What is Rapid Prototyping?

In this new series of articles we would like to explain our job, its challenges, its difficulties but also its infinite possibilities. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see developed here, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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What is Rapid Prototyping?

Rapid prototyping is a set of technologies that allows the production of a prototype, a part, or an assembly intended to be launched on a larger scale. Thanks to new technologies, including CNC machining and 3D printing, rapid prototyping has become simpler, more efficient and less expensive than before

CNC machining

CNC machining is a subtractive method. It is often used to manufacture objects with great precision. It is therefore highly recommended in the automotive, metal fabrication and aerospace industries. However, CNC machining is more difficult to handle, and finds its limits for certain geometries.

3D printing

3D printing is an additive method. By superimposing layers of materials (plastics or metals) on top of each other, it can create any shape. Combined with topological optimization (see below), 3D printing has many advantages over CNC machining.

In product design and manufacturing, finding and correcting design flaws quickly can help companies avoid costly overhauls and mid-course tooling changes.

Rapid prototyping allows engineers to thoroughly test prototypes that look and perform like final products, reducing the risk of usability and manufacturing issues before moving to production.

At Axis, we have specialized in several 3D printing techniques since 1997. This allows us to offer rapid prototyping and even what we call mini or small series up to 5,000 parts if needed.

If you want to know more about the different 3D printing technologies used at Axis, you will find a detailed explanation on each page as well as an explanatory video.

The 2 main applications of rapid prototyping

The aesthetic prototypes

Startups and design offices of large groups know this well. When it comes to convincing future investors or management teams, a prototype is an essential part of the project. A drawing is worth a thousand words, but a prototype must be worth a thousand drawings! Being able to touch the object as if it were the final version, with the same mechanical or aesthetic properties, is essential to move forward quickly. Technologies such as SLA allow us to create parts with a quality visually equivalent to plastic injection. A print can also undergo treatments to look exactly like the product for an exhibition or a show (sanding, painting, varnishing…). The automotive industry uses this technology extensively for the design of new headlights because it allows to quickly create an exact replica (transparency and color) of the part.

Consumer product brands can also use it to test new packaging or product shapes. These prototypes are then presented to test consumers during “focus groups” that allow us to evaluate the opinions of future customers. The closer the prototype is to the final result, the more relevant the feedback will be. A color, the feel of the material, the way users will hold it will be key information to modify the final product.

Rapid prototyping Stereolithography vacuum cleaner made by Axis

Functional and dimensional prototypes

Before launching the production of several thousand units, it is important to know if the designed part meets the technical specifications. Rapid prototyping becomes a key element in the industrialization phase. A prototype made of the same material as the final part can therefore help validate the key elements of the project. There are many sintering resins, filaments or powders that cover the needs of engineers. These range from simple ABS, Polypropylene, PA6, PA12 to titanium, various steels, copper and aluminum. Consult our material sheet to find the best option for your project. And if it is not there, you can contact us contact in order to remedy it.

Functional prototypes can therefore be inserted into assemblies to validate the mechanical strength of the material. Wear tests will help verify the engineers’ choices, and even decide to change the material or modify the part.

The other advantage of developing a working prototype is actually being able to create several simultaneously. Where you would have to create a mold for each version with traditional manufacturing technology, you can simply modify your 3D file to get a variant of your prototype.

FDM mini series part

This approach is ideal for designers who can offer slight modifications to their clients to provide a wide range of choices. And in terms of production speed, this will have no impact because the parts can be printed at the same time and not one after the other.

The 3 main advantages of rapid prototyping

Cost reduction

Rapid prototyping allows prototypes to be made without the need for expensive tooling, while guaranteeing the performance of the final product. We are therefore able to explore different variants of the product under development in order to select the most appropriate solution. This is extremely important because the purpose of the prototype is precisely to validate, or not, the concept developed and the absence of a mold allows for an infinite number of changes.

Time saving

Without a mold to modify or reproduce, it is “enough” to modify the 3D file to correct the problem identified on the previous version. A quick communication is then established between the design office and the service provider producing the prototype.

As mentioned above, topological optimization, which consists in modifying the design of the part in order to optimize its mass, mechanical resistance and/or cost, also allows to accelerate the rapid prototyping process. The optimized part will generally be lighter while offering the same strength. Less material means faster and cheaper production, which is critical in certain industries such as aerospace and automotive.

Improved communication

Whether it’s to exchange between a company’s internal teams (technical/marketing/sales/management), with customers or investors, a prototype clearly facilitates communication. Rapid prototyping allows engineers to thoroughly test prototypes that look and perform like final products, reducing the risk of usability and manufacturing issues before moving to production.

The disadvantages of 3D printing for rapid prototyping

There are no real drawbacks directly related to 3D printing technologies for rapid prototyping. Each of them has its advantages and problems that will limit them to certain applications. The disadvantage is rather the fact of having to possess several of these technologies and to master them perfectly to optimize their use. Many companies have their own machines, but we strongly recommend that you work with a professional who can advise you on the right technology and materials for your project. An additive manufacturing specialist will help you get straight to the point and avoid many setbacks while learning 3D printing. Entry level FDM machines are now around 200€ but can hardly compete with 300,000€ machines. Moreover, finishes such as metallization and chrome plating are not easy to achieve if you are not properly equipped.

3D printing technologies for rapid prototyping

There are many additive manufacturing or 3D printing technologies. Although it has a modern image and recent technology, 3D printing has been around since the 1980s. Of course, over time, the original simple technology has greatly expanded into different approaches and using more and more different materials.

At Axis, we use the main ones such as :

  • 3D printing by molten wire deposition (FDM), which uses a wide range of low-cost plastic materials. We work with e-motion Techa French company, but also with Stratasys one of the leaders of the market.
  • The stereolithography (SLA), allows us to create prototypes almost identical to the final product thanks to its printing quality equivalent to injection molding. It also allows the production of translucent and transparent parts. We have recently invested in very large machines from the company Raplas .
  • The Multi jet fusion (MJF) of the brand HP allows the production of functional and dimensional validation prototypes
  • The powder sintering (SLS), similar to MJF, offers great flexibility in materials.
  • The vacuum casting is ideal for rapid prototyping of small series up to 20 high quality parts
  • RIM injection molding, similar to vacuum casting, can be used to design a larger number of parts.
  • The metal sintering (DMLS/SLM), allows the creation of metal prototypes, raw or that can be reworked if maximum precision is required.

These technologies, sometimes complementary, allow us to offer unprecedented responsiveness and quality. Many customers trust us for their projects (see the news feed ) and that’s why we are constantly investing to use the latest technologies available on the market.

If you too would like to learn more about rapid prototyping, please feel free to contact our team to determine the best approach for your project.