Prototyping used to be an expensive and time-consuming process in engineering, but fortunately, recent technological developments in 3D printing have changed that. Although 3D printing technology has been around for more than 30 years, it’s only recently become an economic choice for mass production.
3D printing and rapid prototyping may seem like similar processes, but a few crucial differences exist between them. 3D printers manufacture items by turning digital 3D models into objects. Unlike subtractive processes like CNC, 3D printing builds objects by adding material from a print head, nozzle, and other methods, allowing to precisely control the amount of resources spent on prototyping. To put it another way, 3D printers can create something out of nothing.
Rapid prototyping is also an additive process, but it uses special materials such as photopolymers, thermoplastics, and metals to fabricate objects much faster than traditional prototyping methods. There are four major types of rapid prototyping, which we discuss below.
What are 3D-Printed Prototypes Used For?
3D prototypes allow manufacturers to test new ideas and gauge performance before sending parts to mass production. Prototyping offers the flexibility to create multiple models, allowing you to experiment with a number of different builds at once. Because 3D-printed prototypes work for both visual and functional testing, they’re wildly popular among manufacturers who are testing new ideas.
Selecting the Best Rapid Prototyping Process for Your Project
Understanding the different types of rapid prototyping will help you decide the best process for your needs. Manufacturers rely on four main types of prototyping:
- Fused deposition modeling, also known as FDM, uses CAD data to directly produce your item. It operates by binding thermoplastic layers together, and it’s one of the fastest printing methods. FDM is the darling of Youtube tutorials because it can create lightweight, soft, and/or bouncy objects from nearly any design.
- PolyJet printing involves using multiple nozzles to quickly print your item. This technique can operate with many materials at once, incorporating them into seamless finished products. Polyjet printing is especially useful because it’s one of the only ways to add color to your project. Manufacturers prize this technique for its ability to create hyper-realistic models that incorporate many different colors and textures.
- Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) melts metals together to form complex figures. This technique produces strong, dense, superior parts with quick turnaround times. This technique 3D prints all kinds of metal models, including parts for aerospace, automotive, and oil/gas industry applications.
- Stereolithography (SLA) was the first rapid prototyping technology, and it’s still the most common process used today. Using a light-sensitive liquid polymer to create objects, SLA is a fairly inexpensive way to produce lightweight objects such as 3D models and implants.
Each of these processes uses a versatile range of materials. PolyJet and SLA processes operate with all kinds of photopolymers, FDM uses thermoplastics such as nylon and acrylonitrile styrene acrylate, and DMLS works with metals ranging from aluminum to titanium.
3D Prototyping at APM
Advanced Prototype Molding will work with you to determine the best 3D-printed prototyping process for your needs. We’re experts in the industry, and we can’t wait to see what we’ll work on next.
For more information on 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and how you can use these processes to make the most of your product testing, contact us and request a quote today.