Now more than ever, manufacturing is about speed and flexible workflows. That's why companies are turning to manufacturing technology like robots, AI and IoT. These technologies make it easier for a factory or shop to rapidly switch from product to product.
It's also why companies are reconsidering traditional prototyping methods and turning to techniques like rapid prototyping.
Rapid prototyping is exactly what it sounds like. It's an agile prototyping strategy built around rapid development, manufacturing, and testing of 3D prototypes.
It's a powerful strategy for businesses competing in a modern market that's all about the next, newest thing — and it just might be right for your business.
Rapid prototyping is a method of prototyping that is built around fast turnaround and the rapid iteration of a product or part design. This method provides the simplicity and flexibility of other, non-manufacturing prototyping methods while still resulting in a physical, viable version of a product or part.
The goal of rapid prototyping is to quickly create a working model or to aid the visualization and design process before the product goes into mass production. If successful, it makes prototyping a recurring part of the design process, where possible issues are ironed out and ideas are put to the test before the product goes into full production.
Most rapid prototyping methods use some version of additive manufacturing — like 3D printing — which is typically both cheaper than traditional manufacturing methods at lower numbers of units produced, while also being much faster. Bespoke or single-unit runs are practical with many types of additive manufacturing. This is good for rapid prototyping, as this allows for the quick turnaround on new design iterations.
Other types of manufacturing — like subtractive manufacturing and compressive manufacturing — are also sometimes used in rapid prototyping.
Rapid prototyping allows design teams to move products or parts from idea to reality as quickly as possible — helping them figure out what works, what doesn't and what can be improved in the next iteration.
For example, if your product is designed to be held for long periods of time, having a physical model can help you and your team know whether or not it's ergonomic enough for long-term use. Some products that look easy to use on paper may not seem as practical once they're in your hands.
Typically, the same piece of equipment — like a single 3D printer — can be used to create all of your prototypes. Rapid prototyping will also allow your team to skip the tooling process, as you won't need to reconfigure any tools, equipment or workflows until the mass production stage. If a prototype needs to be made out of materials that can't be used by a 3D printer, you can still use alternatives like waterjet cutting or other subtractive manufacturing techniques.
Rapid prototypes are usually lower fidelity than conventional prototypes, which gives your design team more room to experiment and design ambitiously — with rapid prototyping, it really is no big deal if you need to trash a prototype and start from scratch.
I's also easier to sell a viable prototype than it is to sell a 2D diagram or product description. Clients can hold a prototype in their hands and see how it's designed to function — which makes your product both easier to understand and can help you to emphasize how your product provides value to a customer.
With rapid prototyping, you will also likely save on prototyping costs, as additive manufacturing and similar processes are some of the cheapest ways to create single-unit runs of products and parts.
First, your team will need to choose a rapid prototyping strategy. You'll select the type of manufacturing your team will use, then the specific tools or equipment you'll need to create your prototypes.
Different products and parts will work best with various rapid manufacturing methods. Some experimentation may be necessary to learn what method will work best for your team's project, as well as the level of fidelity to the 2D design you need to aim for.
Some manufacturing methods use equipment that is cheap enough for even the smallest teams to purchase and bring on-site. Others, like selective laser melting, may require your team to contract with a third-party that has the equipment you need.
If your team isn't comfortable or familiar with creating 3D-printable models, you can outsource the creation of models to other businesses, so long as your team already has a 2D design that can be worked off of.
From there, your team will be ready to spend time testing, developing and altering your product until it's ready for mass manufacturing.
Rapid prototyping is a good fit for any business that needs to rapidly iterate and test the design of a new product. The method allows a company to rapidly iterate and test designs so that the team can end up with a product or part that is real and can be easily examined by clients or team members.
Most rapid prototyping methods are both cheaper and faster compared to traditional prototyping methods. In some cases, the equipment needed for rapid prototyping — like a 3D printer — can be purchased outright by even small teams, allowing greater flexibility in prototype manufacture and quicker turnaround.
There are some disadvantages to rapid prototyping — for instance, you should expect less fidelity than you would get with traditional prototyping — but overall, the strategy can provide a huge number of benefits for tech businesses trying to gain a foothold in a market that's all about innovation and the newest thing.
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