3D printing started out with a sole purpose of creating fast prototypes. In the decades that have passed since its invention, the technology has found applications in everything from dental aligner creation to jet engine part production; however, when it comes to applications for the tech even today, none is more popular than 3D printing prototypes.
In its early days, 3D printing was used primarily by large companies due to the high cost barriers but today accessibility has improved, enabling businesses of all sizes to use the technology to 3D print prototypes and much more.
Traditional manufacturing processes are suitable for mass manufacturing but largely painful for low-volume production. This is one of the reasons why prototypes were difficult to manufacture before the advent of 3D printers. Prototyping often had to be outsourced to specialized businesses, which came with additional costs and a significantly long turnaround time to receive iterations of the finished prototype. But with 3D printing, prototypes can now be manufactured on-demand and within a few hours or days. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printers, in particular, can quickly produce small volumes of prototypes in a range of materials.
The rise of 3D printing gave way to an increase in new materials with different physical and chemical properties that can be used to produce functional prototypes. Now, manufacturers have a wide range of materials to choose from depending on their needs. In specific cases, material suppliers also work with businesses to customize their offerings and create application-specific materials.
Today, 3D printing materials like PETG, Nylon Carbon Fiber, PC-ABS, and many others find mainstream use in 3D Printing.
Over the years, the cost of 3D printing has significantly fallen, mostly attributed to the availability of 3D printers like the MakerBot METHOD series that offer affordability, accessibility, and the capability to print with multiple materials. If you consider the labor time and costs of traditional prototyping, 3D printing prototypes are far cheaper than the traditionally manufactured ones.
Prototyping is inherently a trial and error test. Engineers have to follow a loop (design-prototype-evaluate-iterate-design modification) to finalize a design. With 3D printing, prototypes are easily available, and designers and engineers can check form, fit, and function much earlier and more frequently - resulting in a major reduction in risks and cost-overruns further down the production lifecycle.
One of the most important aspects to consider before 3D printing a prototype is the application of the final product. In some cases, the prototype should replicate the final product dimensionally, functionally, or aesthetically. In other cases, the prototype may just be a single component that needs to be checked for its fit into an assembly. Simpler still, a concept model may need to relay the shape and feel of a product in a user’s hands before choosing the basic industrial design.
Depending on the type of prototype and its application, an engineer should decide the 3D printing technology to be used. For functional prototypes, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is commonly used. FDM is also used for parts that require features above 100 microns. For aesthetically appealing prototypes, technologies like Stereolithography (SLA) or Polyjet are used. And in certain cases, it may make sense to use a combination of additive and subtractive manufacturing technologies for the best prototype result.
When 3D printing prototypes, you need to consider design guidelines such as wall thickness, watertight design, multiple shells, or maintain the minimal feature size as per the 3D printing technology. This is similar to considerations you would want to make when using other manufacturing technologies; however with 3D printing you can access an entirely new range of geometric freedoms than you would be able to with subtractive technologies.
Prototypes can be of various types depending on their use and applications. We list the common types below:
Every product development process begins with the design of the product. This is an early stage, where the designer needs to understand and be able to communicate the design to the rest of the product development team.
Since the design prototype is primarily used to illustrate the initial concept, less expensive 3D printing technologies like FDM are preferred. For colorful prototypes, CJP (ColorJet Printing) can be used. If the design has finer features or requires more of a finished look, then SLA (Stereolithography) or DLP (Digital Light Processing) can be used.
Researchers have been 3D printing prototypes since the early days of the technology. 3D printing’s ease of use and affordability makes it an ideal technology to be used to create prototypes for research. Since 3D printing eliminates the need for tooling, it can economically manufacture even a single piece. Additionally, it is comparatively less costly than traditional processes for low volume production which is usually the case in research models.
For such an application, MJP (MultiJet Printing) can be the ideal 3D printing technology to be employed. Through this technology, multiple materials can be simulated to realistically replicate the handling of the final product to ultimately optimize or even enhance the product performance.
3D printing prototypes for pre-launch product models used within marketing focus groups are fairly common. Thanks to 3D printing, users can physically touch, feel and examine the product. Such marketing models that closely represent the actual product are typically made from technologies like DMLS, CJP, or MJP.
Functional prototypes serve a specific purpose of observing and testing the mechanical prototypes, the movements of linkages, their strength, their operation, and impact on adjacent parts. MakerBot METHOD is capable of 3D printing functional prototypes with some of the more industrial production-grade materials.
For engineering evaluations, the 3D printing technology is as important as the material. So, it is recommended that both the printer and material are perfectly compatible with each other. MakerBot METHOD and its wide material portfolio provide good options for engineers to test applications.
Simulations are crucial to test products even before they are forwarded for production. FDM 3D printers from MakerBot can be easily employed for wind tunnel testing as complex internal structures are now possible to be created.
PLA is one of the most popular materials used in FDM 3D printing thanks to its low cost and ease of use - in fact, to those familiar with 3D printing prototypes, PLA is likely to have been the first material they ever used. It can be easily used when product features are above 100 microns. PLA is also used for large products thereby optimizing the prototyping costs.
ABS is one of the most commonly used materials for mass produced plastic goods in the consumer products space making it a highly desired prototyping material. While ABS can be very difficult to print with due to its propensity to warp, engineers can overcome this by using a 3D printer with a controlled environment. It is also used in case the prototype needs to be post-processed. ABS is comparatively easier to post-process than PLA.
PETG is another material commonly used in consumer products and packaging thanks to its resistance to chemicals. Examples of these might be packaging for food and beverage, lubricants and soaps, and dental products just to name a few. Companies that produce these types of commoditized consumer products are constantly designing new packaging to catch customers’ eyes in a store or improve user experience with the product - thus, 3D printing prototypes is crucial.
PC or polycarbonate are becoming more popular in many industries including electronic components, automotive, medical, and consumer technology. They can have transparent properties, exhibit high durability and scratch resistance, and are easy to work with at production scale. Similarly to the preceding materials with many popular applications, there is plenty of demand to create 3D printing prototypes in real production materials.
3D printing prototypes is at the core of additive manufacturing since the beginning and continues to be an important application thanks to its ability to produce low volume, high quality parts with minimal cost. The technology has come a long way since its invention, with dozens of platforms and hundreds of material options.
Want to find out how you can implement 3D printing prototypes into your organization? Talk to a MakerBot 3D printing expert today!