The terms ‘rapid prototyping’ and ‘rapid manufacturing systems’ are often used together in the context of manufacturing speed and efficiency. Speed is a crucial factor in manufacturing and can make all the difference between getting a product to market on time or not.

Rapid manufacturing is a more general term describing a range of technologies that use automation software to speed up development and production time. Rapid prototyping is a more specific concept often used in new product development projects, for example, helping to accelerate product development in consumer and computer electronics.

Types of rapid manufacturing systems

Generally speaking, rapid manufacturing encompasses different types of technology and manufacturing methods. For example, CNC machining. This is a subtractive form of precise machining used to achieve a wide range of tasks. Unlike 3D printing, which is an additive process, the CNC machining process removes material to create an object, rather than adding to it. It operates using pre-coded digital instructions (G-Code) to control the movement of tools. There’s also rapid tooling which combines rapid prototyping methods with more conventional manufacturing tooling techniques to create a mold. Utilising CAD data, rapid tooling can lower costs and increase speed.

What is rapid prototyping?

More specifically, rapid prototyping is when a physical component, specimen or part is quickly produced using a Computer Aided Design (CAD). It’s a process usually performed using additive manufacturing (also referred to as 3D printing).

Rapid prototyping can provide huge advantages to engineers and designers as it allows for ideas to be turned into reality quickly and at a relatively low cost. It also means preliminary designs can be altered easily and several versions of a concept can be made. This presents a huge benefit to manufacturers keen to try out new concepts with minimal budgets, as well as offering businesses entering a new market, a chance to see how feasible their new idea is.

Swift feedback can be crucial, and with quality prototyping, changes can be made in as little as one day. Rapid prototyping also helps ascertain how a new concept or product will work with certain materials.

Types of rapid prototyping

Manufacturers, designers and engineers use a range of different prototyping methods to prove a concept, encourage investment in a new product and demonstrate new ideas to clients. Depending on the type of product they wish to produce, a variety of prototyping methods (detailed below) can be used:

  • Stereolithography is a principal form of 3D printing, it’s usually used to create concept models and complex components. Known as SLA 3D printing, this process utilises a high-power laser which hardens liquid resin to create a 3D plastic shape layer by layer, with the help of computer-aided software.
  • Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is another form of additive manufacturing. With this process, the part is built when plastic is pushed through a printhead and slowly deposited onto a plate until it is complete.
  • Binder jetting is also a type of additive manufacturing where printheads deposit a liquid binding fluid onto a bed of powder particles that bond together to form a solid piece.
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is a process which fuses together plastic and ceramic particles using heat from a laser to create a 3D object.
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), like SLS, also uses a laser beam to melt metallic powder, and is used for building metal prototypes.

Laminated Object Manufacturing, also known as LOM, is a form of 3D printing. The process involves layers of plastic fused together with heat to create an object which is then cut into the required size and shape.

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