reduces the entire product development process which usually takes a long time as it requires multiple iterations of design, size, shape, or assembly.
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Benefits of Rapid Prototyping
Rapid prototyping is useful to businesses for a variety of reasons. Here are five key advantages:
1. It Allows for a Tangible Presentation of Product Ideas
Rapid prototyping enables product designers to share their products' concepts and functionalities in a realistic way. Instead of presenting their ideas on paper, they can present 3D prototypes to collaborators for early validation of design, fit, and functions. This encourages users and stakeholders to test different components, provide pragmatic feedback, and finally refine the products before going into mass production. Enhanced products born out of such rigorous development and manufacturing processes are more likely to gain success in the market since they are tried and tested before launch.
2. It Accommodates Multiple Tests and Refinements
The product development process always involves multiple rounds of iterations and will result in the continuous refinement of a concept's design or functionality before it is finalised for manufacturing. Rapid prototyping presents a more viable solution to the process as it allows product designers to conduct multiple rounds of tests and changes to the 3D printed prototypes, the reason being that such prototypes are easy to produce and inexpensive to replicate. Rapid prototyping is often used in industries such as printed circuit boards, medical equipment, as well as automotive and aircraft components.
3. It Minimises Design Flaws and Risks of Product Failure
With rapid prototyping, product engineers can uncover a prototype's flaws in its design and functionality and rectify them before the products are released into the market. This is important as there are potential issues that are not obvious and require multiple rounds of testing to ascertain the product's reliability. Essentially, a thorough evaluation using rapid prototyping can minimise the chances of product failure. This is crucial as product recalls are costly and damaging to an organisation's reputation.
4. It Evaluates Usage Traits and Identifies Safety Issues
Rapid prototyping enables designers and engineers to easily identify problems that might result in the compromise of a product's safety as well as potential compliance issues during the early stages of the product's development process. This helps them make more informed decisions during the selection of materials as well as during the process of refining a prototype. Just like the earlier point, early detection of risk factors in a design can also prevent the launch of faulty products into the market and this helps prevent customer dissatisfaction and potential legal disputes from happening.
5. It Reduces Time and Cost of Product Development
Last but not the least, rapid prototyping is a prudent way to test products as it does not require costly setups or long lead time to develop a working model. Product designers can quickly turn their ideas into prototypes through the use of additive manufacturing processes to eliminate costs that are required when creating complex objects via the traditional way. In comparison to the usual manufacturing method which involves the removal of components to create the desired form, the rapid prototyping approach creates an object by building it one layer at a time. This helps designers test concepts in a quicker and more accurate manner and offers a greater level of flexibility to produce a wide range of products with minimal post-processing and material wastage.
Types of Rapid Prototyping Applications
Because of the versatility of rapid prototyping, it has become the preferred approach for product designers and engineers. There are four common applications that businesses are employing to reduce design risks and improve their products' go-to-market timeline:
1. The Looks-like Prototyping
This prototyping method focuses on the look and feel of the product and places lesser attention to the prototype's functionalities. Essentially, looks-like prototypes are used to optimise the design aesthetics, ergonomics, and user experience of a product. These prototypes are usually created with techniques that require the use of modelling foam, clay, 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection moulding.
2. Works-like Prototyping
Unlike looks-like prototypes that focus on the exterior and design, works-like prototypes focus on the mechanical aspects of a concept product. The appearance of such prototypes may not look like the final product, but the engineering is meticulously perfected. This type of prototyping is best used to test the performance, robustness, and reliability of the product before it goes into production.
3. Proof-of-Concept Prototyping
Proof-of-concept or POC for short is a prototype that is usually presented at the beginning of the product development process to introduce an initial concept and validate assumptions before the designers move on to advanced stages of development. The primary goal of such prototypes is focused on presenting the concept's usability rather than its quality or aesthetics. POC is a vital process as its results will determine the feasibility of a product.
4. Engineering Prototyping
An engineering prototype is a combination of looks-like and works-like prototyping. It is the first complete iteration of a test product that is close to finalisation as it integrates both aesthetics and functionality. Such high-fidelity prototypes are useful for user trials and lab-based tests before the product design process moves on to the final manufacturing phase.
Techniques Used in Rapid Prototyping
Rapid prototyping employs different techniques that range from CAD design software and additive manufacturing to the printing (3D) of realistic products throughout the concept's different stages of development. Some of the most common rapid prototyping processes include:
1. Vat Photopolymerisation
This is one of the most common rapid prototyping techniques. It is used to print 3D objects from digital CAD files by using a liquid resin material and hardening it under an ultraviolet laser light. This method is suitable for testing in the engineering industry due to its high accuracy and ability to produce complex models quickly.
2. Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)
This is a relatively inexpensive process that uses melted thermoplastic filament inside a printing nozzle to build a 3D prototype layer-by-layer as per a computer deposition programme. Early FDM prototypes were low in resolution, but more sophisticated techniques have been developed to provide better-quality manufacturing finishes.
3. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS is a powder bed printing technology used for the prototyping of plastic and metal products. The technique utilises a high-powered laser to fuse tiny bits of nylon powder and traces the geometry of the 3D model. The layer is then fused to the next until a complete object is created. It is most suitable for prototypes that require intricate details.
4. Computer Numerical Control (CNC)
Unlike the above-mentioned manufacturing processes that build products by layers, CNC machining involves the cutting, boring, or drilling of material from a block to create the required parts. This technique as compared to the ones above is not so cost-effective and is only suitable for prototypes that have a simple design.
Explore Rapid Prototyping with PCI
Rapid prototyping using additive manufacturing methods and 3D printing is one of the most efficient methods to fast-track the product development process without incurring hefty iteration costs. For businesses that are keen to explore rapid prototyping, PCI is here to help. Offering a wide range of rapid prototyping methods alongside our electronics manufacturing services that transform any new product design into reality, we can be your trusted partner in the product development journey. Get in touch with us today to find out how we can help you.
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Rapid prototyping is a useful manufacturing process that helps designers present new concepts to an organisation's stakeholders, in addition it is more cost-effective and efficient than traditional methods as it helps the company expedite the product development process sans the incurring of large expenses. By leveraging various additive fabrication techniques, companies can finally launch more reliable products that have gone through rigorous testing and reap better returns from the marketplace. For companies and product designers who are new to rapid prototyping, partnering with an established electronics manufacturing service provider with extensive experience in the development of prototypes can offer tremendous insights and assistance for more successful product launches.