Rapid prototyping: From proof of concept to accurate design

Rapid prototyping: From proof of concept to accurate design

By Jorge Hurtado

Since its emergence in the late 1980s, rapid prototyping technology has sparked a paradigm shift in product development, fundamentally revolutionizing how businesses invent, manufacture, and bring new ideas to market.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping refers to a versatile set of techniques employed to swiftly create precise physical models (aka prototypes) from digital designs.

Rapid prototyping has undergone significant changes over the last 40 years in terms. It has evolved to become faster and more efficient, resulting in reduced production time. Furthermore, it now incorporates a diverse range of materials such as metals, ceramics, composites, and biocompatible substances, allowing for enhanced capabilities in terms of multi-color printing, precise depiction of intricate details, and complex geometries with remarkable precision. Prototypes use integrated electronics, such as embedded sensors, circuitry, and printed electronics, to enhance development.

All these advances help designers to create better final products by seamlessly iterating between digital designs and physical prototypes in a quick and cost-effective workflow. These innovative processes empower anyone (even from home) to transform their ideas into realistic proofs of concept to high-fidelity prototypes that not only look but also function like final products. 

Designers make better, cheaper parts:

Rapid prototyping is highly cost-effective, enabling businesses to effortlessly produce dozens of affordable prototypes within a short turnaround time. Rapid prototyping offers a comprehensive range of solutions and allows for the precise validation of functionality, aesthetics, and engineering requirements.

Some examples demonstrate the remarkable impact of rapid prototyping in diverse industries.

Black Diamond, a manufacturer of outdoor sports and mountain equipment, has successfully integrated rapid prototyping into their design process. By utilizing a Form 3L Printer, Black Diamond has achieved remarkable results, including a substantial reduction in the cost of full-size prototypes from $420 per print to just $70. Moreover, they have significantly improved lead time, shrinking it from an entire week to a mere one day.

PLAATO, a smart brewing equipment manufacturer, has developed an optically clear airlock for real-time monitoring of beer during fermentation. Through rapid prototyping, PLAATO was able to create an impressive six iterations per day, resulting in the production of hundreds of different prototypes in total.

Volkswagen, a prominent automotive company, has witnessed remarkable efficiency gains by incorporating 3D printed tools, jigs, and fixtures into their processes. VW experiences a significant 91% reduction in purchasing costs compared to working with external suppliers. Additionally, implementation time has been reduced by 95%, while ergonomic improvements have increased by 28%. Moreover, assembly processes and quality indices have improved by 35%, and potential problems can now be easily anticipated at the concept stage.

Additive manufacturing technologies that play a significant role  in rapid prototyping:


Stereolithography (SLA) – also known as vat photopolymerization or resin 3D printing – is used in rapid prototyping due to its high resolution and accuracy and ability to produce detailed and intricate parts and provides one of the smoothest surface finishes of all 3D printing technologies. SLA printers use a UV laser to cure liquid resin layer by layer into hardened plastic. The main physical differentiation lies in the arrangement of the core components, such as the light source, the build platform, and the resin tank. However, the main benefit of stereolithography lies in its versatility.

Selective Laser Sintering:

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) utilizes a high-powered laser to fuse powdered materials (e.g., polymers or metals) to create 3D objects. SLS allows for the production of functional prototypes with complex geometries. The laser sinters the powdered material, solidifying it and creating the desired object. SLS parts have a slightly grainy surface finish, but almost no visible layer lines. SLS technique is often used for creating intricate designs and functional prototypes, end-use parts, and low-volume production.

Fused Deposition Modeling:

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a popular and accessible 3D printing technique. It involves an extruder that feeds plastic filaments through a heated nozzle, melting the material, and depositing it layer by layer onto the build platform. FDM printers offer several advantages, including speed and ease of use, making it suitable for rapid iterations and modifications of prototypes. FDM is commonly utilized for concept modeling, functional testing, and verifying the form and fit of parts during the design process.

Laminated Object Manufacturing:

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) is fast and inexpensive, and utilizes adhesive-coated paper, plastic, or metal laminates as a 3D printing medium. LOM is used for producing large prototypes and architectural models rather than production. While it may not offer the same level of detail and accuracy as some other technologies, LOM allows for the integration of different materials and colors within a single prototype. LOM is considered a subtractive process because it involves the layer-by-layer removal of material to create the 3D object. It is not as easy to produce complex geometric shapes because it is not always possible to access the internal parts of the object or to remove excess material from within an object.

Rapid prototyping speeds up product development:

With current technologies, businesses can rapidly translate ideas into physical prototypes, enabling swift iterations, testing, and validation. Rapid prototyping significantly reduces the time and costs compared to traditional methods, empowers businesses to explore diverse design possibilities and gather valuable feedback at an early stage. With enhanced decision-making speed and the ability to detect and rectify design flaws, businesses can streamline manufacturing processes and gain a competitive edge by launching superior products.

A key limitation however is accuracy, as rapid prototyping techniques may not always achieve the same level of precision as traditional manufacturing methods. 

The complexity of the design, the type of rapid prototyping technology used, and the material properties can all impact the final accuracy of the parts and assembly. Carefully evaluate if rapid prototyping meets the required accuracy level or if you should consider alternative manufacturing methods. Also consider other limitations like limited material properties, the need for skilled labor, a restricted range of materials, and the potential for overlooking key features during prototyping. When deciding on the suitability of rapid prototyping for a specific project, make sure its advantages outweigh its limitations.

Applications of rapid prototyping across industries:

  • In the auto industry, rapid prototyping enables the creation of functional prototypes for car parts, facilitating form, fit, and functionality testing. Auto makers can assess different design iterations, optimize aerodynamics, and validate assembly processes.
  • In the aerospace industry, the technology helps to produce lightweight and complex components. These steps offer support in the testing of new designs, enhancing manufacturing efficiency, and facilitating the development of advanced materials and structures.
  • In the medical field, rapid prototyping generates patient-specific models for surgical planning, anatomical studies, and custom medical implants, providing precise visualization and enabling complex procedure simulations.
  • The technology contributes to producing new electronic devices and gadgets, allowing for the evaluation of ergonomic factors, testing user interfaces, and verifying the integration of electronic components.
  • Architects and construction professionals rely on rapid prototyping to create scale models, validate designs, and visualize architectural concepts, facilitating efficient communication with clients, enabling design iterations, and driving improvements.
  • Educational institutions and research facilities utilize rapid prototyping to explore new ideas, develop proof-of-concept models, and advance scientific studies.

Advancements in additive manufacturing drive rapid prototyping innovation:

Since its inception in the late 1980s, rapid prototyping technology has been a game-changer in product development, fundamentally altering the way businesses invent, manufacture, and bring new products to market.

Key factors fueling the growth of rapid prototyping:

Market analysis values the global rapid prototyping market at $2.5 billion in 2021, with projections to surge to $15 billion by 2031. The robust growth in the rapid prototyping sector can be attributed to several advancements, such as:

  • Increased speed: The ability to create prototypes faster than ever.
  • Multi-material capabilities: The utilization of diverse materials, including metals and composites.
  • Fine details and complex geometries: Advanced technologies enabling intricate designs.
  • Electronics integration: The inclusion of embedded sensors and circuits in prototypes.

These factors have enabled a seamless iterative process between digital designs and physical prototypes, making it more efficient and cost-effective.

Future trends in rapid prototyping technology:

Moving forward, the industry is set to evolve due to:

  • Material innovations: Rapid advancements in material science.
  • High-speed printing: Faster manufacturing processes.
  • Improved accuracy: Higher resolution in end-products.
  • Hybrid technologies: Integration of various manufacturing methods.
  • Automation and robotics: Greater efficiency through automated systems.
  • Digitalization and simulation: Advanced software for better design accuracy.

These developments lead to prototypes that are more complex and functional. They also improve precision in the final products. This increased precision accelerates the time-to-market. It also elevates the quality of the products. As a result, industries become more innovative and competitive.

By focusing on these key areas, businesses can see real improvements. They’ll experience quicker product development cycles. They’ll also be able to enter the market more swiftly. Overall, the quality of the products will be higher.

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