What is Rapid Prototyping? – A Complete Guide

prototyping can, put simply, change the way you do business. Not only does
employing 3D printing in the development process speed up the time-to-market of
a new product, but it can save money and headaches. This guide will lay out how
and why rapid prototyping can enhance your new product development — and how
Shapeways can help.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping, to put it simply, takes you
from napkin sketch to final product rapidly. A major bottleneck in the product
development cycle is in prototyping. Traditional prototyping workflows often
include outsourcing the creation of each prototype, waiting weeks — and
spending significantly — for every new iteration, however tweaked or
overhauled design changes may be. With rapid prototyping, those weeks between
iterations may become days, taking months or years for standard prototyping
cycles down to weeks, and getting your new product to market in a much more
agreeable timespan.

What Is 3D Printing / Additive
Manufacturing / Rapid Prototyping?

Rapid prototyping today often means bringing in 3D printing technologies — or are they rapid prototyping processes, or is that additive manufacturing? It may help to understand just what additive manufacturing is (and Shapeways has a guide for that!) and how these technologies fit into the prototyping workflow.

What Is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM) is a digital manufacturing
process in which a CAD model is used to create a solid object. A variety of
technologies are defined as being additive, as these processes add material
over the course of the build, rather than subtracting it as seen in many
traditional manufacturing methods (e.g., CNC milling). Materials are deposited,
often in a layer-by-layer process, using a 3D printer to build up the geometry
of the model in three dimensions. AM processes can handle a variety of metals,
from simple plastics to various metal alloys, from food pastes to biomaterials.

What’s The Difference Between 3D
Printing, Additive Manufacturing, and Rapid Prototyping?

There are several ways of referring to these technologies, most commonly “3D printing” or “additive manufacturing,” though “rapid prototyping” is also used. For a fuller explanation, we dive into technology terminology in this article, but in short:

3D printing and additive manufacturing are
often used interchangeably to refer to effectively the same processes. Additive
manufacturing is recognized as a more industrial term, and tends to encompass
expensive professional machinery being used in applications from prototyping to
end-use product production. 3D printing can refer to the process of
layer-by-layer building of an object, or more generally to refer to any usage
of this technology, from hobbyists using inexpensive desktop systems to
professionals using industrial equipment. Rapid prototyping was one of the
first terms used for these technologies, which in the 1980s were geared toward
the rapid production of prototypes and for a few decades so dominated usage
that this application was synonymous with the tech itself.

For the purposes of this guide, 3D printing is
a technology suite used for the application of rapid prototyping.

Rapid Prototyping Materials

Now that we know what rapid prototyping is, a
good follow-up question is straightforward: What are some of the material options
for rapid prototyping with 3D printing?

When using 3D printing from prototype to
production, the same technology can be used throughout the product development
cycle. That does not, however, mean that the same materials are necessarily the
best choice at every step. Early stages of prototyping may focus more on speed
and rough idea than on a “final look” quality, so inexpensive plastics are
often the best fit here, when several iterations may be made in fairly quick
succession. Each refinement in prototype may call for a better-quality
material, and staging material selections can help cut costs, keeping the
finer-detail options for only later-stage planning.

During initial prototyping stages, a low-cost
material can be used with low infill and thicker layers, lowering material
costs and speeding print time to create a rough-and-ready first look at a new
design. Whether plastic or metal, 3D printing can quickly fabricate a product
that will come to look and feel just like the desired end result.

By starting with a low-cost plastic material
and moving after a few iterations to metal, for example, a product that will
eventually be conventionally fabricated using metal can come to market much
more quickly than would be the case by machining each iteration — a traditional
pathway that ultimately costs much more in terms of time, money, and labor.

Material options in additive manufacturing may
not run the full gamut available in traditional technologies, but new
formulations are becoming available all the time.

Among Shapeways’ broad 3D printing materials portfolio, the most commonly used for rapid prototyping is Nylon 12 (Versatile Plastic). This material is a durable nylon plastic that can be used for a wide range of applications, both for prototyping and for end products. The SLS material can be 3D printed thin for flexibility — think hinges and springs — or thicker to build up structural components. Nylon 12 is affordable, has the fastest lead time (shipping as quickly as three business days from order), and is available in a wide range of colors. It can also be bonded with other materials, electroplated, or otherwise adaptable to your specific application’s needs.

Other well-suited offerings for rapid prototyping include Multi Jet Fusion Plastic materials (PA12 and PA12 Glass Beads) for added stiffness and durability, and SLA (Accura 60, Accura Xtreme, Accura Xtreme White 200) for fine details.

For more in-depth information on any of these materials, see Shapeways’ Materials Guide (pdf).

Benefits Of Rapid Prototyping

That’s all well and good, but when it comes
down to it, is there an actual business case for prototyping with 3D printing?

This question gets a resounding YES! Using 3D
printing from product concept to creation can help reduce the time and costs
needed to get your new idea to market and into the hands of your eager

In broad strokes, the product development
cycle includes the need for physical prototypes at several stages of design

  • Concept
  • Assembly / Fit
  • Functional
  • Life Test
  • Regulatory

3D printing these different iterations offers
the benefits of digital manufacturing — think speed, agility, and lowered
costs for one-off production — to every stage of product development.

Taking a 3D model directly to a 3D printer for
fabrication speeds the process of prototyping. Digital models can be made quite
quickly using a variety of 3D printing technologies, removing the needs for
many steps in other, more traditional fabrication technologies. No tooling is
needed, for example, nor is there a waiting period while molds are made and
filled. It’s also much faster and more precise than hand-fabricating.

Following review of each prototype for the
parameters necessary, subsequent versions can be made quickly to get to just
the right look and fit before moving into more finessed prototypes. Tweaking a
digital file to adjust for better look, fit, appropriate scale, or other needs
can be done quickly, with a next iteration 3D printed potentially same-day.

Some 3D printing options, like HP and Carbon,
enable the capability of prototyping and producing on the same system or
family, as different materials and parameters can move ever closer to a
market-ready product. By iterating on the same system that will be used for the
final product, quality control can be kept in-hand every step of the way,
meaning there are no surprises when the first end-use production begins.

When working with a service bureau like
Shapeways, additional expertise and access to different technology suites comes
into play for a high-quality experience every step of the way.

Shapeways’ rapid prototyping services offer:

  • Fast Turnaround
  • Variety of Materials
  • Reliable Quality

We go over the full business case for 3D printing prototypes in this article for more depth.

Rapid Prototyping Pricing

the decision has been made to rapid prototype using 3D printing by engaging a
service bureau, one large question remains: pricing.

Shapeways lays out clearly its pricing structuring, from engaging a designer to simply uploading a model for an instant quote.

the considerations for our pricing are:

  • Materials:
  • Manufacturing Speed:
  • Shipping cost
  • Taxes

Bulk pricing is also available for large orders. For full details, see our pricing overview here.

Customer examples

As popular wisdom
holds that “show, don’t tell” is the best way to prove a point, we’d like to
share some examples of customer rapid prototyping achieved through the
Shapeways platform.

Just a few of our
customer successes include:

Atlas Games

atlas games

Innovative tabletop
gaming mainstay Atlas Games has plenty of decades of experience in creating
card games, board games, and roleplaying games. The company turned to Shapeways
to bring its new dice-based game to fruition for a release through Kickstarter,
creating a realizable visual of Dice Miner for potential backers to see prior
to sale. The 3D printed prototypes of game pieces helped carry the new game
from early design through a playable final product.

Jeff Tidball, Chief
Operating Officer of Atlas Games, says of working with Shapeways: “Dice Miner’s
Deluxe Edition will have a plastic PVC mountain, so we used Shapeways to
prepare early prototypes of that component. We used Shapeways for two purposes.
First, to playtest using components as close as possible to the final version,
to make sure they performed as we expected at the table. Second, to evaluate
their producibility while holding physical objects, as opposed to needing to
evaluate them only on screen, or in our imaginations.”


lumino face mask

Using 3D printing to
prototype a comfortable, reusable new face mask helped the LUMINO team quickly
respond to pandemic needs. Developing the LuminoGo mask for full facial
visibility as well as wearer safety features including UVC light or an
integrated filter to sterilize breathing air was no mean feat, requiring
significant prototyping — and the team turned to Shapeways to 3D print almost
every part of the mask to get it all ready for safe wearing on the market.

Neuwirth says: “Almost all parts are 3D printed. The main reasons for us have
been fast prototyping, fast production, choice of materials and colours, which
is important for branding and personalization. The big difference with
competitors is that we have already working prototypes.” And: “Shapeways was
helpful in every way from early on in the project. I especially liked the very
fast production options, the choice of materials and the amazing quality of the
product. Traditional production methods would be injection moulding. We will
certainly do that in the future. Meanwhile we produce already, while optimising
the product. We use 3D-print as a production method.”


snooz machine

Working with
Shapeways to 3D print dozens (and dozens and dozens) of designs to reach the
ideal sound system, the SNOOZ team cut substantial time and costs in their
production process by rapidly prototyping. The savings over traditional
machining was major enough that this Las Vegas-based startup has now been
working with Shapeways for more than five years — and still has more product
work with us in the pipeline for the next devices.

Co-Founder Eli Lazar explains: “Without 3D printing, I am not sure we could
have ever developed a viable product, or at least one that people actually
liked. Our fan blade is entirely custom, and small details make a huge
difference. A 1-degree extra twist in the blades or 1mm extra length or width
of the blades, and it generates a whole different set of tones. You can use
software to simulate the acoustics for a fan blade design, and we did do quite
a bit of this. However, these simulations can take up to a few weeks to run,
and they are really not accurate enough to predict the subtleties that we were
interested in. The best way I can explain this is that a stringed piano is
always acoustically superior to a digital keyboard, because the timbre
(perceived sound quality) of real sound is just better than any digital
replica. With that said, we had to make actual parts. Having parts machined was
always an option too, but from our experience, that is 10-25x higher cost, and
perhaps 10x slower, which was just not an option for us.”

Please contact us today to learn more about our offerings and how we can help you every step of the way for your next project.

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