Thanks to a variety of available technologies and materials, rapid prototyping with 3D printing supports designers and engineers throughout product development, from initial concept models to engineering, validation, and production.
Concept models or proof-of-concept (POC) prototypes help product designers validate ideas and assumptions and test a product’s viability. Physical concept models can demonstrate an idea to stakeholders, create discussion, and drive acceptance or rejection using low-risk concept explorations.
he key to successful concept modeling is speed; designers need to generate a wealth of ideas, before building and evaluating physical models. At this stage, usability and quality are of less importance and teams rely on off-the-shelf parts as much as possible.
3D printers are ideal tools to support concept modeling. They provide unmatched turnaround time to convert a computer file into a physical prototype, allowing designers to test more concepts, faster. In contrast with the majority of workshop and manufacturing tools, desktop 3D printers are office-friendly, sparing the need for a dedicated space.
As the product moves into the subsequent stages, details become increasingly important. 3D printing allows engineers to create high-fidelity prototypes that accurately represent the final product. This makes it easier to verify the design, fit, function, and manufacturability before investing in expensive tooling and moving into production, when the time and cost to make change becomes increasingly prohibitive.
Advanced 3D printing materials can closely match the look, feel, and material characteristics of parts produced with traditional manufacturing processes such as injection molding. Various materials can simulate parts with fine details and textures, smooth and low-friction surfaces, rigid and robust housings, or soft-touch and clear components. 3D printed parts can be finished with secondary processes like sanding, polishing, painting, or electroplating to replicate any visual attribute of a final part, as well as machined to create assemblies from multiple parts and materials.
Engineering prototypes require extensive functional testing to see how a part or assembly will function when subjected to stresses and conditions of in-field use. 3D printing offers engineering plastics for high-performance prototypes that can withstand thermal, chemical, and mechanical stress. The technology also provides an efficient solution for creating custom test fixtures to simplify functional testing and certification by gathering consistent data.
Pre-Production and Manufacturing
Having a great prototype is only half the battle; a design has to be repeatedly and economically manufacturable to become a successful final product. Design for manufacturability (DFM) balances the aesthetics and functionality of the design while maintaining the requirements of the end product. DFM facilitates the manufacturing process to reduce the manufacturing costs and keep the cost per part below the required level.