Imagine the horror if Alexander Graham Bell had just completed the prototype for his greatest invention, the very first telephone, and it rang. Bad luck. Designing and patenting products can be a long gruelling process which is why often there is a race to create a functional model. Judging by how many similar products exist, you might even say that great minds really do think alike.

Though ‘rapid prototyping’ would suggest that we can transform our patented ideas into reality at great speed, interestingly there are a lot more benefits than simply beating competitors to the finish line.

Considered as ‘the future’ of invention and innovation, here we look at the benefits of Rapid Prototyping in the design and engineering industry.

What is Rapid Prototyping?

First we must understand what rapid prototyping is and how it works.

The techniques we see in Rapid Prototyping made their first appearances in the late 1980s. Soon after, manufacturers began using 3D computer software to build and design virtual models. The concept of rapid prototyping is fairly similar to a printer-scanner but instead of printing paper, it prints out slices of your onscreen model.

When the virtual object is created onscreen, it is then cross sectioned into thin horizontal ‘slices’ and  constructed by building up the materials – inside what looks like a large microwave – until the object is complete. This way the virtual model and the physical model will be identical.

This is called additive manufacturing; where a machine reads date from the 3D animation and then lays down layers of liquid, power and sheet material that fuse together to build the shape of the model. This can take hours or days depending on how complex the model is and the number or size of the models themselves.

How Does This Work?

There are many different types of Rapid Prototyping which use slightly different methods to build up the layers and these depend on the materials.  Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is used for thermal-plastics and metal powders whilst Electron Beam Melting works with Titanium alloys. We also find that Laminated Object Manufacturing builds layers of paper whilst 3D printing is more universal, using a range of materials to create objects.

Some of the machines used for rapid prototyping will melt or soften the material so they are more pliable to produce the layers (such as SLS) whilst in other machines, the layers are already liquidised thermoset materials which will later be treated and cooled.

What do we use it for?

We initially used Rapid Prototyping for creating exactly the kind of thing you would expect; prototype parts and models. Now this has progressed into creating small numbers of quality production standard objects such as mechanical parts. For example, the Audi RSQ was made using rapid prototyping industrial KUKA robots.

Artists and designers also use it for creating sculptures and lifestyle objects. Belgian artist Wim Delvoye used it to create his gothic digger sculpture which has extremely intricate detailing.  Bram Geenem makes plastic furniture using rapid prototyping whilst The CandyFab Project has made edible sugar models.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of rapid prototyping are significant to the way we manufacture and produce objects. Not only is the method extremely quick, it allows us to analyse and find flaws in the design before production begins thus saving companies a lot of money. The models can be functional for testing and there is less time and money committed to the overall patent and production process.

We can assess the quality of the aesthetics and manufacturability of the object as well as how useful it will be therefore determining what the next step should be in creating the product i.e. what machines will be needed to build a fully working model.

It also allows us to build extremely complex objects more easily and innovatively. As the design is built up through layering, this eradicates any issues that usually arise with other methods such as plastic injection moulding or hand-crafting.

Are there any disadvantages?

Some traditionalists believe that rapid prototyping does pose threat to some of the important developmental steps in creating a working model. Sometimes, manufacturers find that the production is not as effective or does not work with real machinery because different methods are used to create it. For example, the design may work on a very small model using the methods of additive manufacturing but if it replicated in a larger size, it does not function structurally.

What is the future of rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping has taught us that it is very much the next step in manufacturing. It paves the way for exciting new products using the simple click of a button. Of course there is the possibility that it may eradicate traditional manufacturing if it ever reaches the scale of being used for mass production yet it still gives us the power to recreate something into an almost perfect clone.

This will come in handy if you ever break one of your mother’s ornaments.



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